Modern game has proved a leveller for South Africa


AUTUMN INTERNATIONALS:South Africa used to be able to bully their way to victory. But not anymore

”We’re looking forward to going to Ireland in November,” said Springbok captain Gary Teichman after the second Test against Ireland in 1998 at Loftus Versfeld. “So are we,” came Keith Wood’s immediate response.

Ireland may have lost that game 33-0 but they refused to be intimidated. That was the minimum requirement because to accept bullying from South Africa is to guarantee a horrendous and relentless beating. That’s why we love the Springboks – they happily embrace the bad guy role. Young Eben Etzebeth was bewildered this week when only tentatively labelled an “enforcer”.

“In South Africa if you play with the number four on your back it is your role. I know the responsibility of that,” he said.

Looking at the respective forwards who collided back in 1998 it is easy to understand how a constant stream of running battles occurred. “Just one big brawl,” was how Ireland’s number eight that day, Victor Costello, remembers it.

The Boks’ infamous hooker James Dalton was japing away and throwing digs, while monstrous flanker Andre Venter only ever knew how to dominate. Even the greatest scrumhalf of that generation, Joost van der Westhuizen, was up to no good, kicking a grounded Mal O’Kelly. That’s what sparked the ensuing madness. Van der Westhuizen was only yellow-carded.

Paddy Johns, a man who led Ireland with such honesty through the dark years and being cut from a long line of uncompromising Ulster locks, made the decision to fight back. Wood was the obvious and repeat target, mainly because he constantly insisted on carrying into contact.

All hell broke loose when Trevor Brennan arrived on 53 minutes. Not long after, Peter Clohessy followed the Barnhall Bruiser into the fray.

“There were incidents everywhere we went on that tour on and off the pitch,” said Costello. “Including the crowd. They try and intimidate you. You go down to Bloemfontein or Pretoria and the supporters would be banging on our bus and calling you names. It was always going to drift on to the pitch.

“We weren’t the most skilful team, we hadn’t got any consistency of performance that year but we were not going to take it off them anymore. Paddy Johns had enough and, yeah, it became a brawl. Now, were we able to adapt from brawl to performance? No. Were they? Absolutely. But we were going to stand up to them.”

Famed predecessors

It can be taken as a certainty that today’s young Springbok pack will be bursting to live up the reputation of their famed predecessors. “It won’t be like ’98,” Costello continued. “South Africa have grown up a bit, if you like. Bullying is not everything anymore. My problem is I can’t remember an international of note that Ireland have won without Brian O’Driscoll in the past 10 years.”

When it comes to Irishmen beating South Africa, Fergus Slattery is second only to Willie John McBride, who by default of the Lions captaincy is the first among equals from the unbeaten 1974 team.

Everyone in rugby has heard of the infamous “99 call” in the third Test when McBride, like Johns after him, had enough of the isolated assaults on his players. Slattery describes it better than most because the flanker was in the middle of it when JPR Williams flung himself at Moaner van Heerden.

“For the first Test in Cape Town we met a largely Western Province team but then we went to Pretoria for the second Test and they got rid of half the guys and brought in what I call Voortrekkers, Afrikaners, and that didn’t work either . So then, for the third Test in Port Elizabeth, they brought in the gorillas. Plan A and Plan B didn’t work so Plan C was to try and beat us up. We knew it was going to be really physical so we just had to match it. And that’s what we did .”

Some moments in sport can take on mythical status but the “99 call” irks Slattery to this day. “Personally, I think it is greatly exaggerated. The principle of the third Test was they were going to physically have a go at us. And they did but they just weren’t strong enough. It just didn’t work.

“A couple of sides had a go at us. The same thing happened in New Zealand in ’71 in Hawkes Bay. They just tried to kick us out of the park.

“You can’t do that today. You have to remember the game we played and the game these guys are playing now, while not totally different, they are worlds apart. One of the problems we had was if you got the shit kicked out of you – and guys got reefed with studs and really opened up – nothing happened.

“In ’74 in South Africa there was no television. There was no citing. If the referee didn’t pick it up that was it.

“The great advantage players have today is they can go down on the ground with the ball and won’t get the head kicked off them. The injuries you get today are natural injuries!”

Game evolves

We want to steer Slattery back to the point of the article but he found a rhythm and when one of the rugby’s great players is talking about the game, you listen. “The game evolves and it will always evolve. The extraordinary thing about the modern game is how it has evolved.

“In the 1930s it was “first up, first down” – whoever got to the breakdown went in and secured the ball. Whereas in our generation and the generation after us if you were a back, it was a case of “you are a ballet dancer, get out of here!” They ran straight back out into their position. Now, again, it is whoever gets there first, the Brian O’Driscolls of this world, they go in and fight the corner.”

Slattery actually sees the modern game as a leveller, in that the natural Springbok power is not as influential. “If you go back in time the average South African was bigger than his European counterpart. He was probably an inch taller and certainly a stone heavier. And that particularly was the case with the forwards.

“When you are bigger and stronger, like the Afrikaners, who are people from the outback and a lot of them went into farming, they used their physicality because they had it. That became their mentality as well.

“The whole trick about playing against the South Africans was not to let them do that.

“The modern game has somewhat neutralised the South Africans traditional game because all professional players are equal in the sense that they have similar routines of diets and gym work. They all take supplements, they are now all big and strong. People just caught up with South Africa.

“They were never as good technically as they were physically. I would say their scrummaging was sometimes only okay. New Zealand’s strength was in their rucking. The whole principle of New Zealand rugby was once the ball got into a ruck situation they just remove anything in the way out of the way.

“No matter what it was, human beings or whatever, they just got raked out. They just went after the ball. New Zealand played as a machine brilliantly. All eight forwards did it. That was the hallmark of New Zealand rugby.

Left behind

“With the South Africans the physicality was everything. They were ranked number one or number two in the world for 50 or 60 years. I think they have slipped a bit from that position. Australia have closed that gap. If you don’t change with the game you get left behind.”

Costello agrees in the sense he believes Ireland can match their physicality. “They still play to their strength, which is the Afrikaner strength. You can’t get that in the gym. They will try to dominate but Ireland can cope with it.”

It’s enjoyable talking to retired internationals in the lead up to these November matches. They, like the rest of us, have been starved of genuine beautifully brutal rugby for several months. Sure, the Heineken Cup in October whets the appetite but it is the sight of Springboks striding out at Lansdowne Road that boils the blood on a freezing November day.

“Don’t expect the Springboks to come out like Ragball Rovers because they got their “16 injuries” either,” Costello warns. “They can all slot into a very clear pattern of play. That’s where Ireland have gone wrong. Leinster, Munster and Ulster have a way to play rugby but when they go to Ireland they stop playing the way they know because everyone wants to put a stamp on it.

“The way the South Africans play rugby is similar right through their whole country. That’s why you can have players over in France coming in for a week and slotting in. It is a simple brand of rugby – slow, controlled and very much strength organised. They are an arrogant bunch of men. They think they are the best at everything. That comes from the crowd and manifests itself on the pitch.

“Their coach comes over here and has talked about an entirely new Springbok pack but they have a default setting and that is, we are better than everybody. They have absolutely no respect for us,” he continues, with the memories of Dalton punches fresh in the mind.

“Their winger (JP Pietersen) forgetting who he was marking is an example. In modern rugby you do so much analysis of the opposition or maybe you don’t if you are South African, you see what I am saying?

“ That’s the way they are.”

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