Duane Heath

A punch between rugby friends

2004-09-03 08:29

How times have changed in rugby - and if you don't believe me, there's nothing like an accidental knee to the head, or a punch to the face, to hammer home the point.

Last Saturday in Kimberley, Western Province wunderkind Jean de Villiers and Griquas' Braam van Straaten succeeded in kicking up a Currie Cup storm in a dustbowl in the shadow of the Big Hole, and were rewarded for their imitation of schoolyard shenanigans with a shower so early their kit has been passed fit for use again this weekend.

The papers had a field day, running with the incident until it died a quiet death at the players' disciplinary committee meeting at Newlands earlier this week. Both men can play this weekend.

Springbok shook hands with former Springbok; they promised, with hands on heart, that they would never get up to anything so silly again, all was forgiven, and rugby was the winner.

But it wasn't always like this. And just how different it used to be in the bad old days of rugby football was brought home to me by former Ireland and British Lions captain Willie John McBride, in his newly released autobiography.

McBride, voted the rugby personality of the century, has come up with a remarkable book, perhaps the best rugby life story I've ever read, and its 300-odd pages are crammed with the humorous anecdotes Willie John has become famous for, as well as enough stories of 1974's South African slaughter to haunt those hapless Springboks of Hannes Marais well into the rugby afterlife.

McBride played his rugby hard and from the heart, and that Irish emotion flows from Ballymena's big man onto every page.

The book offers a glimpse into a way of life, and way of playing the game, that has died its own private death as the new age of professionalism goes through its growing pains.

Fragmented memories

McBride tells of his days working in a bank, then hitch-hiking (he couldn't even afford a bicycle) in the pouring winter rain to his beloved Ballymena club in Ulster, for whom he played first XV rugby for 20 years until his retirement in 1980.

He also writes about the death of his father at an early age, running a farm together with his mother and brothers, and how the fragmented memories of his dad came back to him the night he led the Lions to their series victory over the Boks in Port Elizabeth three decades ago now.

Then there's the violence: McBride in his "other life" as a bank manager, running for his life during a day of bombing in Northern Ireland, and McBride the stone-faced Irish lock, leading his green-shirted countrymen into running battles against everyone from the English to the All Blacks.

The word 'battles' is probably an understatement. Back then, if McBride's memories of international rugby as it was played between 1962 and 1975 are accurate, as they no doubt are, then it's easy to conclude that at least some things in rugby have improved with the passing of time.

McBride writes the following about a violent encounter at Lansdowne Road early in his career, against France: "We get out on to the field and someone blows a whistle. It is a signal, no, an invitation, for all hell to be let loose. Mayhem ensues.

"I can't remember seeing a ball and, besides, it is irrelevant. You just join the nearest melee of players, grabbing, wrestling, swearing, punching and buffeting as you go. We crash into each other, and then there's the explosion, as if someone has tossed a can of petrol into the midst of this sweating collection of humanity and thrown a match in after it.

'Enjoying the show'

"The whole thing goes up. Irish fists crash into French chins; sometimes Irish fists crash mistakenly into Irish chins. French fingers search out Irish eyes to gouge, punches whistle past heads that have ducked out of the way and boots connect with shins.

"And the referee watches this and does... nothing. He never interferes. It's obvious his policy is to enjoy the show and let them sort it out. They'll come to their senses in a moment."

One wonders what last Saturday's referee Mark Lawrence would have made of McBride and his band of merry men.

Interestingly enough, McBride's first taste of international rugby was in 1961 against Avril Malan's touring Springboks, who were busy with their historic Grand Slam-winning tour.

All the talk this week has been about whether Jake White's class of 2004 can follow in the footsteps of Malan and his side.

One thing's for sure, there will be more respect shown for the Bok jersey this year than in previous outings to Europe. Teams will take them seriously. Forty years ago, the likes of McBride certainly did.

"There I was, 21 years of age, put up against some of the world's finest forwards in players like Frik du Preez, Johan Claassen and Malan himself," he writes. "It was my first introduction to rugby at the highest level. You could not let your concentration lapse for one moment. There was no disputing the great class of their players. The difference was the pace, strength and speed at which everything happened.

"When you were tackled, it hurt. I ended up bruised and battered, but pleased I had survived."

  • The Springboks play Ireland at Lansdowne Road on November 13.

  • Willie John: The Story of My Life, co-written with Peter Bills and published by Portrait, is available at Kalahari.net.

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