Although he finished his career where it started, at the Cheetahs, and ranks winning the Currie Cup with the Bloemfontein team as one of the major highlights of his career, Ollie le Roux will be remembered by many as the ebullient Sharks front-ranker who helped pioneer the concept of the super-sub both at franchise and international level.
Le Roux, possessed of ball skills you wouldn’t expect of a man of his size and playing in his position, spent nine seasons with the Sharks. But his almost decade long stint in Durban may never have happened were it not for an incident that happened in a cross-section provincial game between Free State and the Leopards at the old Olen Park in Potchefstroom in 1995.
“I was playing for the Cheetahs at the start of that season and there were a number of things that had built up to make me unhappy, but the culmination was a very bad game we had in Potchefstroom,” recalls Le Roux.
“Somebody shouted out from the crowd ‘Ollie le Roux, you look like a piggy bank’. It was one of the best chirps ever but my response wasn’t as eloquent. And the guy who had shouted those words was sitting with his whole family. It was reported to the Cheetahs and the coach Nellie Smith decided to discipline me. It was the first time I’d been dropped in my life.
“The thing about teaching people lessons is it normally means you just don’t know how to manage people, as was often the case with James Small in his career. The funny thing though was that word of my being dropped got out very quickly, and I got a call from Ian McIntosh, the Sharks coach, the very night it happened.
“I knew Mac because he had been the Springbok coach when I made my international debut the previous year, and I had also toured with him to Argentina in 1993. Mac said ‘Ollie, what’s the story, I see they have dropped you? Do you want to come to Natal, I am looking for a hooker.’”
Le Roux drove down to Durban to see McIntosh, who he reckons was looking for a hooker in the Tom Lawton mould, the Australian giant who had together with Guy Kebble and Gerhard Harding fronted Natal’s most famous win in the 1990 Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld.
“Mac told me to just get in my car and move my stuff to Durban. Me and Free State scrumhalf Hentie Maartens were together in the deal and we drove down to Durban together. Rassie Erasmus and a few others who were on the fringes of Free State selection and weren’t completely happy came down around the same time after I told Mac about them.
“Rassie played a club game for Durban Collegians but then the next week got selected for the Cheetahs and elected to return to Bloemfontein. So Rassie could so easily have ended up spending his first class career at the Sharks and not at the Cheetahs. Anyway, I reckon that my move came about because the Cheetahs didn’t know how to manage me then.
“Managing people who were different, and again James Small is a classic example, was one of Ian McIntosh’s biggest strengths and I really enjoyed playing my rugby under him. All the players had massive respect for him and he drove the Sharks success story.”
AN UNEDIFYING WELCOME TO INTERNATIONAL RUGBY
There was nothing successful though about Le Roux’s first international match under McIntosh against England in Pretoria. As Bok debuts go, Le Roux’s was not a memorable experience.
“I was selected when I was very young, and as a youngster, you have to earn respect. I didn’t have that at that stage of my career,” said Le Roux.
“Forget the initiation and all that so-called rite of passage stuff, it is when you earn the respect of the players around you that you know you have arrived and you belong as a Springbok. I was one of the youngest props ever to be selected for international rugby. I was just 21 at the time. And we ended up getting properly stuffed in my first test.
“It was the first game of the series against England in 1994. They kicked up-and-unders on us early in the game, which we dropped, and they scored early tries. We were never in the game. Our leaders were all over the place. Although it felt like a big privilege to be there, losing the game spoilt it. Particularly because it was not a game we should have lost.
“In those days, you only gathered as a team a few days before the test match. And we gathered particularly late for that test, because England had played the SA A team in Kimberley on the Tuesday and the selections were made around that game.
“It was great to be recognised and rewarded by the Springboks, but the small window of preparation left us horribly underprepared. I remember feeling very lonely after that game. I had wanted to prove to the experienced guys in the team that I belonged there, but I hadn’t really taken the opportunity. When the side was selected for the second test in Cape Town a week later I wasn’t in it.”
DIDN’T GEL WITH KITCH
Le Roux was on the bench for one test under Kitch Christie, the warm-up game to the 1995 Rugby World Cup against Samoa at Ellis Park, but he and South Africa’s first World Cup winning coach didn’t quite hit it off.
“Unfortunately I don’t believe I am stupid, but if felt like Kitch wanted me to fit nicely into a box. Apart from Francois Pienaar and a few other Transvaal players, I don’t think Kitch rated Afrikaans people for their intelligence. He was happier to pigeon-hole me as stupid, and when I tried to argue with him and reason with him about something he didn’t like it.”
Le Roux also believes it may have been the wrong time for him back then as a mobile prop who played a lot with the ball was still still regarded as a freak in those days. For a big man, Le Roux had astounding ball skills, and apart from playing rugby for South African Schools, he also made the national schools side for waterpolo and squash.
PIONEERING THE SUPER SUB CONCEPT
Those qualities were to work for him though once he started to settle at international level under first Andre Markgraaff and then the coaching of Nick Mallett. It was in fact McIntosh at the Sharks who first started to pioneer the concept of the tactical substitution, and as Le Roux was part of a whole group of top class props at the Sharks in those days that worked out well for them, but it was Mallett who first got the super-sub concept to be successful at international level.
In 1998, when the Bok team coached by Mallett and captained by Gary Teichmann equalled a record for consecutive test match victories, a big part of the success was built around the momentum shift that the South Africans were able to inject later in the game when their super-subs came on.
Le Roux says there was a much more unflattering term for reserves when he first started playing, the exact antithesis of the pizzazz with which the so-called Bomb Squad, the Bok reserves, were regarded at the recent World Cup in Japan. But under Mallett the reserves became a more important part of the team collective, and with himself, the flamboyant and classy Bob Skinstad plus the talented and clever utility back Franco Smith to call on, the coach had the right players to do the job.
“I get so irritated when people misunderstand the concept of super-subs. It was started back then, and it was Mallett who brought it through. Mallett was one of a few Bok coaches who told me I was not inferior to the starting player, sometimes perhaps the converse, and that he needed me to come on and help him win the game for him in the last 30 minutes.
“It was an alien concept back then, but it worked for us. One of the most amazing games I ever participated in was that game against the All Blacks in Durban in that 1998 season. They were up something like 23-5 halfway through the game. But when Bob, myself and Franco came on you could just feel the momentum shift and of course we came back in the last quarter to score a thrilling victory, one of the greatest come from behind wins in international rugby.
“We used to sometimes have arguments about the value of bringing guys on in the team environment. I am not sure Os (du Randt) appreciated having to come off early. It wasn’t understood back then like it is now. I remember Mallett exploding in one lecture session where he pointed out to the players the statistics of my contribution during the 30 minutes I had been on the field in comparison to Os. He said ‘You see, the subs do work, and I don’t want any more about it!’”
LEARNING RUGBY AT THE GREY ‘HIGH PERFORMANCE CENTRE’
Le Roux was brought up in Johannesburg but his father, who played for Western Province back in 1959/60, talked him into going to Grey College in Bloemfontein.
“I probably got my love for rugby from my father, who told me he was known as ‘Wild Man Le Roux’ during his playing days because of the way he smoked the two first team locks off the field in the first Stellenbosch practice session he attended,” says the 54 times capped Bok.
“Even though my parents were initially from the Cape, I grew up in Johannesburg, but my father went to see the Grey headmaster, whom he knew well, and he told him I was a good sportsman. The principal talked him into sending me to Grey, and it was a blessing. Rugby was such a big thing at Grey, I think of Grey College as being as much a high performance centre as a school.”
A TOUGH BAPTISM
After school Le Roux quickly made a name for himself, and like all players who played at that time, he had to endure the incredibly tough baptism of playing against much older players in club rugby.
“The old club rugby system was indeed a tough baptism,” he recalls. “You had older guys in the system like the tough Bester brothers, Andre and Piet. Then you had a masterful scrummager like Dougie Heymans who dished out many a scrumming lesson to a precocious youngster.
“At the time there were a few stories doing the rounds about my work as a bouncer. I was actually a very genial bouncer, I preferred to settle things by suggesting they have a drink, but before my first game against Old Grey, and the feared Bester brothers, Charl Marais told me the Bester brothers were coming for me and that Piet was going to welcome me by saying ‘Welcome to hell’.
“My response to Charl was to say ‘Piet Bester? Meet the devil buddy’. That story has been embellished a bit as if it happened in the game. It didn’t. But what did happen was I got one hell of a welcome to provincial rugby from Transvaal’s tough and aggressive Springbok prop Johan le Roux.
“My first game against him was probably my fourth or fifth at provincial level. Early in the game Johan has the ball and he is running. I shouted “Hey pass Johan, pass.” So he passes me the ball and I turn around and run the other direction. We go into a ruck and from that we score. The next minute the guy smokes me. For the rest of that game he gave me a tough time.
“But then seven or eight years later we playing the old Eastern Transvaal side in Benoni. Myself and Chris Rossouw are now in the Sharks team. Who is playing against us but old Johan le Roux. He’s old now, at the end of his career. And he doesn’t have the guys around him who would protect him like in the old days. His hiding has arrived now. Because I am not a 19 year-old anymore, I am now 28 and Chris is just as mean.
“So I say to Chris ‘Today Johan le Roux is going to get the hiding that I have been waiting to give him since that day’. It ended up with Chris hitting him first. We gave Johan back what he had given me all those years before. Eventually the game is over, we win, and we standing outside the stadium, myself and Chris, waiting for the team bus. We see this 320 diesel Mercedes coming along. We know it is Johan and we are a bit concerned as we are not sure if he might decide to kill us as he has a mean reputation. He is a toughie.
“When he rolls the car up to us and he pulls down the window we say ‘Hey Johan, how is it going?’ But instead of being aggro he is all smiles. He says, ‘It is good to see that at least there are some guys playing the game as it should be played. See you guys later’. That was the way it was back then, he gave me a hiding when I was a youngster, and it was like the circle of life - I gave him the hiding back when I could. The young guys aren’t getting that kind of initiation into the game now.”
REPLACING YOUR PASSION WHEN IT IS OVER IS HARD
One thing about the modern game that Le Roux is particularly concerned about is how the youngsters get picked up straight from school and then spend their entire lives focusing just on rugby. He says it has repercussions later, and he himself says that when it came to the time for him to retire from the game there was a massive hole to fill.
“If you are passionate about rugby how do you replace that passion when your playing career ends? That is what leads to the drinking, the partying too much which keeps putting some guys onto the cover of Huisgenoot,” says le Roux.
“The guys hit hard times because suddenly that structure that was always there is no longer there and they find they have no purpose in life. That is the biggest danger because if you don’t have a purpose and rugby was your only identity then after rugby who are you?
“A lot of guys I know got into serious depression and what people don’t realise is that many players are depressed when still playing rugby. But when you are still playing you have a routine that you have to follow, such as getting up to go and train and building up to each season, that helps you through it.
“But then you get to a space afterwards where you don’t feel worthy and it is a very emotional and bumpy ride. After the World Cup you see a lot of guys who have tasted success looking for a winning team to be involved in because they get addicted to the high that comes with that success, but what if you don’t find it?”
OLLIE’S ADVICE TO PLAYERS NEARING RETIREMENT
Now 47 and still living in Bloemfontein, where he has been successful farming cattle and poultry, Le Roux has a word of advice for players coming towards the end of their careers.
“Leaving rugby is like death. In the sense that you get your finances together, you say goodbye to everyone and then it’s over. But after death there is always a mourning period. And there should be that after you finish your rugby career too,” he says.
“This might sound like really weird advice, but every rugby player should endeavour to be in a position to take a year off after their career ends, to just do nothing. I got that advice from a businessman one day and I didn’t listen. It was a big mistake.
“For a year do nothing, put your money away, make sure you have enough cash flow for that one year. That mourning period is a transitional period and after that year you will be ready for a new adventure in life. It is when you put yourself under pressure to move on too quickly that you make mistakes.”
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