In an exclusive interview, ex-Springbok scrumhalf WERNER SWANEPOEL talks about South Africa’s number No 9 options, the keenly anticipated 2021 British & Irish Lions tour and the motto he lives by courtesy of his football idol David Beckham.
Sport24 asked: How are you dealing with the ongoing lockdown in South Africa?
Werner Swanepoel: I believe the far-reaching economic implications are more worrying than the lockdown itself at this point in time. It’s scary from a financial perspective and no one is really spared when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic. Everyone is in the same boat from the car guard to the businessman in financial services and the professional rugby player. It’s never nice to lose money or to take paycuts but in the situation the sports fraternity finds itself in I’m sure their mantra would be to rather stay afloat than go bankrupt. I don’t think the rugby boards around the world and SA Rugby have any other choice but to agree to cost-cutting initiatives because everyone is trying to survive. There is no gate income, sponsors aren’t getting bang for their buck and it was only a matter of time before paycuts would take place with lockdown in effect.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of South Africa’s scrumhalf options?
Werner Swanepoel: Faf de Klerk is the incumbent Springbok No 9 and played a huge role in the World Cup success. The overseas stint has done him the world of good and he has played so well. Herschel Jantjies has come through beautifully and is obviously next in line. I have also been impressed with Sharks scrumhalf Sanele Nohamba. He is a youngster coming through and I was pleased with what I saw from the couple of games he started. He also made an impact when he came off the bench, so the 21-year-old looks like a real prospect. Embrose Papier had a bit of a dip in form before the World Cup but he’s still knocking on the door of national selection. Some players find their feet quicker than others but the talent is definitely there… In terms of scrumhalf play, game plans have changed a lot but not necessarily the positions themselves. If I had to pick the best No 9 that I have ever seen in my rugby life, it would be Fourie du Preez. Apart from his excellent general play he was a really good kicking scrumhalf. Rassie Erasmus’s game plan with De Klerk at the World Cup was also to kick a lot and I always say around braais if Nick Mallett wanted myself and Joost van der Westhuizen to kick like that neither of us would probably have played for the Springboks! Since 2004, the game has changed with all the up-and-unders and playing from nine to try and get the ball back. Faf got plenty of stick because his kicks weren’t always on the button but the game plan worked well for the Boks in Japan. However, the cliché that a kicker is only as good as his chasers is true.
Sport24 asked: Do you harbour any regrets from your 20-Test Springbok career?
Werner Swanepoel: As the saying goes, the older you get the better you were! In total I was involved in 43 Springbok matches and maybe if I played in today’s era I would have played more than 20 Test matches for South Africa. I believe I could have played more Tests but I wouldn’t exchange the experience for anything else in my life. Being part of the 1998 Tri-Nations-winning squad was definitely my proudest Springbok moment along with equalling the record of 17 Test wins in a row, which stood for quite a while. If I had to do everything all over again, I would still have chosen to have Joost there and compete with him for a place. I am so proud to have been part of the Springbok culture and to have worn the emblem.
Sport24 asked: Was Nick Mallett the best coach and Carel du Plessis the worst?
Werner Swanepoel: I think it’s a bit harsh to say that Du Plessis was the worst. I believe Carel was ahead of his time. If I think about what he did with us back then and what the guys are doing now, it’s almost exactly the same. He was very technical. We went through a lot of team tactics and video sessions. In his autobiography, Bulletproof, James Dalton writes that Carel was “a remarkable rugby player but he had no clue about coaching an international rugby team.” I feel that’s harsh but everyone has their opinion. Carel and Gert Smal were the first Springbok coaches I played under and made me a Springbok so I’m very grateful to them. However, I agree with Bullet in terms of Nick being the best. I basically played my whole Test career under Mallett and have a helluva lot of respect for him. Every player just wants to know where they stand with a coach and that’s what Nick and Rassie did so well. Don’t tell me on Monday I’m good and then on the Wednesday tell the other scrumhalf he’s better. As a coach just be honest... Mallett’s contentious move was dropping Gary Teichmann for Bob Skinstad and making Joost captain for the 1999 World Cup. There have been documentaries made and interviews recorded on that subject and everything that was supposed to be said has been. Nick admitted he made a misjudgement but in hindsight it’s always easy to say. Having won 17 consecutive Tests, I think we were good enough to win the World Cup. However, the exclusion of Teichmann had a huge impact on the team as he was our leader for a long time. It’s now water under the bridge but sadly myself and many of the guys from that era can’t say they won a World Cup.
Sport24 asked: Your take on two-time World Cup-winner Frans Steyn’s return?
Werner Swanepoel: With Ruan Pienaar and Frans Steyn back in the Free State maybe Helgard Muller can also make a comeback! However, jokes aside, if you think about it it makes sense because the Cheetahs have always struggled to keep hold of their good players and every year it’s the same scenario. I have always been a huge fan of Frans. Even if he were 40 and went to play somewhere I would still back him to succeed. (Steyn is 32 and has played 67 Tests for the Springboks since debuting in 2006). He’s an unbelievable talent and it’s unfortunate that we couldn’t see too much of him when he left for overseas. His influence off the bench and around the team at the 2019 World Cup shouldn’t be underestimated. I think it’s a good move especially in an environment like the Free State which has historically been the breeding ground for youngsters coming through and the bigger unions then snapping them up. I feel it’s a great strategy from the Cheetahs to introduce some old hands to mentor the younger players. I think Frans will give back a helluva lot to the youngsters in the backline. He can also play all of the backline positions bar scrumhalf. It’s great that Steyn is coming back to Bloemfontein and his home ground. When this lockdown’s over, I look forward to seeing him and Ruan with the youngsters around them.
Sport24 asked: Are you keenly anticipating the 2021 British & Irish Lions tour?
Werner Swanepoel: The British & Irish Lions series is the next big challenge for the World Cup-winning Springboks. I hold fond memories of the tour in 1997 for personal reasons because I earned my debut for the Springboks in the third Test at Ellis Park. I swapped jerseys with their reserve scrumhalf after coming on for Joost van der Westhuizen. I have the jersey hanging in my bar at home and when I’m an old man I can use it to wipe my tears from that series defeat! I spoke to Jeremy Guscott the other day and I said, as 'laaitie' in South Africa you always want to play for the Springboks and, for them, he said while they grow up always wanting to play for their country the cherry on the cake is getting picked for the British & Irish Lions. It’s a true honour for the guys when they put on that red jersey as is the case with the green and gold. The battle will commence next year and I can’t wait to watch all the games… I see Warren Gatland, who will coach the team next year, has heaped praise on Rassie. Sometimes you get a very likeable coach who is not technical or a technical coach who is not likeable. Rassie put those two things together and the rest is history. He won the World Cup for South Africa, which is an amazing achievement… These days I think coaches and players are media savvy and the sweet talk will start. I’m really looking forward to the series and Rassie will be behind the scenes and take full control and responsibility. Him and the newly-appointed Springbok head coach Jacques Nienaber have worked together for ages and I think it will be a smooth transition. However, at the end of the day you can be as good a coach as you can be but you need to field a strong match-day 23. The British & Irish Lions are going to prove a tough team but with Jacques having been appointed the continuity will be there along with the self-same culture and structures, which I feel is very positive for South African rugby.
Sport24 asked: Three dream dinner guests. Who would you choose and why?
Werner Swanepoel: As a Manchester United fan, I admired the way David Beckham rose through the ranks and lived his life. During my playing career, I remember reading a story when Beckham and Gary Neville had just signed professional contracts with the Red Devils. They were walking in the street and saw Rolex watches in a shop window. Beckham said: “Gary, let’s buy those watches - we’ve made it now.” Neville replied: “No Dave, it’s too expensive.” And Beckham retorted: “Just live a little.” That has stuck with me ever since and that is what life is all about. I’m also a big Tiger Woods fan and I think it’s unbelievable how he came back. It will be difficult for him to win more majors because golf is such a competitive and technical sport. But to launch a comeback and win the 2019 Masters was just unbelievable. Agustin Pichot, who is in the running to become World Rugby chairperson, would also be a good dinner guest. He played with the No 9 on his back so he is obviously a clever guy. They can’t make a mistake if they put a scrumhalf in that position. But on a serious note, being at the helm of World Rugby is a tough job but what he’s saying about introducing a global season makes sense. His appointment would offer younger blood and I like what he’s been pushing in terms of “redefining the future of the game.”