Duane Heath

A fashionable rugby fairytale

2004-10-22 08:55

Callie Wegner was the first famous rugby player I ever met "in real life".

I use the word 'famous' liberally because, unless you attended the school where he taught for years, or supported the province he used to play for, there's no reason under the sun why the name should ring a bell.

Mr Wegner, or 'Sir' as he was known to us, played hooker for Orange Free State at around the same time he taught 'PT' at Grey College in Bloemfontein.

At school Wegner, if I tug hard enough at those hard-to-reach memories, was a blonde, moustached man who was feared for his temper and the cane he would produce during nearly every lesson.

On the rugby field, he was a mobile hooker in the Naka Drotske mould, a man whose 80 minutes of fame came on the afternoon of October 3, 1981, just three weeks after the hand of Clive Norling had sunk the Boks in the 'flour bomb Test' against the All Blacks in Auckland.

The venue, as it will be on Saturday, was Loftus Versveld in Pretoria, the match was the Currie Cup final and the teams were Northern Transvaal and Orange Free State.

The Blue Bulls won comfortably that hazy afternoon more than 23 years ago now, thanks to a certain Naas Botha at the helm and men like Johan Heunis, Tommy du Plessis, Burger Geldenhuys, Louis Moolman and Ockie Oosthuizen sweeping all before them.

The collective onslaught of the men in blue was too much for the Free Staters to handle, and they slumped to a 23-6 defeat, despite fielding De Wet Ras, Gerrie Sonnekus and Vleis Visagie in a weakened team because of a policy of not selecting players from the tour to New Zealand.

Flesh-and-blood rugby hero

I was eight-and-a-half years old at the time, in standard one - the age at which I was just beginning to fall in love with the game.

For little 'pikkies' such as myself, our heroes came from the backs - Naas and Danie were our favourites; bigger boys like my redhead classmate Shaun Barron (who would go on to play for Free State) looked up to Morne du Plessis and Theuns Stofberg.

But we were just poor primary school kids growing up in the backwater town that was and, I guess, is still Bloem, and it wasn't every day that a Springbok hero rode into town.

And so I guess it was as much out of convenience as anything else that I adopted Mr Wegner as my first flesh-and-blood rugby hero - watching Naas on the TV was one thing, but having someone who played against him teach you twice a week was even better.

My younger brother and I would pretend to be our heroes as we played one-on-one 'Tests' in our back yard of sundried grass, the same poor yellow grass my dad would mow until the dust flew. But it was our very own Free State stadium, right down to the concrete pitch, and the fantasy was completed with a Super Springbok ball my uncle Dennis had given to me.

At school, we'd play marbles with future Boks such as Heinrich Fuls, bump into Pieter Muller dashing off to class without ever realising at the time what life had in store for them - although we'd get an idea on those biting Saturday mornings sitting on icy concrete at the rugby fields. It was here that Grey would record win after win and each year a new crop of Free State schools players would climb onto the talent conveyor belt, ready to be shipped out into the big world beyond the school gates and, indeed, the province. Nothing has changed here.

It's funny to think back now, almost a quarter of a century later, to those times, and see how far we've all come.

Little did I know as I watched the 1981 Currie Cup final and saw my teacher lift his head from a ruck as Naas Botha dropped a goal to nail the Free State coffin shut, that the next time the two sides met for the Currie Cup, I would be writing about the match for a living.

Little too did I know that my job would take me around the country, and that, through this game I would experience moments such as those at a rain-soaked Newlands last Saturday.

Anyone who has asked me will know that I don't support any one South African team, but I don't mind admitting that last Saturday made of me a Free State supporter once again, not because it was fashionable to creep out of the woodwork at the same time as all the other thousands of closet Cheetahs fans, but because I grew up knowing how unfashionable it was to come from Bloemfontein.

Rags to riches story

In rugby terms at least, nothing much has changed - which makes the achievement of Peet Kleynhans, Helgard Muller, Gysie Pienaar - let's not forget him - and Rassie Erasmus all the more incredible.

They've created a real-life rags to riches story, written the type of chumps-to-champs script Hollywood goes nuts about. They've taken their small-town team into the big leagues, and now stand on the edge of greatness not because they aimed at the stars, but because they kept their feet on the ground.

"We've always got big mouths saying we must get a Super 14 spot," said an elated Rassie Erasmus. "Now they can expect our mouths to be even bigger because now we're in the final and we think we deserve a Super 14 place. We beat the Sharks this year, we beat the Lions twice, we drew with the Bulls, beat Province twice, so yes we deserve a Super 14 place."

The poor cousins of South African rugby had finally said, 'enough!', and who can argue with them?

But for me one memory of last Saturday evening stands out, one moment that said it all about this Free State fairytale. It came after the post-match press conference, as Kleynhans was heading for the changing rooms having fed the press pack with his unique brand of quote-friendly tidbits.

'Oom Peet' was approached by a young man, who introduced himself as being from one or other student radio station from Stellenbosch, if I recall correctly.

I could tell the guy was nervous, having no doubt spent the entire press conference rehearsing what he wanted to say to Bloem's living legend.

Then came the request, something along the lines of, "Would you be available for an interview on our station next Friday?"

The day before the Currie Cup final

The first thing that went through my mind was, 'Next Friday, the day before the Currie Cup final, the day before the match this man has dreamed about his entire life, and you expect him to make time for you? You've got to be joking. Don't you know how this business works?"

Kleyhans listened intently, his eyes soaking up what the student had to say. I imagined him cooking up, in that rugby brain of his, some excuse, some escape plan to avoid having to do what this student was asking of him. After all, it would be the day before the Currie Cup final, and there was the downfall of fearsome Bulls to plot. No time for anybody.

But when Peet Kleynhans spoke, all he said was: "Next Friday? Jaaaaaaaa, man, not a problem!"

Send Duane your views on this column.

  • Duane Heath is a freelance sportswriter who has written about the game for News24, Rugby World, IRB World of Rugby and the Sunday Times.

  • Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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