Tackling rugby

2013-01-22 11:58

Chatting to Schalk Burger at the Stormers’ training camp in Hermanus the other day, I felt a surge of empathy.  He was talking about his year-long struggle  to get his wounded knee fit for battle.  Not one to dwell on pain, what he wanted to focus on was the elation of being back on the field.  Nevertheless, he had to concede that he was still feeling his way; dancing on the fine line between getting fit and game-ready and not putting too much stress on his dodgy knee.

I know there is no immediately obvious connection between writing a book and being a Springbok but that is where my head is now: I’m on a deadline  to produce a book about the Springboks.

Writing a book involves a constant battle against indolence and distraction.  Getting into the flow of it is painful and involves sacrifice (no drinking because you can’t write on a hangover, no internet, minimal socialising).  But once into  it, there is a high like few others.   It is such a protracted and intense exercise that I inevitably find myself  identifying with the spirit of the subject matter.  For the book I’m now writing, about the Springboks, it’s that constant, focused search for excellence in the face of self-doubt and knock-backs like injury and rejection. And then the high of the game itself (or of a sustained period of writing that works) followed by either the euphoria of a win (or of finally finishing the damn book followed by glowing reviews and good sales) or the despair of  failure (bad reviews, poor sales).   Only for the cycle to begin again: the attempt at redemption or the regaining of that elusive high. It’s addictive, bordering on obsessive.  But without that single-mindedness, you just won’t make the cut in either field.

The big difference between writing and rugby is that the first is deeply solitary and the second the ultimate team activity.  At Hermanus last week I was again struck by the sophistication of thought and process that goes into the creation of a successful team.  It doesn’t happen by accident or by osmosis.   Particularly at this level,  those in charge know that unless the guys  are bonded and playing for each other, things fall apart.

This 36-man squad was spending the week in Hermanus to face and conquer the potential divides and hammer out strategy for the Super 15 campaign. Potential for tension include incorporating the returning injured – such as Schalk, Bryan Habana, Andries Bekker, Siya Kolisi and Nizaam Carr  – and the new  recruits – Elton Jantjies, Jaco Taute, Pat Cilliers and Ruan Botha.  The young pretenders who had shone in the temporary absence of some of injured old guard have to get back into the queue for incumbency in their chosen positions. The newcomers have to be inculcated into the Stormers culture and made to feel part of it.

Making it work takes generosity of spirit and sophisticated man management.  There is such a diversity of background here.  Like Jean and Schalk,  the star recruit, Elton Jantjies, was born and bred in the Cape and his first language is Afrikaans. But his home for his first 12 years before the family moved to Gauteng was the deprived Cape Flats township of Elsie’s River, as opposed to the leafy suburbs and excellent schools of Paarl.   Now, he says, his haunts are Newlands  and Camps Bay,  a revelation after a childhood confined to Elsie’s River. Gio Aplon comes from Hawston, the township adjourning Hermanus, to which coloured people were once restricted.

Head coach Allister Coetzee understands where the black players come from and what it takes to overcome this  early disadvantage, having  trod the same path himself as a coloured player in the apartheid era. He has transcended it with character and maturity – and without the chip on the shoulder which weighed down Peter de Villiers.

And Springbok captain, Jean de Villiers, in his subtle, under-stated way,  is genius at creating an inclusive spirit.  Both black and white newcomers talk of how, with warmth and humour, he instantly makes them feel part of the team .  De Villiers himself, with that resourcefulness  and positivity these top players all seem to possess, argues that these differences are an advantage rather than a challenge.  They spark a vibrancy that energises the team and creates deeper relationships.

The other distinction between rugby players  and writers is that the former get to run around in the sunshine inbetween dips in the ocean to cool down. Unlike the writer, who must remain chained to her desk.

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