Mac's hall of rugby fame

2011-11-26 00:00

THERE was an expectation that last Saturday’s Talking Sport article about just who our greatest Springboks were might prompt a response or, he said optimistically, even a letter.

But the silence has been deafening. We did not receive a single note or e-mail. Not a sausage. (We should have selected JuJu at scrumhalf).

So we went a-knocking on doors — well, just the one, really — to canvas fresh opinion. The door belonged to Ian McIntosh and we thought he was well qualified to comment on the list of the 50 great Springboks featured in the book The Chosen (by Andy Colquhoun and Paul Dobson).

McIntosh, the former Natal and Springbok coach, played in Rhodesia in the 1950s, started coaching (after serious injury) in the 60s and was in charge of the Zimbabwean national side in the 70s before moving to Durban. He had 35 years in coaching and is now a Springbok rugby selector.

His present position as a national selector prevents him casting a critical eye over individual current players, but he emphasised that the high-profile moderns, such as Victor Matfield, John Smit, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger, would have been “remarkable players” in any era.

“But it really is almost impossible to compare players of different eras because of the changing laws, the different demands, the emergence of professionalism and the changing face of the game.

“Rugby before the law changes was the most boring and dour of games, one which encouraged endless kicking. So much has changed.”

Mac pointed out, for example, that once upon a time hookers were there to hook, not act as a fourth loose forward, while playing the role of a third prop in the scrums and throwing the ball in the lineouts.

“I have seen immensely strong props, like Pierre du Toit and Andy MacDonald [who reportedly took on and killed a lion with his bare hands, losing a couple of fingers along with part of his ear and picking up 400 stitches in the process] dominate scrums.

“But I never saw them run with the ball. They all scrummed, provided support in the lineouts and kept together, hunting under a blanket. The running, passing skills of today’s props were not needed when I started out in the game.

“Similarly, fullbacks were like goalkeepers, picked to catch and kick and clear their lines. Today they are key members of any team’s attack and require totally different skills,” he added.

Mac says he believes the authors have got it right in ranking Danie Gerber, Hennie Muller and Frik du Preez as the top three Springboks.

“Danie was the best centre I ever saw. He was big, bustling, fast and could beat defenders off either foot. And Frik should have been Freak du Preez. To have a tight forward in those conservative days of rugby who could jump and run and kick the way he could was phenomenal.

“I grew up with Hennie Muller as my hero. He was a number eight who changed the game and destroyed backlines with his pace and fearless tackling. We all tried to copy him. He was as quick as any wing and he would simply chase the ball down the opposition’s backline, crowding the centres and then tackling the wing.”

Muller (1949-53) was so effective that he was blamed for ruining the game by terrorising backlines. Rugby administrators were urged to change the laws to blunt his talents.

While Mac agrees with the authors’ top selections, he does believe that scrumhalf Joost van der Westhuizen should be far higher than 17th on the list.

“Joost in peak form was a most remarkable player and I don’t think people realised just how good and how brave he was. He placed enormous pressure on the opposing halfbacks, he was a heck of a tackler and his cover defence, his sweeping behind his backs saved so many tries. And then, of course, once he got a sniff of the try-line he was lethal.”

Van der Westhuizen, with 38 tries in 89 Tests, was the Springboks’ most prolific scorer until wing Bryan Habana recently broke his record.

“His one problem was kicking into the box, and that is where Fourie du Preez excels, but otherwise I would certainly have Joost right up near the top,” says Mac.

The names of other players who made a deep impression on Mac roll off the tongue and fullback HO de Villiers, a player decades ahead of his time, was one of them.

De Villiers, eighth on “the list”, played in only 14 Tests (1967-70) and serious knee injuries ended his career before he was 25. Innovative and daring, De Villiers was the first of the running, attacking fullbacks. Modest and with the dark looks of a film star, HO developed a cult following and bobby-soxers crowded Newlands.

Mac also believes that Os du Randt was the ideal modern prop.

“He was the best loosehead I have seen and could contribute around the field, making tackles and passes.”

Naas Botha was another player rated highly by Mac.

“I saw him in the junior ranks and he was a brilliant attacking player. He then changed into a largely kicking flyhalf because that was what Buurman van Zyl [the Northern Transvaal coach] and the Boks wanted. And Naas could do anything with his boot.”

Doug Hopwood, Carel du Plessis, Ray Mordt, Mannetjies Roux, Andre Venter, Uli Schmidt are among others who feature on Mac’s list.

“I thought that Keith Oxlee [Natal flyhalf] was the most underrated of all the Springboks and he would have flourished in the modern game. He and [Natal coach] Izak van Heerden were a potent combination.

Oxlee had the rare ability to create space and put angled runners into gaps but he, like Naas, was inhibited by the Springbok approach of the time.”

Mac says he was fortunate to coach a generation of world-class players in Durban.

“It was a pleasure to have players like Gary Teichmann, Andre Joubert, Henry Honiball, James Small, Mark Andrews and a chap like big Rudi Visagie. No one remembers him as one of the greats, but I built the whole Natal team of the 90s around him.”

And the best rugby player he has seen?

“Well, Gareth Edwards [the Welsh and British Lions scrumhalf of the early 70s] was probably the player who impressed me most. He was to rugby what the great West Indian all-rounder Gary Sobers was to cricket. He could do everything.”

But you would have to be brave or foolish, says Mac, to claim that Edwards was better than Gerber, Frik, Hennie Muller or Joost.

“It really is in the eye of the beholder,” says Mac, “and we do tend to remember the golden moments, don’t we?”

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