- Ex-Springbok wing Dean Hall, who featured in 13 Tests from 2001 to 2002, talks about the agony of undergoing nine knee operations and missing out on Rugby World Cup selection.
- Hall addresses the comparisons drawn to the late Jonah Lomu and how Cheslin Kolbe has debunked the myth that bigger is better, with match-winning displays.
- He also assesses the rivalry between the All Blacks and Springboks and reveals whether, from his viewpoint, the All Black class of the early 2000s were superior to the current crop.
Sport24 asked: How tough was it not leaving the game on your terms?
Dean Hall: It’s always difficult not to leave the game on your own terms. Even though I played rugby for 13 years, mine was a career cut short by injury. I’ve had nine knee operations – five on the one knee and four on the other - over the years and eventually that cost me my career. Looking back it was probably a result of the cortisone use which, understanding the effects of it now, dehydrates your cartilage. It’s a quick-fix to get players back onto the field but the long-term effects are severe. I played my final Test for the Springboks in 2002 and not going to the 2003 World Cup played on my mind. A World Cup is such a fantastic tournament to be part of and it’s a great platform to really excel and put yourself forward as a player. Before my injuries, I was in a good space as a player and was coming into my prime. I believe I would have offered some sort of impact at the event. I missed out on that World Cup and the infamous Kamp Staadraad which preceded it. I wasn’t at the camp but was very close to some of the players who were part of it. I heard some of their stories which made the eyebrow rise a bit. I understand what was trying to be achieved but the execution of it wasn’t tailored to professional athletes. I’m not here to dig up old bones and enough has been said about Kamp Staaldraad but I’m sure there’ll be a few books to still come out about it down the line.
Sport24 asked: How did you feel about being called the ‘White Lomu’?
Dean Hall: I’m still not fond of the comparison because Jonah Lomu was a legend in his own right. He was an unbelievable impact player and changed the game of rugby as we knew it. However, I can understand the reference because I felt that there were elements of his game which I mirrored. I was very much an impact player and would come off the blind wing and hit the line as hard as I could. I would try to break the advantage line and the key to that type of approach to rugby was to generate momentum. Playing against Jonah was a great experience. The harder you tackled him and got stuck in, the harder he would come back at you. He weighed 120 kg but could run the 100m in 10.8 seconds. It was hard to stop a man like that when he was going flat-out. We had a team strategy where one of us would fly into him just to slow him down and then somebody would come in from the side and take him down. Only afterwards did we realise that his energy levels were being sapped because of his kidney problems… I swapped jerseys with him after the 2001 Test in Auckland. I’m very honoured to have one of his jerseys and it’s one of my most prized possessions. Off the field, Jonah was a softly spoken individual and I found him to be quite introverted in certain aspects.
Sport24 asked: How would you assess the Springbok-All Black rivalry?
Dean Hall: There has always been a lot of respect between the two teams and there always will be. The Springboks instinctively step up to the big games against the All Blacks and will challenge the men in black when they tackle them in the 100th Test match between the two nations in Dunedin in September. I faced the All Blacks on four occasions and unfortunately never tasted victory. We came close a few times but they had a very good side at that stage. I would definitely say the class of 2001-2002 was stronger than the current crop of All Blacks. It all comes down to combinations and the combinations in the team from the early 2000s functioned better than some of the combinations that they have at the moment. The All Blacks have lost of a little bit of that dream team which they had over the years. On-field, we have certainly caught up to them and the All Blacks will underestimate the Springboks at their peril when the sides clash in the Rugby Championship. Off-field, I think the rugby structures in New Zealand are really good and they have a fantastic feeder system. I’m not saying that ours are bad but they seem to be more organised in terms of structures.
Sport24 asked: Your view on Jeff Wilson’s top-five Super Rugby players?
Dean Hall: I see Jeff has named Richie Mo’unga as the greatest-ever competitor in Super Rugby since its inception in 1996 followed by Dan Carter, Morne Steyn, George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens. All of them are fantastic players and it’s a pretty good list. However, Carter would be top of mine. From a flyhalf perspective, he was probably the most complete No.10 I have ever seen. Carter brought a great attacking game, was sound on defence, was an effective passer and had good control with the boot. That said, Mo’unga is a great player and has been influential winning five titles with the Crusaders. The Crusaders have always been a fantastic outfit. I played in Japan for the Ricoh Black Rams with Scott Robertson, who is now coaching the men from Canterbury. Even though Scott has done really well with the Crusaders, the All Blacks structures like to have experience. I probably would have included him on the coaching staff but not as All Blacks head coach. I think that was the right call because it’s a position which needs to be earned. You need to gain your stripes before you take on a role like that. However, down the line Robertson could take the All Blacks hot-seat. The 46-year-old brings a lot of his modern game ideas to the coaching structures which is really nice to see.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the incumbent Springbok wing options?
Dean Hall: I have been watching Cheslin Kolbe for Toulouse this season and he has been phenomenal. I have never seen a player step like that in my life. Being a big winger, during my career I hated playing against smaller guys who could step like that. As a big winger you have to counteract their stepping with angles and by showing them one way and then closing down the space. However, when it comes to Kolbe it’s easier said than done. I would certainly put Cheslin up there as the best backline player in the world at the moment. He’s a winger who is a great finisher, creates opportunities when he gets the ball and, based on how well he is playing in France at the moment, he’s in a class of his own. The wonderful thing about rugby is that it accommodates all sizes. At the end of the day, it’s the impact the player brings on the field and whether they are effective. No matter how big or small he is, the fact is Cheslin is effective and that is what is most important. As far as Makazole Mapimpi, he has come on nicely and is really doing well. He’s got the pace, the balance and is a proven finisher... In terms of wing play at large, I would like to see impact players like we had during my playing era. The defences have become very structured and the wingers today rely on getting the ball into space and then working their magic. Whereas, during my playing days it was all about the blind winger coming off the blind side and hitting the line at pace and trying to create that momentum and breaking down the defensive lines. That is certainly something that can be looked at in the modern game especially with these structured, organised defences in operation.
Sport24 asked: How will Jacques Nienaber handle being head coach?
Dean Hall: I think Jacques has a tough task as Springbok head coach because he doesn’t have a lot of time to build or get back to the structures that worked at the World Cup. He has to return to what worked and build his strategy from there. Jacques has had an interesting journey. He started as a physiotherapist but then became defence coach. That is where he really earned his stripes because he made a difference coming in and implementing the defensive strategy. In most cases, defences do win games. I have always believed that if you have a strong defensive team, it’s easy to build the attacking element. He gained experience as defence coach first for Western Province and then for Munster. I’ve got full faith in him and know he has great support from (director of rugby) Rassie Erasmus as well. Those two make a fantastic team and there is no doubt that Jacques will have plenty of input from Rassie. Through all the teams I was involved with, Jacques has always been a great team man and he has come a long way as a coach. He has been around winning structures, knows what works and he will follow his strategy. In terms of Rassie, I have known him for many years, having been teammates and even back when he was a player he was strategic-minded. He brings so much strategy to any game and he is definitely the brains behind the Springbok operations.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the impending British & Irish Lions series?
Dean Hall: I would have to agree with Willie John McBride who said that “this is a non-tour without crowds.” I honestly think that the tour should probably have been postponed. It’s going to be a difficult tour from the crowd perspective if no or few spectators are allowed into the stadiums. The British & Irish Lions draw a lot of strength from their travelling supporters and not having them is going to offer a whole new dynamic. However, the Lions will be playing for pride and it’s imperative for the Springboks to get the first win. It would create momentum, which is really important for us. Beating the tourists is not going to be an easy task and the Springboks shouldn’t take it for granted. If you look at the 37-man squad Warren Gatland has selected they have some big centres in there and it underlines what type of rugby they are going to look to play. They are really going to hit hard in the attacking line. They are intent on using their big ball-carriers to try and get over the advantage line. You can never write off the Lions and they will be coming to South Africa with a point to prove.