Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, ex-Scotland and South Africa hooker JOHN ALLAN talks about the poor standard of refereeing, Faf de Klerk’s farcical absence and the Murrayfield Test match on Saturday.
Sport24 asked: How did you end up playing for both Scotland and South Africa?
John Allan: I was born in Scotland and lived there until I was eight years old, but I grew up in South Africa. I progressed through the ranks and, at the time when I was playing for the Sharks, I realised that if I wanted to play in a Rugby World Cup I would have to return to the country of my birth because of the Apartheid era in South Africa and the sporting isolation. In 1989, I returned to Scotland because I thought it would take me two years to crack their World Cup team. I played for a club called Edinburgh Academical and the first game I played was against Hawick, who had been Scottish champions. My hero, Bill McLaren, attended the match and I was introduced to him. I was trying to impress him and played the game of my life. At the end of the match, two guys walked up to me while I was talking to Bill. They asked, “Are you available to play for Scotland?” At the time, I didn’t even know what they had said and was actually irritated because they interrupted my chat with my hero. When they left, Bill asked me, “John, do you know who they were?” And I said, “No.” He replied, “That was Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer.” And I said, “What did I say?” Bill replied, “Well, you nodded your head.” Three weeks later, I was picked in the Scotland squad and was part of the 1990 Grand Slam team that beat England at Murrayfield in the final. The beauty of that game was that it was the first time the Flower of Scotland was sung. I played for Scotland until 1992 and then with the end of sporting isolation in South Africa, that avenue opened up for me. I came back to South Africa to fulfil my dream of playing for the Springboks because it was more my dad’s dream of me playing for Scotland. I returned to play for the Sharks and was picked for the 1995 Springbok World Cup squad. I pulled my calf muscle and never actually played in the tournament, but that’s life. (Allan holds the distinction of having played 12 Tests for Scotland and 13 Tests for South Africa).
Sport24 asked: Your preview of the 27th Test between Scotland and South Africa?
John Allan: Playing against Scotland at Murrayfield is always a challenge owing to the passion of the crowd. The Scottish players rise to the occasion and Scotland have selected their top team for Saturday with everyone back. Owing to the way Scotland played against Fiji last weekend, they will be confident heading into the clash against South Africa. If the Boks underestimate the Scots, they are in for a big surprise. However, if the Springboks dominate up front against Scotland then they should extend their five-match winning streak against them. When the Springboks get it right - in other words when the forwards dominate and the backs get front-foot ball - then they play well. The key for South Africa is to dominate upfront because they possess a strong pack. If the men in green and gold fire on all cylinders they should claim the win... Scotland have named three South African-born players in their match day 23. Rugby is a professional game and it’s a career for people, so they can play anywhere in the world. Believe me, when WP Nel, Allan Dell and Josh Strauss pull on the Scotland jersey they will feel Scottish. Moreover, the fact that they are playing against South Africa means they will raise their game by 10 percent because they are facing their country of birth and want to impress. There is no doubt that when they run out, they will want to beat South Africa.
Sport24 asked: What is your assessment of the standard of Test refereeing?
John Allan: Barring South African referee Jaco Peyper, who is consistent, every other international referee is inconsistent. It’s not only South Africa complaining about some dodgy refereeing decisions. The fact of the matter is that every country is complaining. I just don’t understand it because in this day and age they have got the TMO and all the help they need. Match officials have got no excuse. I believe referees should be judged just like players on a performance basis. If referees make a mistake, they must apologise or face the consequences. I actually think referees have too much power in the way rugby is run and in terms of the laws of the game. You can see that some of the laws that World Rugby are coming up with are from a referee’s perspective. My biggest bugbear is the ruck law because you never know who is offside and who isn’t. In my playing days, if someone was lying on the ground you could do something about it by raking him and moving him out of the way. Nowadays, you can do things on the ground and everyone will look to take advantage. The referees must be consistent, so the players know where they stand. Romain Poite is in charge of the Test on Saturday and I don’t know why we always get the French. We have had our problems with French referees before, but I think we must just shut up and play the game. With Siya Kolisi being a new captain, he is obviously more worried about his own leadership with his players, but I think he has got that right. One of the reasons we came back against France was because of Kolisi’s leadership. Once you are confident that you can lead your players, you can then focus your attention on the referee and start sucking up to him. It’s about trying to influence the man in the middle. I often played against Sean Fitzpatrick and I used to think that he was having a tea party with most referees. If you complain and shout at the referee you are not going to earn his respect, but if you ask intelligent questions and query a few aspects during the game, the referee will think to himself: This man knows the game. As a captain, it’s also crucial to tell the referee during the match, “Well done, good decision.” The little things like that make a difference because referees are human.
Sport24 asked: Who do you regard as the best hookers in the game today?
Johan Allan: There is no doubt that in terms of physical presence; strength-wise and from a stealing point of view, Malcolm Marx is the best hooker in the world. However, it all depends on the type of hooker you want in your team. Someone like Dane Coles, who has returned to the All Black set-up after a long-term injury lay-off, is more mobile and has a broader skill-set than Marx. Coles is like an Uli Schmidt type rugby player, whereas Marx is more in the mould of (Sean) Fitzpatrick. The best in the world right now is Marx, but that’s provided he gets his throwing right and doesn’t throw to the back of the lineout all the time. Meanwhile, Bongi Mbonambi has come on in leaps and bounds. He landed five high pressure lineouts in the last seven minutes against France and scored the match-winning try. When he started against Australia in the Rugby Championship they gave him the kiss of death when they said his lineout throwing was 100%. He then missed the next four throws and battled ever since then. However, he rose to the occasion last weekend as a second half substitute. One cockup and the Boks would have lost the game, but Bongi is playing with renewed confidence.
Sport24 asked: Will Saturday’s contest prove a clash of contrasting styles?
John Allan: By all accounts, it’s a Test which pits two teams with different playing strategies. Scotland keep ball in hand and will only kick as a last resort, whereas the Springboks will kick as a first resort. Last week against France, South Africa’s biggest downfall was Faf de Klerk kicking the ball the whole time. I wasn’t impressed with Faf’s kicking because he must kick for grass not to hand. If you kick into a players hands, you are giving away possession. He overcooked his kicks against France, but kicking is part of the Bok game plan, so you can’t blame him. We should rather blame Rassie Erasmus for telling him to kick all the time. It wasn’t Faf’s best kicking display, but he has X-factor and there is no doubt he is a good player. It’s a disgrace that De Klerk is not available this week despite the Test falling within the international window. (De Klerk has returned to play for Sale Sharks in the English Premiership). It’s a joke and I don’t understand it. You can’t have clubs keeping the players at this time - even football doesn’t do that. On the plus side, Faf’s absence offers the Springboks an opportunity to find a proper scrumhalf that will put pressure on him, so that if he has a bad game another guy will be able to take over. Even if Faf has a good game, the idea is for there to be healthy competition in order to push him. I feel we need a scrumhalf-flyhalf combination that is going to stay together for a long time and the more competition there is, the better they will play. Having played for Scotland and South Africa, I can’t lose when I go watch the Test at Murrayfield. It will be the best day of my life because I will wake up on Saturday knowing I’m a winner either way.