Duane Heath

So long, Slaptjips!

2004-10-08 08:33

You've probably never heard of David Storey and, truth be told, neither had I before a recent visit to my local second-hand bookstore.

Storey, an Englishman, was born in 1933, the third son of a mineworker from a northern town.

Wanting desperately to avoid following in dad's footsteps down a dark hole somewhere, Storey worked as a farm labourer, a bus conductor and a postman, before deciding he wanted to become an artist.

Storey was accepted into a prestigious art school but was faced with the problem of how to pay his fees. Digging in dark, muddy holes wasn't an option, and he'd had enough of riding buses and delivering letters.

Fortunately for the strapping youngster, he was a hard-running rugby player, and this was, after all, league country, so in 1952 David Storey signed a professional contract with Leeds Rugby League Club and played in the 1st XV for the next four seasons.

From what I can piece together, he was nothing more than an average player, doing what he had to do week in, week out to be able to chase not leather, but his first love: writing.

It's doubtful Storey did anything on the pitch worthy of lasting fame, but he made sure his time at Leeds wouldn't be forgotten. In 1960, he published a semi-successful, semi-autobiographical rugby novel, This Sporting Life, about a man who plays rugby league - that most unsentimental of sports - in an equally unsentimental northern English town.

This Sporting Life, which was later made into a film starring Richard Harris, covers several seasons in the life of the narrator, Arthur Machin, from the day all sportsmen dream of, when he breaks into the starting XV, to the match all sportsmen dread - when he begins to feel age creeping up on him.

Storey paints a picture short on romance and rainbows and high on mud, sweat, and naked ambition - in short, he describes perfectly the world of professional rugby.

'Ashamed of being no longer young'

Getting long in the tooth and taking one too many knocks, the narrator finally decides to pack it in after a particularly bad afternoon when he can no longer run away from his young opponents. Despite being a local hero for years, he gets jeered off the pitch - by the same crowd who once cheered him - never to return.

"I was absorbed in an odd resigned feeling. I was used to everything now," the narrator remarks, "Ten years of this - ten years of the crowd - I could make one mistake, one slight mistake only, and the whole tragedy of living, of being alive, would come into the crowd's throat and roar its pain like a maimed animal. I was ashamed of being no longer young."

Storey's words came back to me at Newlands last Saturday when, at the half-time break, the tall figure of Pieter Rossouw strode onto the pitch, onto the turf he once owned, where he too was cheered and jeered during a decade at the top.

He was accompanied by a kid pushing a bicycle, they stood at the centre spot, the stadium announcer explained to those who weren't queuing for a toilet what the presentation was about, and then the two of them - and the bicycle - duly disappeared into the tunnel.

A minute later, the Western Province and Sharks players poured back onto the field, and normal service was resumed.

In that moment I must admit to feeling desperately sorry for Rossouw, sorry for the way his career ended not with the bang of one final Province victory, but with the whimper of being dropped by Carel du Plessis before the Bulls game at Newlands in August.

But that is professional sport - and it hasn't changed a bit from the days of David Storey until now.

I spoke to Rossouw - a gentleman if ever there was one - the following week, and he told me of his hope that he could make it back into the starting lineup, perhaps even taste one final Currie Cup victory. He wanted just one final chance.

"For now, I'm just keeping myself fit in case Province need me back," he said softly. "I guess it's time to start preparing for life after rugby but anything can happen. You never know."

But there was to be no fairytale comeback, ala Danie Gerber, for Pieter Rossouw.

The Tri-Nations Springboks returned and the long-legged wing, now 32, became surplus to requirements.

The end of an era

Rossouw was no longer needed, despite the player himself believing adamantly that he hadn't lost his pace (at the beginning of 2004 Rossouw was the fastest player in South Africa over 10m), that he could still cut it with the youngsters, still have something to offer, still pull something new from his bag of old tricks.

But it wasn't to be, and at the end of this month, Rossouw's contract with Western Province ends. And with it, so will an era.

Pieter Rossouw will ride into the Cape sunset knowing that he enjoyed the most marvellous of careers, but always in the back of his mind he will wish that it could've ended differently. But I guess Rossouw also knows that, in the words of David Storey, he too is no longer young.

"It's not the first time I've been dropped but it's probably the last time!" Rossouw joked when spoke nearly two months ago now. "But I've had a good run."

And a good run it was, by any standards. Rossouw made his Western Province debut in 1994 and played 70 matches before Du Plessis, then the Bok coach, plucked him out of nowhere in 1997 to face the British Lions.

What followed was 21 tries in 43 Tests in a six-year Springbok career, in which the long-legged 'Slaptjips' became the darling of crowds around the world for his unique approach to the game from the left-wing position.

He became a cult figure at Newlands, and gave fans and coaches grey hair thanks to his unorthodox - and sometimes suicidal - running.

But the truth is that Rossouw also gave us heaps of pleasure, whether it was scoring four tries against France in 1997 - with those scores he sparked that 17-match unbeaten streak - or diving over against the All Blacks in Christchurch in 1998.

"Rugby was never a job for me, it was a way of life," Rossouw sums it up. "It's going to be a big change not to go out and train and play now after I've retired."

But if Western Province have their way, Slaptjips won't be gone for long.

Lanky and unlikely hero

"Pieter hopefully won't disappear off the radar," WP marketing manager Gavin Lewis told me this week. "Him being willing, we'd like Pieter to stay involved off the field. He's given us great service, and he's someone we never want to lose. He's an icon, and he's so linked to this place."

Pieter Rossouw played professional rugby for close on a decade. Like David Storey's character, he found that time never stands still, that no hero is immortal, no star immune to the selectors' axe.

But while he took centre stage, Slaptjips had the rare wizardry to make time freeze, especially when he would gallop away for one of those trademark, length-of-the-field intercept tries.

Pieter Rossouw made my heart stop and my pulse race - a lanky and unlikely hero we shouldn't ever forget.

So long, Slaptjips!

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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