Duane Heath

Green blood, red heart

2004-06-25 07:21

Pretoria - Rugby is one of those sports where, if you're lucky enough to find yourself in the wrong place at the right time, even the most ordinary player can share a field with the game's best.

In a career spectacular in its ordinariness, I've been fortunate - very fortunate - to play alongside some pretty special players. Some of them you may have heard of; others are some of the best players you'll never hear of.

For reasons I still battle to fathom, Brent Russell, who will play for the Springboks at left wing against Wales on Saturday, played scrumhalf for UCT's 4th XV on one rainy afternoon in 2001.

Then there was Kanogo Njuru, the "Swedish Umaga", whom I made mention of in a previous column, and who rose above his circumstances to play for the Barbarians in 2002.

But, as they say, you never forget your first love. In rugby terms, when I think of foreign players who have left their mark on me, I never fail to see red.

Geraint Kathrens, John Dodd, Lloyd Davies, "Lofty" Watkins and "Shooey" Lewis arrived in South Africa in the winter of 1995 to watch their Welsh countrymen play in the World Cup - and play some club rugby to boot.

The story goes that the guys arrived at the College Rovers club in Durban one icy Tuesday night, believing they had been invited to play there for the rest of the season.

Welcomed with open arms

The mother of all mix-ups later, and the group was literally homeless, out in the cold, ten thousand kilometres from Cardiff. But life is funny in the way it throws people together, and luckily my relegation-threatened club's team manager, John Thomson, just happened to be there.

Never one to miss an opportunity, John bundled the startled five into his Microbus and headed down the South Coast quicker than a Gareth Edwards break.

By the end of the night, five men from towns we couldn't pronounce had been welcomed with open arms by a team from a town they couldn't pronounce - Amanzimtoti.

Looking back, John Thomson's timely intervention sparked the recovery of our ailing club, and personally, provided me with a rugby education unlike anything I had encountered before.

Before the days of professional rugby, here were five young men, with permanent smiles on their faces and odd accents that we couldn't always decipher, who lived and trained like the professionals of today. It was the first time I'd ever played with foreigners, and their fresh approach immediately rubbed off on me.

I remember marvelling at the boys' amazing skills and work ethic - and, like a modern day Shane Williams, the guys weren't exactly giants. But Geraint, the proverbial "happy hooker", set new standards when it came to aggressive front-row play. "Lofty", a 2m-tall beanpole, suddenly gave our team a lineout jumper.

Among the backs, I remember "Shooey", Lloyd and John combining for some memorable tries, while the rest of us just tried to keep up.

Falling in love with this wonderful game

What made the Welshmen's stay at our club all the more memorable, apart from their incredible loyalty and spirit, was the fact that I, like many guys my age, grew up watching Gareth Edwards, Phil Bennett, Gerald Davies and JJ Williams - immortals dressed in muddied scarlet jerseys, ripping open defences wherever they played.

But now here were the spirits of my boyhood heroes suddenly given flesh and bones. And I've never forgotten them. The Welshmen turned our club around - in a sense, saved our sporting lives - and for that I'll always be grateful.

But what Geraint, Lloyd, "Shooey", John and "Lofty" did was make me fall in love with this wonderful game at a time when I came close to drifting away from its charms. They were the personification of dedication and grit. They showed that nothing was impossible if you did the hard yards, and that no crisis that couldn't be reversed.

I'd like to think that, on Saturday, "my" Welsh five will be watching their proud countrymen face off against the Springboks. Perhaps the boys will even be somewhere in the stands at Loftus - a small band of red dragons in a sea of blue bulls.

For this reason, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Welsh rugby. My blood will always be green, but my passion for this game remains red at heart.

Send Duane your views.

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