EXTRACT | Winging It: On tour with the Boks

2020-01-22 11:56
Winging it: On Tour with the Boks by Liam del Carme, published by Jacana

Winging it: On Tour with the Boks by Liam del Carme, published by Jacana (Supplied)

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"Obviously we are disappointed we didn't go any further in the World Cup. We had a difficult draw. Circumstances outside the control of the team played a role but I think they did very well." It was about at that moment I checked to see if my device was still recording and whether indeed I was awake.

*****

The laboured way Rudolf Straeuli walked into the press room in the bowels of the Telstra Dome in 2003 could not have been more different to Nick Mallett’s swagger at the same stage four years earlier.

Mallett's team, you see, had just beaten one of the tournament favourites in the quarterfinals and the smile almost wrapped around the coach's head.

He had in tow his captain Joost van der Westhuizen and Jannie de Beer.

His team had just triumphed, slightly against the odds, against Clive Woodward’s burgeoning England team, toppling their chariot just when it seemed it was building a head of steam.

De Beer, of course, had been hugely instrumental, landing five drop goals in one of the Springboks' most famous triumphs post isolation.

Although one of his comments were perhaps deliberately taken out of context, De Beer's "The Lord gave me the talent, the forwards gave me the ball" remains one of the most enduring Springbok post-match one-liners.

Four years on, Straeuli would have been justified asking for some divine intervention.

His team had just been unceremoniously dumped from the tournament by New Zealand and now the hounds were about to be set loose on Straeuli.

His win record stood at a paltry 52 percent but that was almost the least of Straeuli's concerns.

It wasn't just the low win rate that made him the South African public's sporting enemy number one.

There was a row with distinct racial undertones between the locks in his preliminary squad, Geo Cronjé and Quinton Davids, not to mention how by then the naked truth was emerging back home of his infamous pre- tournament boot camp, Kamp Staaldraad.

Straeuli would have been aware of the storm back home. For heaven's sake, he knew everything we wrote on that tour as he brought his PA along specifically for that task.

Straeuli is one of the most undemonstrative coaches you are likely to meet. He was typically calm. He was in that seat to talk about his team's defeat to the All Blacks and possibly the road forward, not what was unfolding back home.

"We came here to win the World Cup and we didn't," he said in his monotone baritone.

"We won a lot of hearts for the way we played at this tournament but maybe the World Cup did come a year too soon."

I remember questioning in my report whose hearts the Boks might have captured in their tryless exploits when it mattered most against England and then New Zealand.

SA Rugby’s managing director Rian Oberholzer was also of the view that the RWC had arrived 12 months too soon.

"If we had another year, especially when you consider the success of the under-21 team, who knows what would have happened?

"We hope the young players will have learnt from this experience so that we can apply it and we can be proud of the Springbok team. We can't be proud of the team if different forces are trying to pull the team apart.

"I would like to see the core of the guys who played in this tournament be back in 2007," said Oberholzer.

He was partly granted that wish.

Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger, Jaque Fourie, Victor Matfield, Danie Rossouw, John Smit, Juan Smith, Jean de Villiers and Ashwin Willemse were all selected for Jake White's squad that lifted the Webb Ellis Cup four years later.

Fourie, Rossouw, Smith, Burger, Matfield, Botha and Smit played in the final.

As the press conference unfolded, Oberholzer stood to the side, well away from the cameras.

But, with Straeuli's interrogation done, South African reporters turned their recorders to him.

He was defiant. He backed the coach.

"I don't know why that question is posed so often and I don't want to sound aggressive, but the coach was appointed until 2005 and part of that term is this World Cup," he said after being asked about Straeuli's future.

Oberholzer was either oblivious or just blind to the fallout back home.

Besides, the writers on tour all had sports and news editors wanting to know why Straeuli and indeed Oberholzer weren't falling on their sword.

"He wasn’t appointed to win the World Cup but to coach the Springbok team," continued Oberholzer.

"Obviously we are disappointed we didn't go any further in the World Cup. We had a difficult draw. Circumstances outside the control of the team played a role but I think they did very well."

It was about at that moment I checked to see if my device was still recording and whether indeed I was awake.

Did Oberholzer actually just say that?

"We have a fantastic young team and we have to try and keep them together. Continuity is important to us. We should keep our cool and move forward," he said.

He did concede, though, that the Boks fell short of the minimum requirement set for them that they should reach the semi-finals.

For that to happen, however, they would have had to beat a top side like England or New Zealand, and that was always unlikely as the Boks under Straeuli could only beat one of the world's top sides in the two years he was in charge: Australia.

"That was always going to be a hard task," Oberholzer acknowledged.

"We would have to beat numbers one and two in the world. We didn't set ourselves the easiest target."

A little later Oberholzer left and the mini media scrum dispersed.

By the time a security guard pushed open a stadium exit leading to a bridge over the railway lines that separate the stadium from the city, Oberholzer was already about 30 metres or so in front in tight formation with his partner.

They looked happy, and for some reason I was happy for them.

Oberholzer, though, was about to cross a bridge in more ways than one.

Less than a month later, the players turned on him and he quit.

This is an extract from Winging It: On tour with the Boks by Liam Del Carme, published by Jacana Media.

Read more on:    springboks
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