'Five minutes of madness'
In an exclusive extract from his autobiography The Right Place at the Wrong Time, former Springbok captain Corne Krige talks for the first time in detail about the day " I wish had never happened".
On Saturday 23 of November 2002 South Africa played against England at Twickenham in a game that became famous more for the off-the-ball action than England's 53-3 victory. Here is Krige's side of the story.
England had won the previous three matches between our
two countries at Twickenham, yet, in the first fifteen minutes,
it was a tightly fought contest.
But after twenty-three minutes, with England leading 8-0, New Zealand referee Paddy O'Brien waved the red card at our lock Jannes Labuschagne for a late tackle on England flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson.
At the time, even our critics suggested it was a harsh punishment for the offence. However, only moments before, O'Brien had given a general warning to both teams to cut out the niggling that had been there from the start.
I have to say that I always had huge respect for Paddy O'Brien during his time as an international referee. I also enjoyed him as a person, as he wasn't one of those big-headed referees you come across in the game.
Paddy was always humble - a fantastic, nice guy. But, having said that, I do think he made a big mistake to give a red card to Jannes.
There may have been some malicious intent in Jannes's tackle, but it did not warrant a red card. A yellow one,
fine, but not red. Jannes's challenge was late, but I've seen far worse tackles go unpunished.
Now that we're on the subject, I want to stand up and say
definitively that I personally got it horribly wrong at Twickenham that day.
Over two years later, Paddy O'Brien wrote in a South
African newspaper that, when he saw a tape of the game some
time afterwards, he was appalled at what had gone on behind
"I should have sent off five of them," was his comment.
And I have to say that he was right. And that I should have
been one of those sent off.
To this day, I still struggle to understand what went on inside my mind that day at Twickenham. When people ask me to
describe my feelings and emotions during the game, I think
back and recall all sorts of things.
What happened came from a combination of spirit and the heightened sense of competition. Then there was the obvious desire not to lose, and refusing to accept defeat graciously.
And there was the anger and resentment I felt towards England's arrogance. After all, we had lost in Marseille and Edinburgh and nothing like this had happened there.
But then we hadn't perceived our opponents to be arrogant,
as if they were trying to rub our noses in defeat. France and
Scotland had enjoyed beating us, as one would expect.
But they did not exhibit the sneering superiority of the England team as they put us to the sword at Twickenham.
In fact, England was the team I disliked playing against the
most, for they were always full of it. I didn't particularly dislike playing any other team, like New Zealand, Australia or Ireland.
But England was different. Because of their supercilious attitude, they were never good opponents.
Know the players better
As we played Australia and New Zealand more often, we came
to know the players better. We would go into their changing
rooms after matches, and have a beer and chat with them at the
We became friends with several of their players. But I never felt that way about England. Until the World Cup in 2003, when I talked to guys like Martin Johnson and Phil Vickery after a game, I'd never had a beer or spoken with any of their players socially.
At least the 2003 World Cup pool match between South Africa and England was played in a much better spirit, but before that, England, and especially players like Matt Dawson, Austin Healey and Ben Cohen, were very condescending.
And so was the attitude I encountered from one of their England internationals when I later joined the English club Northampton.
As youngsters in South Africa, we were always taught to be
good losers, to be gracious to our opponents when we lost, no
matter how painful the defeat. But when it came to playing
England, not many of their players were good winners either.
Quite a few of them really wanted to rub it in when they were beating you. And that just helped to infuriate us at Twickenham.
Make no mistake, I'm not trying to make excuses for my
actions in that match. I accept my full share of the blame, as well as responsibility for what the Springboks did on the field that day.
I had lost at Twickenham before, and knew what it was like.
But then Paddy O'Brien stunned everyone on the field and the
crowd of 70 000 spectators by red-carding Jannes Labuschagne.
From then on, we were on the back foot. Playing with only seven men against their forward pack was a nightmare. That imbalance in strength, combined with England's attitude, motivated me to be as dirty as I could for the rest of the game.
I knew that we were going to lose, but I made up my mind to take a few people down with me. I committed some appalling fouls, hitting people in possession and smashing others off the ball.
Of course, not only was it dangerous play, but also stupid. It only raised England's ire to such an extent that they thrashed us 53-3, the worst beating a Springbok side has ever suffered.
And you can imagine how I felt as the team's captain. You can choose whichever words you wish: humiliation, hurt, pain, anger, resentment, fury; all of them applied to my state of mind that afternoon as we trudged off Twickenham.
When I sat down in the dressing room after the final whistle, I just cried my eyes out. I was mentally shattered and in great physical pain. I had bashed my body so badly that I was in agony.
I honestly believe that I took two years off my rugby career in that game. My body was destroyed. I cried through sheer pain and frustration. We'd had a terrible tour, lost all three games and been caught up in this total humiliation at the end of it.
It was hard to take.
The British media
Of course, the British media - especially the tabloids, whose appetite for scandal is as intense as Dracula's for blood - had a field day.
There was a photograph of me elbowing Martin Johnson in the face. However, the picture didn't show what had happened moments earlier: Johnson strangling me, so much so that I thought I was going to lose consciousness.
I was literally fighting for breath, and, in order to break his grip, I swung an elbow at his face. It was done just to try to get him off me, as an act of survival.
But of course people went berserk about that incident, not wanting to hear what had led directly to it.
Twelve months later, when we got to the World Cup in
Australia, I would again be surrounded by the British media, about a remark I had made to a South African journalist - one I had thought would be off the record.
In the event, it found its way into the press. I had called Johnson one of the dirtiest players in the world, and of course the British media latched onto my statement like pit bull terriers as soon as the Springbok squad arrived for the World Cup.
During the Twickenham match, I flew into rucks boots or
head first. I felt no concern for my own safety or for the safety of others. I suppose you could say the red mist had descended;
I really lost it badly. The worse thing I did was to try to knock Matt Dawson out with a flying headbutt. I considered him one of the most arrogant guys in the team.
But I admit I was concerned when I heard that Dawson had suffered a neck injury, which at one stage was thought to be so serious that it might put an end to his career. It didn't, but I wasn't proud of my actions.
To compound matters, after the match our coach Rudolf
Straeuli was questioned by British journalists about our rough-
house antics. Straeuli bristled at the suggestions and said,
"We have two players concussed and one with a dislocated shoulder. Do you think we concussed ourselves?"
Unfortunately, Rudi had not been warned that Sky Television
had footage showing me throwing a punch at an opponent,
missing, and my fist connecting with the face of André Pretorius, our flyhalf.
I felt extremely embarrassed afterwards, as I knew
the blow with which I had inadvertently felled André would not only make me look stupid, but would backfire on Straeuli for what he said at the press conference.
Straeuli did not condone dirty play
At this point, I have to state emphatically that Rudolf Straeuli did not condone dirty play or encourage us to bend the rules.
I was very lucky to get away with the incidents in which I
was involved. I should have been sent off. And I was also lucky
that, afterwards, the only player cited by the match referee was Werner Greeff, our fullback, for a dangerous, head-high tackle on Phil Christophers, which cost us a penalty try and brought Werner a charge of foul play.
Twickenham 2002 was a total disaster for all South Africans,
but especially for me. It has taken me years to get over that one game. Indeed, it is only recently that I have begun to deal with it.
Today, when I look back, I certainly wouldn't argue
with O'Brien's comment that five of us should have gone off.
And yet, in a sense - and this might sound bizarre - I would
rather do what I did than chuck the towel in, as some of the other Springbok players did.
I'm not going to name them, for they know who they are. Suffice to say, I'd rather be guilty of overreaction than
capitulation. I could never have lived with myself had I done that.
I was very disappointed in those players who gave up. I knew
a lot of them would never play for South Africa again. They
never stood with me on the field, or afterwards when I was in a
deep state of mental anguish and physical pain.
I felt I was in a minority, and that intensified the agony.
So did the score: 3-53 is an absolute thrashing, and I still don't think we deserved that. It added insult to injury.
Exclusive extract courtesy of Zebra Press.
Buy Corne Krige's autobiography here.