In an exclusive interview, ex-Junior Springbok and Wallabies wing/centre CLYDE RATHBONE talks about his contentious move to Australia, overcoming depression and why Jake White is complicated.
Sport24 asked: What led to your decision to leave South Africa in 2002?
Clyde Rathbone: I vacillated a lot during the decision-making process. I would wake up in the morning and say to myself I’m definitely going to stay in South Africa, but by the evening I would lean towards a move to Australia. I played my junior rugby in South Africa and it had always been my dream to play for the Springboks. (Rathbone captained the 2002 Junior World Cup-winning Springboks). I went to speak to my parents and I told them that I had received a flattering offer from the Brumbies and Australian rugby, but I think the right call is to stay in South Africa. I remember my dad saying to me: “You can do what you want but your mother, brothers and I are moving to Australia.” I knew that if I stayed in South Africa and played for the Springboks, my family and I would essentially be separated for however long my rugby career lasted. We are a very close family and I didn’t like the idea of them being in Australia and me playing out my rugby career in South Africa. The other big factor was visiting Canberra. I observed the Brumbies and compared the rugby and lifestyle setup to the one I was used to in South Africa. It was eye-opening and I really loved the culture the Brumbies had developed. It was a non-hierarchical structure to the way the team functioned and it didn’t matter if you were a 20-year-old kid in the first year of your contract or a 100 Test-capped Wallaby. Everyone was expected to have a say in how the team played and functioned. At the time, I was coming from the Sharks where Rudolf Straeuli was one of the coaches. In South Africa it was a much more traditional, headmaster-pupil dynamic between coaches and players. It was a different scenario in Australia which was refreshing.
Sport24 asked: How did you handle being vilified on your return to SA?
Clyde Rathbone: I remember when we played South Africa in Durban in 2004 my return was front-page news every day of the week. Having grown up 40km south of Durban, it was a place I was familiar with but now I felt like an outsider. As a consequence, I developed a combative mindset. I saw it as me against the whole of South Africa and was very defensive about the situation. I remember being very in-your-face and was aggressive in the way I positioned myself during that time. In turn, the reaction of many people in South Africa was to get equally aggressive. You had these two forces meeting and it made for a fascinating time. In hindsight, I would definitely have handled the situation very differently. However, the whole concept of regret is interesting because without those experiences in life you don’t learn anything. I value those experiences in terms of what I learned from them, but as an older, more mature individual I would handle the situation in a different manner. My initial path in rugby was provided by my country of birth and then, as you’re coming into the prime of your career, you up and leave and go somewhere else. I can see how that would leave a bad taste in people’s mouths. I think my move was particularly contentious based on the timing of it and that I was a bit naïve when it came to the media. I was relatively candid and, as the media tend to do, they latched onto one or two of the more inflammatory quotes. That would become the headline and would guide the narrative of the whole story.
Sport24 asked: How did you deal with a rugby career blighted by injury?
Clyde Rathbone: Athletes who have had severe, potentially career-ending injuries will be able to relate to the fact that it’s not just that you stop playing but that you aren’t able to improve. You reach a ceiling and then plateau. Before I was getting injured, every year I was able to improve as a player. You pick up skills, experience and add a few strings to your bow. You are constantly refining yourself as an athlete. But when you pick up a bunch of serious injuries, you aren’t starting from a better position than when you left and really have to rebuild. I had surgeries on my ankles, groin and knees. I also broke my arm, leg, eye socket and cheekbone. It’s all part of contact sport, but they weren’t spaced out and that’s why the first time I retired was at the age of 27 in 2009. Thereafter, I suffered from depression. When your life has been dedicated to something and it gets taken away from you and you don’t know what to do next, it can be extremely depressing. I felt unable to climb out of the hole I sunk into. For me, it was a case of my life not going the way I wanted it to go. Things got progressively worse and I felt powerless to change my situation. However, as soon as I started to recognise I had more control than I realised over my mental state, health and wellbeing, I found I could turn things around relatively quickly. (Three years after retiring, Rathbone made a remarkable Super Rugby comeback with the Brumbies under Jake White).
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up White as a man and mentor?
Clyde Rathbone: My experiences with Jake were interesting. He can be emotional and impulsive. If he was being honest with himself I think he would acknowledge that, but for the most part he has a handle on that stuff. He’s a complicated personality and I think that comes from the obsessive focus he places on results. He gets results quickly but is a polarising figure in the way that a lot of high-performing coaches can be. Their number one focus is on performance and if they have to bend the rules or step on some people’s toes, I think they are willing to do that. From a player’s perspective, Jake divides opinion because if he backs you he does so 100%, but if he doesn’t it’s very difficult to win favour with him again. Players who fell out of favour with Jake often have a bone to pick, but wherever he goes he has the ability to do a good job. He did an outstanding job when he coached me as a junior and a couple of years later when he took over the seniors. I was actually with him when he heard that he was being invited to interview for the Springbok coaching position. At the time, he was visiting Australia and staying in my apartment... If you have Jake in your team and you surround him with other talented coaches and administrators, you have got an asset there. I haven’t stayed in contact with Jake, but I get the sense that he is the type of person who is trying to improve all the time. It’s a case of being self-aware, doing your best in order to discover what your blindspots are and constantly working on self-improvement.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the state of South African rugby?
Clyde Rathbone: You don't win a World Cup without the game in the country being relatively healthy. The good thing about that win for South Africa is that there are a lot of players who are going to get better over the next few years. We are not talking about an ageing team where you are going to lose the vast majority of them in the next year or two... I wasn’t really surprised how Rassie Erasmus was able to turn the Springboks’ fortunes around. Rassie was a very intelligent player and soon moved into coaching. The reports on him from the players he coached were always outstanding. He is a fantastic coach from a man-management perspective but also technically gifted. Very few players can transition straight into coaching, but Rassie is one of the talented few that could. I think a large part of his success is born out of how likeable he is as a person. When I played against team’s Rassie coached, he was always friendly post-game and was willing to have a beer and a chat. He was interested in people and I got the sense that he is a good person. It’s easy to focus on the technical aspects and all the contributing factors to high-performance but actually being a genuinely good person goes a long way. I think Rassie is that... I watched the 2019 Rugby World Cup final and it was amazing to see what the Springboks pulled off. I know how much it meant to people in South Africa and it was especially pleasing beating England in the final.
Sport24 asked: What did you make of Raelene Castle's sudden exit as Rugby Australia CEO?
Clyde Rathbone: I don’t think it was handled particularly well by the Australia Rugby Union. It doesn’t reflect well on the administration and the health of the game in Australia. There are some fundamental aspects Australian rugby is lacking at the moment and needs to address. On any given day the Wallabies can beat any team, but the reality is that they can’t sustain high-performance against the best teams in the world. The major reason is a lack of leadership that has flowed down throughout the game. I’m not sure if replacing Castle is going to bring that change. It’s a wait-and-see scenario for everyone... New Wallabies coach Dave Rennie (who is a New Zealander) is highly regarded and I don’t think it really matters where someone is from anymore in the modern age of professional sport. Australian rugby needs change and I’m excited to see what he can do with the Wallabies. Post-World Cup there was a real sense we needed to clean out and start afresh. He’ll bring that to the table.
Sport24 asked: Any regrets having never played at the World Cup?
Clyde Rathbone: The disappointing thing was that I never got a chance to have a crack at a World Cup. When I saw the Springboks win the World Cup in 2007, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t imagine what it would have been like to have been part of it. However, I never had any animosity towards the players or the coaching group. I was genuinely happy for them as I know how difficult the environment can be for the players and coaches in South Africa. I know how much they have to put up with and how hard it is to win a World Cup. The Springboks’ success was very motivating for me and down the track I thought I would get my shot with the Wallabies to play in a World Cup. (Rathbone played 26 Tests for Australia from 2004 to 2006). I didn’t achieve the things I wanted to when I set out - I aimed to be a 100 Test-capped player and think I had the potential – but that was how my journey unfolded. Looking back now, I wouldn’t change it as I have a bunch of awesome memories.