Brothers in black and white

2004-05-21 07:54

Cape Town - Danie Gerber has never met Kanogo Njuru and he probably never will.

But hidden somewhere in a tiny flat 10 000km from South Africa is black-and-white evidence that proves, without a doubt, that the two men are brothers.

It's there, hanging up in a cramped cupboard, amongst the thermal tops and thick ski jackets - a jersey that will forever bond two men for whom rugby is the only common denominator.

After all, what could a German-speaking Swede, who never picked up a rugby ball until he was 19, possibly have in common with a Springbok legend and maybe the finest centre of all time? And why am I dropping the names of Bok contenders Bob Skinstad, Richard Bands, Breyton Paulse and Neil de Kock into the same paragraph?

You'll find the answer back in Stockholm, in that third-floor apartment overlooking one of the Scandinavian city's few rugby fields - this is ice hockey country, after all.

It's where Kanogo, the 31-year-old captain of Sweden's national rugby team, known as the Three Crowns, shares his space and his secrets with two team-mates from the Hammarby club: Freddy, a robust eighthman who laboured his way through New Zealand a few years back, "just to play some rugger"; and Robin, a boy from a broken home who dreams of one day hooking for a Super 12 side.

They've no doubt sneaked into that cupboard many times and pulled out their roomie's proudest memento - the jersey that ties together all the threads into an unbreakable bond: a black-and-white hooped top with the unmistakeable Barbarians logo imprinted on the left breast.

The real thing

But this is no replica, bought while on one of Kanogo's rugby sojourns to New Zealand, England, Singapore or sunny SA. And no one gave it to him as a gift. On the back of the jersey is a large number 13. "Just like Danie Gerber," he says, awestruck. "I still can't believe it."

It's the real thing.

But before I explain to you how a Swede of all people got to play alongside his heroes for the Baabaas, cast your mind back to 1983, and the height of South Africa's sporting isolation. Danie Gerber and Errol Tobias accepted an invitation from the Barbarians to turn out for the world-famous invitational club against Scotland.

Wearing his lucky number 13 jersey, the mercurial Eastern Province wizard weaved his high-speed magic on the playing fields of Europe for the first time.

Now fast forward to a bitter and biting November day in England in 2002, when Kanogo Njuru joined the same exclusive club. And what's more, he did it in the number 13 jersey - just like Gerber had done nearly 20 years before.

Nine Springboks

What was I saying about unbreakable bonds?

It didn't matter to Barbarians president Micky Steele-Bodger that Kanogo, who has a Kenyan father and a Finnish mother, doesn't hail from a traditional rugby-playing country. Sweden, with its player base of just 5 000 die-hards, had produced a gem of a centre, and that was enough to convince the selectors to welcome him with open arms into rugby's most exclusive brotherhood.

On Saturday, this tradition will continue when the Barbarians will once again take to the field. In their ranks will be no fewer than nine past and present Springboks - the four I mentioned earlier in the piece together with Mark Andrews, Andre Vos, Ollie le Roux, Stefan Terblanche and Cobus Visagie.

These guys will never have heard of Kanogo Njuru either, but they sure as hell know Danie. And as they run out onto the Murrayfield turf, those memories of Gerber slaying the Bravehearts all those years ago may just come flooding back.

As Le Roux told my fellow columnist Mark Keohane on his website on Thursday, "I have played against the Barbarians and I have played for them. The build-up when you play for them is like nothing in world rugby. I look at the players around me and it's like making your Test debut all over again. You can't but help feel like a young kid.

A ticket to dream

"There's a tremendous buzz in the Barbarians side and any player who gets an invitation to play should feel honoured. It is one of a rugby player's great experiences."

For the pros, the black-and-white jersey is an opportunity to travel back in time, back to an era without contractual obligations. For one day at least, these children of the money era want to feel what it's like to be an amateur again.

And for the amateurs like Kanogo, who play out mostly anonymous careers in the backwaters of Europe, that strip immortalised by Gareth Edwards represents a ticket to dream, a chance to side-step onto the big stage, and an opportunity show the world that rugby's family is bigger than we thought.

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