Laughing cavalier with real gravitas

 

Gerry Thornleytalks to the ebullient Leinster prop on his life in rugby, his time in Ireland and his plans as he prepares to go home to South Africa

YOU SHOW him the picture of him about to wrap his mouth around a multi-decker sandwich and, as ever, Ollie le Roux laughs. "You don't take life too seriously at the end of the day."

He recalls the brinkmanship between rival South Africa props and their capacity to eat. Citing double cheeseburgers as his favourite choice of food led to an endorsement with the fast-food chain Spur, in which advertisements showed him crawling on all fours toward a double cheeseburger. "I played up to it, but like I said, you shouldn't judge people on what you see."

Certainly not Le Roux. As team-mates will testify with a knowing chuckle, Le Roux has an opinion on most things in life. Well-read, liberal, opinionated and highly engaging, he talks rapidly about a range of subjects for over an hour with no bother to him. He can both play and talk for South Africa.

Everyone loves a rotund, ball-carrying, try-scoring prop and Le Roux is the real thing. The youthful-looking 34-year-old has blown through Leinster and beyond this past eight months like a tornado, defying the knockers by contributing handsomely to their harder edge up front, while making himself hugely popular along the way with players and fans alike. As is his wont.

He finds a quiet corner in an enclosed room inside the David Lloyd Centre in Clonskeagh and reflects on what he hoped would be an adventure. Smiling beneath his spectacles, he concludes in a surprisingly soft accent that it was "an incredible adventure".

He refers often to coming from a Third World to a First World country, notes the relative expense and standard of living compared to South Africa (he certainly knows the value of a euro and a rand), and talks of the increased amount of time he spent with his wife, Mariska, and three young children, Mia (5), Chloe (3) and Donna (who was five weeks old when they arrived) - and of the opportunity to explore parts of Europe they might otherwise have never seen.

If he has any regrets, it is possibly that he didn't put his kids into school, believing at the time the move was a sufficient culture shock in itself, and laughs with continuing astonishment his kids have learnt English with Irish accents: "Man, I just take so many photos, and when I look back at the photos we were always laughing, and we actually get a tear in the eye when we see we had such a great time."

They went to Amsterdam, Lanzarote and Eurodisney in Paris, as well as exploring Ireland, visiting the National Stud and Japanese Gardens, not to mention Quinlan's chicken factory in Dungarvan to see how it compared to his own chicken farm outside Bloemfontein.

If Leinster win this evening, and thereby clinch the Magners League title, Le Roux will return to South Africa on Monday. The Western Stormers have only three fit props and one hooker and so have asked Le Roux to sign a short-term deal until the end of the campaign.

Not that his playing career will necessarily end there. He intends remaining a hired hand for another year anyway.

"As I get to this stage of my career now, I can play rugby - I don't think anyone can doubt that. I've just got so many games and too many experiences. As long as I'm fit and strong and powerful and you can put me on the field, I can play. So I can become a bit of a mercenary. 'Guys, I'm here, if you need me, phone me up at home and I'll help you'."

Home is a house in Bloemfontein and a 400-hectare farm 12.5k outside the city, where his children can ride their quad bikes, amid cattle, sheep and horses. It produces around 600,000 chickens every six weeks, which equates to about 900 tons of meat. "It gives you a lot of stability."

His father, Okkie, was a legendary player in his own right with Western Province in the late 1950s, early 1960s. Okkie gave young Ollie plenty of scrummaging tips and was always supportive, but never too pushy. Attending the famed Grey College academy made a rugby career even more inevitable.

"I was known as one of the biggest rebels who ever went through there, because I hated authority and rules and stuff. But the quality of the players who went through there is just incredible. They get the pick of the crop and it's a real tough, competitive environment. The guys who make it there are good, because all through school it's been a bunfight."

Le Roux represented SA schools at water polo and squash and is a keen golfer and surfer. He says he had a sound, safe upbringing, even if the family home was robbed a few times.

"I won a squash competition and they stole the squash shoes that I'd won. Yes, I was quite heartbroken about that," he admits, smiling again.

Making rapid strides up the underage and provincial ladder, he likes to think he slightly reinvented the role of props in South Africa as a ball-player as well as a scrummager. His timing in every sense was perfect and he made his debut for the Springboks at 21 in the shock 32-15 defeat to England in Pretoria.

His first Springbok coach, Ian McIntosh, and Martiens le Roux, a renowned Springbok frontrower, were big influences; the latter giving him his Free State debut despite a sometimes frazzled relationship.

"I was seen as a really bad rebel and I was a bouncer. I was the friendliest bouncer you ever did see, but I was big enough to look the part. He'd do fitness sessions but I'd say to him you can't break us. And when we were finished I'd sit outside and light up a cigarette, put my ear-ring on and pierce my tongue - my rebel phase," he concludes, laughing at himself.

Le Roux is proud to think he went on to play 54 Tests for South Africa (43 of them as a replacement). Highlights were beating the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1998, and facing the haka for the first time.

"I've done it all now," he thought to himself. "Because facing the haka is something that is very special, and you must start; being on the bench is not the same. Robbie Kempson was sick on the Thursday before the game. I have a lot of respect for the All Blacks and love the way they play, and I enjoy playing against them."

THERE WAS also his sole try for the Boks, against Scotland in the 1999 World Cup, and beating England in the quarter-finals. He describes that try in detail, three dummies in a row according to himself, perhaps exaggerating slightly. "More a centre's try than a blooming prop's try, but I see myself more as a centre than a prop anyway," he jokes.

His try-scoring ways, his all-round game and particularly his opinions polarised opinion of him back home. Water off a duck's back.

"People like to say bad things about other people. There's a saying in life - 'don't tell people about your problems because 90 per cent of them don't care and 10 per cent are glad you have them'. And I find a lot of people would rather criticise something like that than praise it."

A broken ankle at the end of 2002 ended his Test career, and after an injury-bedevilled 2003 he was "given the boot" by the Natal Sharks. He took a year to evaluate why he wanted to play the game, whereupon he was telephoned by the then Stormers coach, Rassie Erasmus.

He'd changed too, having become a father, as both a person and player. He'd also rediscovered water polo, and his enthusiasm for rugby. "The system can take away a lot of your enthusiasm, especially when players get to 29, 30, 31. It's a funny stage in life. You're not a kid any more; you need a different challenge, a different approach. I see that in guys like Brian O'Driscoll and Shane Horgan. That's a hard stage in a player's career. But I luckily got through that."

The reward was, he says, the greatest rugby experience of his career, the 2005 Currie Cup.

"If you look at the Free State side, we were a bunch of rejects that nobody wanted. Only Juan Smith was a recognised Springbok," he says, describing himself, Naka Droetske and Os du Randt as old men.

Narrowly beating unfancied teams all the way through to the final, they encountered a star-studded Bulls side on their own Loftus Versfeldt patch. The Bulls had won the Currie Cup three years in a row and would provide the backbone of the 2007 Super 14-winning side as well as several World Cup winners.

"It was a fight for the whole season and the final was a fight for 80 minutes. We'd practised our drive all week and when they kicked off with about 10 minutes to go, we caught it in our 22, and drove them 50 metres. And to drive the Bulls 50 metres at Loftus - it just doesn't happen. Our scrumhalf kicked what you guys call a great garryowen, and Fourie du Preez, one of the great players in the world, put our number 12 over and we converted it . . .

"And we defended for the last eight/nine minutes. We just smashed them to pieces. It was a five-million-rand team against a 25-million-rand team."

They dominated the Currie Cup again in 2006, and Le Roux sacrificed a third Currie Cup in a row to join Leinster, which, he says, would make a Magners title all the sweeter.

He attributes his left-of-centre, liberal outlook in part to growing up with three older sisters.

"I don't know if I'm 'left'; I've got a realistic view of life. I believe we should judge people by what's on the inside, and not on the outside. In South Africa it's very hard sometimes, because we like to put people in their box, and it's hard to break those preconceived ideas. It's also a challenge."

He describes Nelson Mandela, whom he's met twice, as a saint. He recalls a function prior to the 1999 World Cup, which was built around Mandela's visit. Sitting at a table with a group of businessmen, Le Roux sought to break the ice by plonking a bottle of tequila on the table, only to hear a racist comment from one of them.

"I told him I found that comment disgusting, that he'd never met the man. 'You're so stupid to say that.' It put the people around the table on edge, and Nelson Mandela came and made his speech. He just has this aura of respect around him that is amazing. And when he was walking around the tables he went straight to this guy who made the comment and shook his hand, looked him in the eye and walked away. There's no way he could have heard the comment, and this guy was a blubbering idiot for the next 15 minutes. He was so in awe of Nelson Mandela.

"A guy like Mandela never abused that aura, but it changed that individual. It was amazing to see. It's very rare to meet a man like that, or Desmond Tutu, and reading about what he (Tutu) did for the Truth and Conciliation Commission - he's also right up there. And I think without those guys South Africa would have been a war zone today. Even now, when you see him (Mandela), it's just amazing."

HE WILL return to a country that are the reigning world champions but with political in-fighting and the vexed issue of positive discrimination vis-à-vis the quota system. He gives a long and persuasive argument that "you cannot right a wrong with a wrong, and secondly, rugby is a God-given talent", and recounts an ANC representative addressing the United Nations in 1973 saying: "No person should ever be discriminated against because of his beliefs, his religion or his race" in demanding fair opportunity in sports and hence the sanctions.

"What they are doing now," adds Le Roux, "is exactly what the apartheid era did, and they're being hypocrites."

He forecasts a massive player drain, but believes South African and Springboks rugby can remain strong.

He's glad to be leaving Leinster while still wanted, and also takes satisfaction in seeing the team grow.

"You want to be part of something that's on the verge of something big, and I think if Leinster play their cards right they're going to be one of the big clubs in Europe over the next five or 10 years. I just think if things go right here then I think they can be on a par with the Toulouses, Wasps and Leicesters of the game."

This year's frontrow of himself, Bernard Jackman and Stanley Wright revelled in the harsh winter, which, allied to the pack's skills and increased intensity, has seen a refusal to take a back step to anyone. It has been quite a metamorphosis, though he maintains Irish players need to be more aggressive. The regrets were the losses away to Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup and Magners League.

"We only had ourselves to blame, but those losses will make us a much better team in the future."

He believes he was born to coach, and intends maintaining ties with Leinster, possibly doing some pre-season work with them and hosting Irish players in South Africa. You suspect he could never walk away from the game entirely.

He loves the "beauty" and complexities of rugby, the inner battles and the communal fight, the feeling of satisfaction in a dressingroom after hard work has been rewarded, the life lessons he learns from the game, be it "from jubilation to total doldrums" or vice versa. It stimulates him no end.

He parts company on the topic of Leinster, already something close to his heart: his four man-of-the-match awards; his two tries against Llanelli; beating Leicester in the RDS "in a real physical smash fest"; the grinding wins in Connacht and Llanelli, and the two Munster matches. He got that rivalry, and so too the respectful silence for kicks, save for "one or two idiots" in the home crowd at the RDS.

"I've never heard silence like that in my life on a rugby pitch, and that earned so much respect in my book, because you don't get that anywhere else in the world."

The bigger Leinster and Munster become, the bigger the danger of this being eroded, he warns. But Leinster, with the right signings, can create the kind of squad strength Toulouse have, he vows, and by continually "pushing, and pushing, and pushing" can become the Irish Toulouse. "It's a challenge. It's going to be interesting," he laughs. "I'll watch it from my couch."

Ollie Le Roux Factfile

Date of birth: 10/05/1973

School: Grey College, Bloemfontein

Height: 6ft

Weight: 130kg

LEINSTER CAREER

Official Leinster caps: 15

Points scored: 10 (2 tries)

Senior debut: Magners League, 16-16 draw v Ulster at Ravenhill, 26/10/2007

Magners League caps: 10 (2 tries)

Heineken Cup caps: 5

Heineken Cup debut: 22-9 win v Leicester Tigers at RDS, 10.11.2007

FIRST CLASS CAREER

First Class debut: 1993 (Free State v Northern Transvaal)

SA Provincial career: Cheetahs (1993-'95; 2005-'07: 58 games; 6 tries), Natal (1996-2003; 101 games; 20 tries 1 conversion) Total: 159

Springboks: SA (1993-'94 1997-2002: 54 tests-1 try; 14 Tour matches-4 tries) Total: 68 matches

Super12/14: Natal Sharks (84), Cats (3), Cheetahs (21): Total: 108 (9 tries, 1 con).

SA Schools: 1991-'92

SA Under-23: 1994 (1 match)

SA 'A': 1994 1996 (10 matches: 1 try)

SA XV: 1999 (2 matches)

SA President's XV: 1995 (1 match)

British Barbarians: 2003-'04 (3 matches: 1 try)