Duane Heath

Singing the rugby Blues

2004-09-26 16:04

I grew up in a small town named by a king and put on the map by a mermaid.

Zulu legend has it that King Shaka, his mood bitter and his mouth dry, arrived one hot afternoon at the river that runs through the town, after a particularly troublesome trek down the Natal coast.

He decided to parch his royal thirst at its banks and, scooping up a handful of pre-industrial purity, the bloodthirsty bloke sipped from the cool brew and pronounced: "Aaah, Amanzimtoti!"

And, just like that, a tacky holiday town was born.

Today, a couple of centuries after Shaka's chemical-free christening, the so-called "place of sweet water" is a faded, flaking version of an upcountry summertime Utopia - a salty and sandy strip of high-rises, soft serves and sun-roasted boerewors boeps.

Amanzimtoti is unique - it's a tourist town without a cinema or hotel! - and its main sportsfields, used for rugby, cricket, soccer, bowls, squash and tennis, are about to be bulldozed to make way for a mall. Probably without a cinema.

But, despite all this, the place somehow has a knack of producing top sportsmen and women.

Maybe they've put something - apart from sewage - in the drinking water since Shaka gulped it down, because, in the past decade, Olympic champion swimmer Penny Heyns, cricket hero Lance Klusener and Bok-turned-Wallaby Clyde Rathbone have all emerged from Toti - and the cold shadow of sporting obscurity all small towns suffer from.

But while Penny, Clyde and 'Zulu' have become household names across the world, others are quietly making their mark without attracting the headlines they deserve.

On Thursday, I watched Jake White's Springbok students go back to school for a training session at Bishops, as the Tri-Nations champions gathered for the first time since beating Australia.

TV cameras rolled and journalists trapped a chirpy Jake White's quotes on their tape recorders.

'Like nothing in world rugby'

Just down the road, out of the spotlight at Villager Rugby Club, the touring Cambridge University side were gearing up for their "bridge-building" clash with the Ikeys.

They were led by 26-year-old Simon Frost, a concrete centre with bricks for biceps, and sweeping shoulders shaped by a childhood spent surf-livesaving.

In 2002, in front of a full house at Twickenham, Simon scored two tries against Oxford in the annual English Varsity match, in an atmosphere he described as "like nothing in world rugby".

Before that, he played for Swansea and London Welsh, where he caught the eye of a coach who paved the way for a Blues bursary.

But before all that happened, Simon Frost lived - and played his rugby - in Toti.

This week, the former Kingsway High pupil (Rathbone was head boy there in 1998) spoke of his desire to "invest in Africa", his boyhood dream of playing for the Sharks, and the challenge of captaining one of the most famous club teams on the planet.

"I love this place," he told me. "Just landing here was emotional. It was good to be back in the country."

After leaving the town he outgrew, Frost played two seasons at Durban High School Old Boys before doing what hundreds of his former schoolmates have done: he boarded a plane bound for London.

Simon's plan was to "bridge the year" between his Under-21 and senior years, before "coming back to Durban" and breaking into the big time.

But after making the London Welsh first XV, Simon's plans changed when he was introduced to Cambridge coach Tony Rodgers - a man with an eye for talent and a weakness for scrabble.

One "awesome" tour of the Cayman Islands later, Simon was invited to apply for a Cambridge degree, for which the club pays the tuition fees. He is currently reading for a BA in economics.

Since then, the former champion lifesaver has seen the world thanks to rugby, with Japan being a personal highlight.

But despite his pride at leading the Blues of Cambridge, you can just tell that the ultimate for Simon Frost would be to run out at King's Park in the black and white of the Sharks.

When it comes to boyhood dreams, the eyes give away even the best-kept secrets.

Poaching the cream of his crop

The Sharks, though, have continued with their obsession with players from inland unions, instead of investing in home-grown talent, or coaxing back youngsters who are excelling elsewhere.

This week it was announced that three Pumas players - none of them names to stir the soul - were headed for Durban in 2005.

It was also the week Free State boss Harold Verster accused Western Province of poaching the cream of his crop, despite the Western Cape having an unrivalled pool of club players to choose from.

But the sad reality is that club rugby is no longer a feeder to provincial teams.

The professional side of things just couldn't be bothered with its poor cousin, amateur rugby. Why spend your weekends checking out the club talent when you can wave a contract at the latest batch of Craven Week starlets?

Unions such as Kwazulu-Natal have been criticised for years for going shopping across provincial borders instead of looking at what's in their own club cupboards.

They've let themselves be seduced by talent that doesn't deserve a second glance, all the while ignoring players with potential that were right under their noses all along.

"I've been in contact with a few guys, and I was in contact with Kevin Putt at one stage last year, but I have a full year left at Cambridge and I haven't really pursued it," said Frost.

"But if he said he wanted me out here, I would have to think about it seriously, I would love to be out here."

Simon Frost. 26. Centre. Big and strong. Quick. Captain of Cambridge University. Scorer of two tries at Twickenham. Dreams of playing on the big stage in South Africa. Reachable by cell.

Anyone out there want to pick up the phone?

  • Cambridge University play against UCT in Cape Town on Saturday as part of the university's 175th anniversary celebrations. The tourists also take on NTK in Parow on September 25.

    On the Net: www.curufc.com and www.uctrfc.co.za.

    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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