Duane Heath

Rugby legends or dead wood?

2004-08-20 08:16

Durban - Look, here's how it is. I'm a rugby traditionalist.

In these days of shooting stars and satellite dishes, mention the names of some rugby legends of the past fifty years or so and more times than not you'll receive a blank stare for your troubles.

Which I don't mind, because, after all, not everyone these days cares to read about just how good Kel Tremain or Waka Nathan were for the All Blacks of years past; that Barry John was a Welsh flyhalf wizard and not a member of the Bee Gees; or that Benoit Dauga was a French second-row demi-god and not some impressionist painter.

I can live with this.

That the modern generation doesn't know of the feats of Mike Gibson, Pierre Villepreux, Mervyn Davies, Ken Gray - even our own Hennie Muller, for that matter, can be forgiven. After all, who cares about a bunch of old men your grandfather went nuts over, right?

Truth be told, I do, and there's nothing I like more than reading about them in fascinating autobiographies I receive from time to time. But I also understand that "old school" rugby isn't everyone's cup of tea.

But where things start to get a little worrying for me - and should set off alarm bells in others, too - is when young men, who supposedly live for rugby, forget that these old-timers, through blood and bloody-mindedness, built the stage on which the game's future stars one day will perform themselves.

And I worry even more when boys who supposedly eat, breathe and sleep the oval game don't recognise some of the greatest players ever to run onto a rugby field anywhere, ever - even when they're standing right under their noses.

Having a ball

It happened at Ellis Park last weekend, about an hour before the Springboks kicked off against the All Blacks.

The South African schools and academy sides had showered after their enthralling curtain-raiser (won by the unfancied Academy XV) and some of the brilliant schoolboys were soaking up the atmosphere of the big day from the side of the field, accreditation cards flapping in the breeze.

They were having a ball, and took advantage when the New Zealanders strolled out for a look at the pitch, nervously shaking hands with some of their heroes, and getting an autograph signed here and there.

But all the while, not twenty metres away, stood a man, a big block of a man, dressed in a suit, but a man who no doubt felt more comfortable in something less formal.

Here was a man, in his sixties now, who spent his career terrorising opposing packs around the world while wearing the silver fern on his chest, a man who came to be known as the greatest All Black of them all.

But you wouldn't have known it at Ellis Park.

Because for twenty minutes or more, he stood alone in front of the towering main stand, staring up at the swelling crowd, no doubt reliving it all, the duels and the defeats (not that there were many), remembering the spilt blood and the forged friendships.

The rugby ghosts of Ellis Park

And for those twenty minutes, while he wringed his hands waiting to be interviewed by a television station, not one person came up and spoke to Colin Meads.

Okay, so maybe I'm over-reacting. It's one of my weaknesses. I'll no doubt receive an irate call sometime today saying that not only did the great 'Pinetree' address the future young stars before their big game, but he gave everyone an open invitation to come visit him on the farm back in New Zealand, too.

But somehow I don't think so. Because you see, there is a perfectly good reason why he wasn't approached even once for an autograph, and why instead he was left alone with the rugby ghosts of Ellis Park.

And the reason is that nobody knew who he was.

Not the sweaty schoolboys running up and down the grandstand touchline, cellphones stuck to ears and eyes superglued on the modern men they admired - Carlos Spencer, Joe Rococoko, Mils Muliaina.

And not the crowd within earshot of the man who, in the 1960s, tackled the Boks with a broken arm, such was his determination.

I guess my point is, simply, this: history was made in the most glorious manner last Saturday by John Smit and Jake White and a young team who, encouragingly, seem to have a deep respect for the green jersey.

The crowds streaming out of the Doornfontein stadium as the sun went down were unanimous in agreement: the good old days had returned.

But as this new chapter in the history book of fierce rivalry between Springbok and All Black was being hastily added, it seemed to me that another page was being torn out.

Pre-match 'entertainment'

For close to an hour before last Saturday's Test, still the biggest in world rugby, one had to sit through pre-match "entertainment" so bad you wanted to crawl under your seat.

The organisers made all the time in the world to play the absolute rubbish that is the supposed "Official" South African fan song (Note to the suits: the "people" hate it and voted so with their voices).

There was time made for the inane ramblings of the cringe-worthy MC whose voice eventually cracked (followed by the crowd's), and time made for the leotard-wearing, drum-beating dancers to drum up fake fervour when the place was just crying out for Shozoloza.

There was time for all that on the pre-match razzmatazz schedule - I mean, for R300 you want to be entertained, right?

But somehow there wasn't spared even five minutes for legends like Colin Meads to be introduced to the crowd, or time even for a parade of old Boks and All Blacks - many of whom were in the crowd and had travelled to Johannesburg specially for the occasion.

No time at all to pay your respects to the great men who were making this day possible, no time to even say, 'thanks for the memories'.

No time at all, because, you see, there's a fan song to be played and plastic drums to be beaten.

Do you agree? Tell Duane what you think.

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