- It seemed mundane on paper … but SA v Canada at the 1995 World Cup proved anything but that.
- The ill-tempered affair would be costly for Messrs Dalton and Hendriks; an unanticipated blessing for other Springboks.
- The Canucks smelled a rat with the floodlight failure that pushed back the kick-off by some 45 minutes.
The match on 3 June 1995 would hardly, under ordinary circumstances, have qualified as being one of those expected to stand out indelibly, exactly two and a half decades later, in your sporting memory bank.
South Africa versus Canada at rugby? A true case of a Canuck “David” tackling the Springbok “Goliath” ... surely?
But the first ever meeting (there have only been two more subsequently, including a 66-7 Bok demolition job at Kobe in recent RWC 2019) between the countries was no ordinary one, that’s for sure ... and also not for the very rosiest of reasons.
It marked the Boks’ third fixture of the unforgettable, home-staged World Cup that year, and the national team’s first tournament appearance a little further up the coast - the former Boet Erasmus Stadium, Port Elizabeth - after successive matches at Newlands.
They had been the emotion-charged, Nelson Mandela-attended opener against Australia (thrilling, key 27-18 win against the holders) and Romania (a less edifying, disappointingly only two-tries-to-one 21-8 triumph).
That the Boks, albeit with a decidedly second-string combo, had so laboured to overcome the Euro minnows a few days earlier suggested that there was a good chance they’d put that to rest by truly thumping the Canadians, albeit sporting a familiar face at centre in Western Province’s later-to-be-Bok Christian Stewart.
Only a few weeks before, Canada’s limitations had been exposed in a 73-7 pasting at the hands of the All Blacks at Eden Park.
Perhaps Canada anticipated that desire and urgency by the bigger rugby power, too ... even if they had shown they were perhaps no mugs at their best by seeing off the Romanians more convincingly (34-3) than the Boks did in their own pool opener in the Friendly City.
They set out a crudely spoiling, unashamedly niggling stall against the host country in a clear wish to frustrate them on what would become an increasingly tempestuous, controversy-marred night in “Die Baai”.
Hardly helping matters was sudden floodlight failure – you couldn’t really blame load-shedding then – of some 45 minutes as the teams finished the anthems, forcing them back into the “sheds” to stew and perhaps see the temperature rise on mutual levels of irritation.
I will never forget the collective groan that went up at Cape Town’s jam-packed, popular River Club in Observatory (I had taken leave from my then job in Hong Kong to come home to sample the RWC vibe for a fortnight) when that happened ... though clouds have silver linings, and it was an opportunity for many thirsty patrons to queue at the counter for a drinks top-up before returning to the big screen.
In a World Cup not without other conspiracy theories as it advanced (remember “Suzie” on the eve of the SA-NZ final?), there were some Canadian mumbles that the lights-off occurrence - ahead of a game where victory would confirm the Boks’ passage to a quarter-final, against Western Samoa at Ellis Park - was somehow deliberate.
The Bok dressing room, their underdog foes apparently learned to their chagrin, was well prepared with exercise bikes to keep the players suitably warmed-up, whereas the Canadian players were left to simply go “cold” in the tense wait for power to be restored.
Just how much the delay affected the humour levels may never be fully known, but what eventually transpired was a blunt, unattractive and mountingly ill-tempered clash.
For the record, a territorially vastly superior Bok outfit - albeit fielding only five members of the XV who would eventually start the goose-pimply showpiece match - ground out a 20-0 result in their favour to clinch the pool honours.
A statistical quirk was that both, strictly industrial tries off a dominant scrum were dotted by “dirt-track” eighth-man Adriaan Richter (now 54) of the Blue Bulls: a carbon copy of the Bok try situation against Romania.
It meant that all four of the blond competitor’s international tries in a 10-Test, roughly three-year career in green and gold came in a productive four-day period for him.
But that night at Boet Erasmus, the Boks - though led by their regular captain and generally cool-headed Francois Pienaar - were seldom allowed to get into any sort of elegant stride, despite fielding a backline with plenty of strike potential.
It may have been below full strength, but the back division against Canada still included the proven likes of Andre Joubert, Brendan Venter and Joel Stransky: yet with the Boks mauling earnestly, broadly keeping the ball among the forwards and the underdogs steely and robust in the tackle, an oil painting was never going to take shape.
Initial, relatively minor tetchy incidents - there were a few instances of Bok players receiving crude “afters” when bundled into touch - almost inevitably then boiled over.
The real volcano, if you like, and something the Canadians might have viewed as akin to a spirited ice-hockey rumble, came when (in-form, remember!) left wing Pieter Hendriks’s marker, Winston Stanley, got to grips with him on the side-line.
It was one of those situations that may simply have ended as a harmless enough, eyeball to eyeball “how’s your father?” as Chick Henderson might well have branded it in SABC TV commentary of that period ... but it flared up, big time, when fullback Scott Stewart sprinted in and appeared to punch (or at very least heavily slap or push) Hendriks from behind on the head.
Within seconds the combative young Bok hooker James Dalton - just his second international start at the time -- had entered the fray: he swears it was primarily as a “peacemaker” although his body language, I have always felt, looked just a tad more Hannibal Lecter than it did Mahatma Gandhi.
Dalton, in his recent, candid book “Bulletproof” with Mark Keohane (Highbury Media) recounts the incident as follows: “Stewart had a go at Pieter ... I ran in to separate the two and I got swung over the advertising boards.
“By the time I got up, Pieter had kicked a Canadian player, Joost van der Westhuizen and Hennie le Roux had thrown punches that had landed and our lock Hannes Strydom was leaving the field with blood oozing from his face.
“Several players could have been sent off for the fight but only Canada prop Rod Snow was singled out for throwing punches: Irish referee David McHugh told (Pienaar) that IRB regulations determined that, as a referee, he had to identify the third man in because it was the view of lawmakers that the third man in would set off a bigger fight.”
Dalton adds that his skipper, Transvaal colleague Pienaar, “vehemently and emotionally” pleaded the front-rower’s innocence with the whistle-man - in vain.
Instead Dalton would join two Canadians (Snow and captain and flyhalf Gareth Rees) in the early-shower procession.
A swift disciplinary hearing was convened, around midnight the same eventful night ... and Dalton also rues, in the book, what he feels was a hindrance to his case on language grounds.
“Two of the three-man panel were French-speaking and we had to wait for the French interpreter before we could start. When I spoke in defence of my actions, however, my English was never translated into French ... the entire proceeding was weighted against me; I was always going to be found guilty.”
Dalton received a 30-day ban, emphatically signalling the end of his maiden World Cup, and Chris Rossouw leapt to centre stage in his specialist berth for the knockout-phase remainder of the tournament.
But the repercussions of the Battle of Boet Erasmus went wider than that.
Hendriks would receive a 90-day ban, having been deemed one of the prime instigators of the mass violence: it was the inadvertent passport for Newlands sweetheart Chester Williams to re-join the Bok plans from injury.
It is history now that his comeback, in the quarter-final romp against the Samoans, was sensational: he promptly dotted four tries, the most prolific haul of his entire Test career between 1993 and 2000, and “Chessie” would become the poignant, lone SA player of colour to earn a tournament winners’ medal not too long afterwards.
Oh yes, that Port Elizabeth fixture was a more earth-shattering one, in so many ways, than anyone could possibly have imagined in the hours and days preceding it.
There were winners and losers in more areas than just on the scoreboard.
Bok starting team that night:
15 Andre Joubert, 14 Gavin Johnson, 13 Brendan Venter, 12 Christiaan Scholtz, 11 Pieter Hendriks, 10 Joel Stransky, 9 Johan Roux, 8 Adriaan Richter, 7 Robbie Brink, 6 Francois Pienaar (capt), 5 Hannes Strydom, 4 Kobus Wiese, 3 Marius Hurter, 2 James Dalton, 1 Garry Pagel.
Subs: Japie Mulder, Hennie le Roux, Joost van der Westhuizen, Krynauw Otto, Os du Randt, Chris Rossouw.
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