In many ways I am a romantic!
I believed that rugby was invented by a guy named Webb Ellis at Rugby in 1823 when he picked up a ball and ran. Whether this be true or nay, I cannot tell … however I have always been a lover of the game, since about the age of four or five when I watched our town club beat a much vaunted team from a far bigger club. The key to that love was someone running the length of the field to score a try! The town club also boasted the only man I know, who has kicked a penalty goal from a yard, or so, outside his own 25 yard line … admittedly with a howling following gale wind … yes Buks Marais played for Stutterheim RFC before becoming a Springbok.
For me rugby has always been about running with the ball, the sidestep, dummy or handoff being the keys. The forwards were there to do a job … get the ball, and the backs were there to score tries. In South Africa I was often told that I should watch schoolboy rugby, where my vision of the game would be played out. However I remember great teams from the past who played that running game. Not least the 1955 Lions side that toured South Africa, they boasted Cliff Morgan at fly half Jeff Butterfield at Centre and Tony O’Reilly on the Wing, this is the only side I know that was cheered by the South African spectators while they booed their own team. They played rugby as it was meant to be played! perhaps this quote about Cliff Morgan illustrates the point, “The South African newspapers dubbed him “Morgan the Magnificent” and the level to which his influence was thought key was reflected in the frenzy of coverage his injured ankle received as the fourth test came around. Although he played, he was not fully fit and the Lions could not prevent the Springboks squaring the series. But his reputation was already made and the memory of that tour proved long-lived.”
In the 1980’s South Africa had a kicker of Jonny Wilkinson’s stature … Naas Botha … dubbed “Nasty Booter” by the British press when he, almost single handed, crucified the 1980 British Lions, in spite of the Lions unleashing the rolling maul to which South Africa had no counter. His influence on South African rugby was so great that we could only play 10 man rugby, mauling and brawling until they were in Botha’s kicking range. Gone were the days of great centres, like John Gainsford, who ran into their tackles offloading at the last moment so that the man outside had a better chance of scoreing. In fact South African rugby through the 80’s and 90’s was typical of English rugby now … gone are the Will Carlings and his compatriots who could run with the ball.
Southern hemisphere rugby has always been tough, but generally there have been exceptional backline players who could run with the ball. It took South Africa 15 years from Naas Both’s retirement in 1992 to relearn the old art of playing rugby where there are 15 men in a team dedicated to creating the opportunity to cross the opponents try line. Throughout the 1990’s I did not support the South African side as they were not playing rugby as it was meant to be … In pubs during a test I risked life and limb as I supported the opponents when they were playing the better game.
When in the pub the other evening, I asked one of the celebrating English fans after their win against Australia … “but can they score a try?”, I, think I came within an inch of having my head knocked off fortunately his girlfreind intervened … and I was told I know nothing about the modern game tries are no longer important. Well, brawling and mauling has been part of the South African game for as long as I can remember, but the great sides, that are remembered, are those that still remember Webb Ellis picking up the ball and running with it! I think back to the 1955 Lions side, South African sides that included people like Tom van Vollenhoven (more reknowned for his Rugby League exploits) Australian sides with Campesi. The English side with Will Carling, Rory Underwood and the likes …
Yes, I think South Africa will win on Saturday … not because I am South African but because they play the more dynamic rugby. I hope, they win on Saturday … not because I am South African but because it will signal that the spirit of Webb Ellis is alive in spite of the belief that brawling and mauling is what the modern game is about … I still remember my old school war cry “kaba kaba kalezani … ewe i amadoda!” roughly translated “catch catch run fast … yes you are men!