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John Murphy
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28 July 2014, 22:15
Rugby is a game, just a game. But it is also more than just a game. It’s a game that elicits passion and is a breeding ground for the camaraderie that develops between strangers.

In essence, it’s a simple game that can be played for many years; from childhood to the early thirties. It’s a game that has become a professional sport like so many others, such as ice hockey, basket ball and soccer, to name just a few. It’s also a game that was once referred to as “the sport of hooligan’s played by gentlemen” (Chancellor of Cambridge University prep 1953). However, be that as it may, South Africans love their rugby.

The despised English introduced Rugby in 1858 and it became so popular that in 1902 there was a temporary ceasefire in the Second Boer War, so that a game could be played between British and Boer forces. The game had spread among the Afrikaner population through POW games during the Boer War.

In later years, Stellenbosch University became a training ground for future players and administrators. I think, one can say without contradiction, it will always remain the most popular game amongst the white population of South Africa. Although, since rugby became a professional sport and the government made transformation a part of its sport policy, its popularity has been growing rapidly amongst the other races as well, even though it is accepted that soccer will always be the most popular sport amongst the African people.

I remember when I was nine or ten years old, standing next to our stand up box Pilot Radio on a Saturday afternoon, I heard Gerhardt Viviers (better known as “the voice”) shouting, “the ball is in the hands of Nomis, he is through a gap, he is haring down the sideline, come on Sidee, Sidee Sidee, he is over the line. It’s a try, it’s a try, it’s a try.” Of course, Sidee was Syd Nomis, one of many Jewish rugby players to don the Springbok jersey.

When the match was over, the usual discussion about it, the inevitable critique of certain players, and the question as to whether they would retain their position in upcoming matches, was often quite scathing and brutal. On many occasions, at the conclusion of the match, the arm chair selectors and coaches who had been listening to the game in our living room nearly came to blows because someone had stated, quite categorically, that Syd the Jew would not be selected for the next test match.

“He is not big enough, strong enough and lacks that thing to become a true Springbok.” What “that thing” was, I could never establish.

At this point in the discussion Alwyn joined in.

“What the hell is wrong with you guys? Of course he will be and is good enough. Race or religion has nothing to do with it. It’s his athletic ability that counts.”

You know he remarked, “Jewish players have a problem playing rugby due to their faith. I remember once reading in a newspaper that Orthodox Rabbi Phillip Rosenberg of South Africa was once asked by one of his congregants how he could preach every week that they need to respect the Sabbath, while allowing his son to play rugby on that day. Well, Rabbi Rosenberg responded, ‘My son was born with a God-given talent. Who am I to argue with God?’”

“Ha, just goes to show you blerry Souties (bloody Englishmen) knows nothing about rugby. Now if he was a Boer we would not even discuss dis matter, for everybody knows that dere are only two peoples dat can play dis game? De Boers and de New Zealanders. But dey, de New Zealanders deir kop is deurmekaar. ( their head is muddled) Think about dis, hey, de whites are called All Blacks, so what de hell do you call de Maori team, de All Whites? Then, of course, look at de Springboks, only very few non Afrikaner and why is dat? I’ll tell you why. It’s because de Afrikaner is stronger dan de Souties—hell we would have won de Boer War if dey had not started de concentration camps and killed many women and children. No, we Boer, we can fight and we can play dis game.

Souties and European peoples must rather stick to sissie games like soccer or cricket.”

Alwyn then protested he was no Soutie, but a full blooded Welshman. When someone was bold enough to say, “All the same, Welshmen, Englishman all the same,” there was nearly a new war, but this time between the “Boer” and a Welshman. The funny thing was, of course, that Alwyn could not speak a word of Afrikaans, although I  suspect he  could understand  it.  He  was, however, accepted as one of the arm chair think tank members since they were all working in the same gold mine, Simmer and Jack, and there was a close brotherhood in the mining community, they were buddies.. So, the talk varied between Afrikaans and pigeon English and English spoken with a heavy Welsh accent.

The annual derby between Diggers  and Wanderers  was one of those not-to-be-forgotten moments in one’s life when I would accompany my dad to Ellis Park rugby grounds with the absolute necessities for the annual rugby derby—a bag of oranges, biltong (sort of jerky) and dried boere wors (dried sausage). We would meet his co-rugby enthusiasts at the gate (Alwyn included) and move to our favourite position to watch the match—right behind the posts in the standing room only section. Even before the main match, oranges would be passed around, but I was never offered one. The reason? For the two nights preceding the match, my dad had been using a syringe to inject brandy into the oranges as liquor was strictly forbidden inside the field. So, fortified with biltong and dried boerewors, the enthusiasts soon needed oranges,  as the biltong, being salty, made them thirsty. It was inevitable  that the joviality and enthusiasm  increased with the amount of oranges consumed and maybe, at some time, disgust would even boil over if their team was not playing well. Fortunately, at such a time, an orange made a perfect missile to launch at the opposing team or referee, if they were within range, which would release the tension that had been building up, as well as depleting the amount of alcohol to be consumed.

How well I remember the war cry, “Dig, Dig, Dig, Diggeeers,” or the opposing “Waaaanderers, Waaanderers, Waaanderes!” and the orange missiles being launched into space.

With this introduction into the game it was no surprise my father expected me to play rugby—not only play, but play well. I did disappoint though, as I was rather small and was thus considered unsuitable to play in the forwards. Also, I was no speedster and thus not suitable to play centre or wing. What I did have though, was a passion for the game and a rather aggressive attitude on the field. So, my dad spent hours seeing to it that I developed good ball skills. And after a discussion with the lounge rugby think tank, Alwyn suggested I would be able to play as a scrumhalf. He remembered Wales, at one time, had a scrumhalf that was very good and small like me. So, on a regular basis the arm chair coaches proceeded to instruct me on what the scrumhalf of the previous Saturdays’ game had done wrong or what he had done well. They would take me into the back yard and stand around in a circle, and shout a name for me to pass the ball to as quick as I could. All these lessons seemed to succeed, for I became a regular first team player of every age group during my school years. I was even named captain of the first team in grade twelve.

At that time, the Universities of Stellenbosch and Pretoria had the biggest number of rugby players in the country, followed by the University of Cape Town and the Orange Free State. Of course, there were many other famous private clubs like Hamiltons and Villagers in Cape Town, or Diggers and Wanderers in Johannesburg, Harlequins and Pretoria in Pretoria, plus, of course, all the Provinces had Police as well as Defence Force clubs. But, as is always the case, the clubs with the biggest number of players were the most likely to supply the bulk of the players for the provincial and national rugby side.

Time passed and I was soon saying goodbye to my family. I was on my way to Stellenbosch University, having been fortunate to win a Rugby Scholar Ship. Rugby was still an amateur sport then and a player could not receive any direct remuneration, but most of the bigger clubs and universities had innovative ways to circumvent the laws. Universities used sport scholarships.

I  remember as soon as I  had unpacked my clothes in  my cot (name for first year student’s  rooms) in the hostel, I went to Coetzenburg, the Stellenbosch University’s rugby grounds. I stood, mouth agape in awe, on the hallowed ground that had produced

more Springbok rugby players than any other club in the country. This was also where Doc Craven, a rugby legend and President of the International Rugby Board, spent his time as the coach of the University’s rugby teams known country wide as the “Maties.”

As I stood there shivering, I realized I would soon be on the sidelines watching the first team that  boasted seven Springbok players and a number of provincial players going through their paces under the watchful eye of Doc Craven.

The numbers of rugby players at Stellenbosch were so many that most first year students played in the hostel league. If you were good enough, you were selected to play in a team participating in the Boland league. It is only in your second year, if you were a scholarship student, or had excelled in your first year, that you would possibly see your name on the bulletin board requiring you to report to the series of trials held at the start of the season on the Craven Stadium’s grounds.

That first year was an eye opener for me. I was playing in the Boland League which, out of necessity, meant every Saturday we would leave quite early by bus to Porterville, Tulbach, Vredenburg or wherever the game was scheduled to take place.

The University management had decided the bus driver would always be a theological student. The rationale behind this was they felt theological students would be more dependable and responsible drivers who would not drink and drive. The problem with this reasoning was it did not take into consideration that many of these Boland League players were not first year students. Some players who had been at the university for quite a number of years, but did not make it to the top four teams, but they enjoyed playing the game and especially the socializing with the opposing team after the battle.

In our team we had at least six or even more oude menere (old masters) and no second or third year theological student was going to tell this oude meneer that he could not have two or three beers after having played a hard game of rugby. It was standard practice, and one could say it was even tradition, that the two teams would get together after the match in the town’s hotel and drink to each others’ health and good fortune—even though, during some of these matches one would have thought they were out to kill each other.

And so it transpired that the poor driver had no choice but to stop at the appointed hotel. He could then sit and wait in the bus, or do the more rational thing, namely, join the team in the bar, have a couple of beers or a glass of wine, or even something stronger if that was his fancy and become one of the “boys.” I suppose one could argue that such a person would have more leverage for getting the team back in the bus in a more reasonable time than an outsider. However, I must say I think many of these future ministers soon acquired a taste for beer or wine and some were even blessed with the gift of carnal knowledge, courtesy of local groupies. It was their baptism of fire into the depravity of young and virile rugby playing men.

At these social get-togethers, the conversation would invariably be about rugby. They would discuss fantastic players, past and present, great enterprising feats would be dished up and, as is always the case, the more beer or wine downed, the wilder the feats of the individuals became.

On one occasion, having played against Porterville in the heart of the Swartland wine route, we were in the traditional after-match frame of mind as we met with our opponents at the local hotel. Most of Porterville’s players were farmers or sons of farmers who still enjoyed a game of rugby. One of the prop forwards told a story that was too funny to be true, although he swore it was the truth, nothing but the truth, nannies capella stru. (South African vernacular for absolutely true). Apparently Porterville, had been playing against Vredenburg, a small town near the fishing harbour of Saldanha and with about two minutes to go, the Porterville wing side stepped his opposite number and went haring down the sideline towards the goal area. If he managed to score a try they would win the match, but there was one great obstacle in his way. The Vredenburg fullback was known to be a ferocious tackler and as solid as a rock in defence. When the wing saw the fullback was ready to launch himself in a tackle he suddenly threw him the ball. The fullback stopped and caught the ball, except it was not the rugby ball that he caught, but the wing’s hair toupee which had been whipped off and launched at him. Accelerating past the fullback, the wing scored the winning try!

“None of us knew that Bakkies wore a toupee, hell we never suspected that he had that bald patch on his head.” It then suddenly dawned on us why he never showered after a match, but preferred to do it at his home.

Much to my father’s dismay, I never made the big time in rugby at Stellenbosch, but I sure made it big time in the social life of rugby and the University. Apparently Alwyn’s  remark to my dad was, “Leave the lad alone, a good piss up with a good lay afterwards, is worth more than having played in the first team of the University, especially when you are older and start to think about the lost opportunities of your youth.”

One  of the  biggest social events at  Stellenbosch University was the annual rugby inter-varsity between two arch enemies, the University of Cape Town (an English University) and the University of Stellenbosch (a conservative Afrikaans University). To my way of thinking the actual rugby between the various teams that culminated in  the  final match  between the  first teams of  the  individual institutions, had become an excuse for the week of festivities that preceded Saturday’s  physical confrontation on the playing field, which alternated year by year. One year the match took place at Stellenbosch whilst the next year it moved to Cape Town.

During the week before the big game, every evening after dinner, all the students would troop to the rugby stands at the rugby fields of their respective Universities, for an hour or two of singing and kicking up a hell of noise. After singing practice, students would get together, at either the men’s or women’s hostels, for an impromptu dance and some fun. As to be expected, many of the men were imbibing before and during the singing practice for what was called the “Big Brag” the night before the Intervarsity rugby clash on the Saturday. During the Big Brag, the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation—this was before the country had TV) broadcast the singing and the quipping of the various conductors and cheerleaders, as well as the general noise, nationwide, so that all Alumni could tune in and relive, in spirit at least, memories of things that happened a long and sometimes not quite so long ago. And for that hour at least, many generations enjoyed each others’ company and reminisces in a virtual world.

On the day of the clash of the titans, it is axiomatic that at some stage or other a fight between the different supporters would flare up. These affairs were never very serious and it normally occurred when supporters of the one university tried to steal the mascot of the other. During my second year at Stellenbosch, my roommate told me that during one of these clashes he and an Ikey (short for Cape Town University attendee) had each other by the throat, shouting and swearing like crazy, when they suddenly realized they actually knew each other very well, having lived in the same neighbourhood in Pretoria, where upon they had let go and shouted “find yourself another opponent” which was done with alacrity.

I left Maties not having made it big time in the rugby world. I had come to the conclusion, or should I say the coaches at Stellenbosch came to the conclusion, that I was a very good player, but not good enough for the big time. I had physical shortcomings that hampered my success. So I made peace with myself and decided I would embrace Alwyn’s philosophy and enjoy playing the game, plus the socializing as well, for the fringe benefits that came with it.

“Time and tide waits for no man,” and too soon I found I was on the wrong side of the slope of the age curve to play competitive rugby anymore. Apart from that, I now had a family and thus other responsibilities, so the decision was made to bid farewell to playing the game I loved. However, I knew I could not just walk away and not have any contact with the sport of hooligan’s  played by gentlemen, and thus became a referee.

Being a referee changes one’s  perspective  of the game quite considerably. Apart from the politics that suddenly comes to your attention, it sometimes also makes one question a British University Chancellor’s description of rugby.

As the referee for a match between Pretoria Rugby Club and Normal College (a teachers training establishment) I was confronted with a very difficult problem. Normal College had a lock forward, just a boy really, barely nineteen years old that was out jumping his opposing lock in the Pretoria team and thus depriving them of the ball. At a line throw in of the ball, I saw very clearly how two Pretoria players hit this youngster from the front and from behind. He collapsed on the field and was carried off and sent to hospital. I reacted quickly and sent both players off the field of play. In those

days there was no sin bin or yellow and red cards, thus they were out of the game for the remainder of the match. This, of course, elicited some very rude remarks from the sidelines, but my experience at Ellis Park with my dad, with the think tank and the oranges, made me expect this, so I just carried on with game. I did think to myself, that at this level, the game had sunk to a game for hooligans played by hooligans.

After the game I filled in the usual after game report to the Referees Association.  I also put in a recommendation that both players be severely punished and possibly banned from playing for quite some time. (On enquiries after the match I had learned that the young player had been seriously injured by the vicious blows to his kidneys and stomach).

On Monday, I received a call that I was to appear before the Provincial Referees Management  Committee regarding the incident between Normal College and Pretoria Rugby Club. This was my introduction to rugby politics. The next Saturday the Provincial team was scheduled to play against arch enemy Western Province and the two players I had sent off were both considered to be key players in the Northern team. I was informed that after due consideration, my recommendation was rejected and that the committee considered the players had suffered enough punishment. There were also some committee members that felt I had handled the game incorrectly and it would be better to let the whole episode just die a natural death.

All though I protested, it was to no avail. At one stage the Chairman of the Referee Association took me aside and ordered me to let it go.

After some introspection I concluded that perhaps I should rather do coaching. I felt I could really make a contribution to the game I loved by teaching children how the game should be played and approached professionally.

Once again I found myself at Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch, only this time not trying to be a player, but rather coaching under the tutelage of Doc Craven. After a few years of coaching school kids I finally decided it was time to bow out.

The wheel had come full circle. There is a new think tank meeting regularly to dissect and analyze the previous Saturday’s

game. The biggest difference between when I was a boy and adult was that the group is more eclectic than in my father’s time, and they are all my friends. The old guard had all passed away for some reason or another.

Alwyn had been killed in a rock fall underground, Beenkop (I never knew his true name) had been killed in an automobile accident driving under the influence of alcohol, whilst the others had mostly, as had my own father, died of some mining related illness such as silicosis. The other big difference was, of course, that we sat around big TV screens in media rooms, whilst drinking beer. Gone were the days of the oranges and the fun of launching missiles at the referees or players or even occasionally at spectators who restricted your view.

At this, the winter of our lives, we reminisce about players of yester year. Players such as Mannetjies Roux,Frik du Preez, Burger Geldenhuis, and many others that have come and gone. It also makes me think about players who gave their all and were never given the opportunity to play for the national team, and there are many for whom it was done too soon, who were broken both physically and mentally due to bad coaching, bad luck, or sometimes where maybe expectations were too high.

But the love of the game will bring us back on Saturday. We will sing outdated bawdy songs, the beer will flow freely, we will cuss and discuss players, we will tell our own stories, vastly inflated, we will flaunt our scars and talk about our arthritis resulting from game injuries. And then the drivers, our wives, will come and take us home to sleep off the exhaustion of a big game.
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