John Robbie: 2023 World Cup can be catalyst for change in South Africa
Former Ireland scrumhalf says tournament would be ‘marvellous’ for adopted nation
John Robbie in action for Ireland. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
“I’m here 36 years,” says the man who still sounds like he’s from Greystones.
“I’m very much a South African now.”
John Robbie lacks the ability to sit on the fence. Capped nine times by Ireland between 1976 and 1981, the scrumhalf made Bill Beaumont’s 1980 Lions tour, starting the 17-13 victory at Loftus Versfeld.
Remarkably, it was his only Test match win. South Africa - the country, the people and the airwaves - mushroomed around him. Transvaal’s record appearance holder never translated into full Springbok status, but Robbie sailed through a journalistic squall that only recently calmed.
“I was on the bench four times for the Springboks. England and South America in 1984. I played against the South Sea Barbarians but they didn’t award caps. I always joke with Brian O’Driscoll’s dad, Frank, who played twice for Ireland against Argentina, and I played twice for South Africa yet neither of us got a cap. We formed an unlucky club.
“But that’s ancient history.”
A rough week in rugby politicking ends with an awkward blazer luncheon at the Aviva stadium today. Suggested topics of conversation in the IRFU box: calling bullshit on €3 tickets. Jacob Zuma’s rape trial. Durban as a holiday destination. South Africa’s current sovereign credit rating of BB+.
“Sometimes referred to as ‘junk,’” says Philip Browne.
“You can’t do any more presentations,” replies SA Rugby chief executive Jurie Roux.
Last time South Africa was caricatured in such devilish fashion on a global scale Mel Gibson was still playing Martin Riggs (Lethal Weapon II, “Diplomatic immunity,” etc. . .).
The wonder is how long this messy tit-for-tat letter writing will linger after the World Rugby Council have their much protected conclave on November 15th.
“I know Ireland would put on a fantastic World Cup,” says the 61-year-old Robbie. “I know Hugo MacNeill and Dick Spring very, very well. I know the work that went into the Irish bid.
“But you have to have faith in the committee of experts that came up with the recommendation. And it would be marvellous for South Africa. We all fondly remember 1995 and Mandela giving Pienaar the cup.
“South Africa is a different country now. We have shocking leadership. It is quite a negative place at the moment as we have a corrupt president. The country really needs something to aim at.
“The bid was superb, it almost provided a lesson for the country as everyone, at all levels of society, came together. The stadiums are all there.
“What goes on at the top echelons of rugby is a mystery to many people. I do know one thing. Billy Beaumont is a fine guy. If he’s running rugby the one thing I would guarantee is that it will be done fairly.”
Spring and Bernard Laporte vehemently disagree. Not about Beaumont’s integrity, but the perceived narrow view adopted by this technical review group led by chief operating officer of Rugby World Cup Alan Gilpin.
“Either way there will be a lot of tears shed.”
He’s up and away. Habit. Thirty years on Talk Radio waking people up, ferrying them to work, questioning the establishment, he knows to answer obvious questions before they are asked.
“The concern would be the crime situation, which is serious. But dig down into the crime statistics. The majority of crime is local crime, it is family crime, it is crime where the victim and the perpetrator know each other.”
This does not compute on Lansdowne Road. The Irish bid scored the same on security as South Africa and France, despite a recent state of emergency, leaving Spring, MacNeill and the IRFU privately disgusted. Laporte took his odium to the masses, breaching the process’s code of conduct.
Bitterness prevails in this part of the rugby world. Robbie only sees South Africa’s equal measure of joy and suspicion.
“Remember the 2010 soccer World Cup? The English tabloids warned of blood in the streets, of kidnappings, yet there wasn’t a single serious incident because the country was prepared and fans were given information of dos and don’ts. In the same ways there are areas of Dublin or Limerick or wherever, as a tourist you wouldn’t wander into them in the middle of the night. There are areas in South Africa like that.
“Don’t get me wrong. Crime is a massive issue in this country. No question. Violent crime. Drugs. All massive issues. But everyone has bought into bringing this World Cup in 2023. Government, policing, civil society. Look at the track record of hosting tournaments in South Africa.”
We show him Browne’s leaked letter to Brett Gosper.
“I do have two hats on but my feeling is a group of experts put together a report, surely you have to back those experts. Presumably they are not stupid and don’t have ulterior motives.
“I find it incredible there is a secret ballot after the experts have reported and made their recommendation. Why not have a vote beforehand saying, ‘We will trust the final decision?’
“In South Africa, having been cheated out of the 2006 soccer World Cup when Charlie Dempsey, this crooked Scottish New Zealander, abstained from the vote which meant Germany got it, I think the South Africans are very suspicious.
“Look, we put in the work, produced a killer bid and now almost as if the game is over and the result is there, people are still complaining. The reaction in South Africa is that’s just not sporting.”
Robbie accepts the SA Rugby ticketing strategy sounds a little far-fetched but notes the emotional aspect of their bid. South Africa needs this on a social and sporting level more than France or Ireland.
“South Africa is screaming out for change. We have to get rid of this corrupt government and I think if things go well and the right people get in we could get a mini-reoccurrence of what happened when Mandela came out of prison in 1990, and this country is going to take a leap forward.
“The World Cup would benefit from that. Because it is hugely important to South Africa, which is why people from all walks of life, including the deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, who has a wonderful record in Ireland in terms of the decommissioning of the IRA guns, was part of the delegation that gave guarantees far in excess of the minimum financial guarantees. That is an indication of how important it is at all levels.
“The atmosphere over here is more of suspicion - why has the decision not been accepted the way we accepted it when it went against us in the previous three bids?”
Maybe the governing body considered the dire need to ensure a pillar of rugby union does not crumble before our eyes. After the All Blacks 57-0 humiliation in Albany the Springboks, as an entity, seemed in danger of going the way of the Bluebuck or dearly missed Cape Warthog.
“Last year was an unmitigated disaster but when you have a coach come in and is not allowed pick his own coaching staff, lack of preparation, there were reasons for what happened.”
Robbie assures us Rassie Erasmus - “regarded as a bit of a loose canon in South Africa” - will have a tougher time at home than his time with Munster. The Rand’s weakness leading to a European exodus and quotas, that dirty word, are mentioned.
“Not to pick on merit or even a suggestion not to pick on merit is anathema to sports fans but look at it this way: as somebody who nearly played for the Springboks and has missed out on various opportunities in other fields I think what you have to do is say for over 100 years there was a much bigger quota system in operation. Whether it was the economy, jobs, the vote, rugby - they were given no chance. That has to be said.
“In time we are going to see the situation normalised. This is the key issue - you cannot wait another 100 years, be it land or business or rugby, you have to speed it up. Quotas are a rather clumsy way of doing it. The idea is to transform everything in the country but when you put numbers on it and you have young black players coming into the Springboks team people say ‘Ah, he doesn’t deserve the jersey.’ Perish the thought he doesn’t play well on his debut. It is a very difficult situation. The powers that be say, yes, get a balance to the side but when two players are equal let’s give the black guy a chance.
“When the Springboks win there is very little talk of quotas. When they lose . . .
“The quota system is trying to realise the unbelievable potential in the country. Look at Irish rugby. I see these big country men who before professionalism would have been Gaelic footballers who might play rugby in the winter but now they can earn a living from rugby and are transforming the game in Ireland.”
We mention Tadhg and Seanie.
“I was down in the Eastern Cape recently speaking at a school, Gayle College, where the great Springbok fullback HR de Villiers went, and it used to be all Lilywhite but is now 90 per cent black, and the standard of rugby was unbelievable. When these guys come through the rest of the world better watch out. It’s something the country has to go through. Overall the quota is a positive thing, despite its problems.”
The interview ends with talk of a new golf tourism venture and one of his last newspaper columns: “The day a great number eight saved my life.”
“Willie Duggan and I were very different. I was Leinster captain and very much into everyone conforming to team spirit while Willie was a loner. We worked out a way. I was terribly sad to hear his passing but laughed to hear he was 25 minutes late for his own funeral!
“One day you are the youngest in the dressing room and seemingly the next, you are a grandfather and your teammates are dying,” Robbie signed off.
“Smell the roses.”