As the Springboks carry the hopes of South Africa at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, award-winning rugby writer Gavin Rich offers honest insight into the experiences of past Springbok champions. This extract begins with Gcobani Bobo recounting his debut in the national squad against Scotland.
When we were at school together, Shimmie [Hanyani Shimange] and I often talked about how we wanted to be professional rugby players. As it turned out, when we made our respective provincial debuts, we were playing against each other.
He was on the bench for the Sharks, and I was on the bench for the Lions. Even more coincidentally, our numbers got called out at the same time. So we were standing right next to each other about to make our debuts. Before we ran on, I turned to him and said: ‘We going pro, bro,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, so we are.’
Shimmie and I also got called up to the Springboks at the same time, but I was the one who got the first opportunity to play test match rugby. I was selected to the bench for the first test against Scotland in Durban. It was a very dour game, one of the first where a Bok team was booed by a South African crowd. It left a sour taste in my mouth, and maybe it was a good thing that I didn’t mark that match as the occasion of my first cap.
However, it was also one of my proudest moments, because my dad and I had been estranged, and he and I met up and had a chat for the first time in ages. I remember giving him the jersey that I never played in, the No 22, and he was so proud and also pleased that, despite all my stubbornness and all the crap I had given him, at least here was something for which I was willing to make sacrifices.
He was pretty proud of me.
The next week we played Scotland at Ellis Park, and this time the debut was dinkum. The Lions had given me an opportunity to play rugby professionally, so it was poetic that I got to play my first test match at Ellis Park. I remember when my number was called, there was just a cacophony of sound. In fact, the whole day was just craziness.
That’s what makes Ellis Park such a special venue for the Boks. It starts with the bus trip to the stadium, and continues through the walk around the ground before the game, and then the singing of the national anthem. When you stand in front of a packed Ellis Park singing the anthem, you know this is the real deal.
Not long after running on I sniped my way through a gap, and 70 000 people went berserk. There was this sudden roar that went right through my entire body. It was like, ‘Aaaah … ’ You can’t actually do justice to it with words.
Our Blood is Green: The Springboks in Their Own Words
by Gavin Rich
Zebra Press, a imprint of Penguin Random House
Making your debut in a match against the All Blacks feels like a dream. Your first game and you are up against your arch-enemy, the team every young South African dreams of playing against.
They say your first test goes by very quickly, and it is true. If you ask me about the crowd, I would have to say that I don’t know. What I do remember was that it felt as if there was no space; the field felt too small, and everything you did had to be done in double-quick time or we would be punished by the All Blacks.
My first start was in Durban against the All Blacks in 1996. I was replacing none other than Francois Pienaar, who had been injured in Cape Town the week before and never got to play for the Springboks again. No pressure!
I was fortunate, though, to be making my debut in a successful Bok team, in the sense that the players were experienced; at that point, quite a few members of the successful World Cup team were still playing.
After facing the haka for the first time, you do feel that you’ve done it, you’ve made it as a rugby player. I played against Michael Jones and Josh Kronfeld, both legends of the game, and I swapped jerseys with them during the series.
I also played against Zinzan Brooke. It takes a while, but eventually you realise that the legends you are playing against are also just human.
Peter de Villiers gave me my first Springbok cap, but without wanting to sound arrogant, I felt I’d deserved a chance before that, towards the end of the Jake White era. I’d struggled a lot in 2005, but I was much better in 2006, mainly because when everyone went home for the holidays, I stayed behind in Durban and worked on what was perceived to be the big weakness in my game, which was fielding the high ball.
I sorted that out and played well in 2006 and 2007, and when my brother was selected to go to the 2007 World Cup, I felt I should have been there too. Ashwin Willemse was selected instead, and with all due respect to Ashwin, who definitely deserved to be a Springbok when he was at the top of his game, he was injured in 2007. Jake selected Ashwin out of loyalty, and I think that was one good thing about Jake, but I felt that at 100% I was better than Ashwin at 50%. Ashwin could hardly run at that point.
Anyway, my chance finally came with Peter as coach. My first game was in Cape Town against Italy. It was not an ideal debut game for a wing, as it was very wet, and Frans Steyn was playing flyhalf and was very dominant. But it was still an incredible experience, and I hardly slept the night before.
You look forward to that moment for so long that, when it finally comes, it feels so surreal. Even the team talk was special that day, as was getting on the bus. I had been in that environment for a few weeks already, as we had played two games against Wales and I was in the squad. But I started only in the last game, against Italy. And there is a massive difference between just being in the squad and actually starting.
Yes, when you are in the squad you get a taste of the environment, but when you are actually on the bus, going to the ground, it feels very different. I remember boarding the bus, being driven to the stadium, going on to the field and singing the national anthem for the first time. It is everything you wish for and dream about.
And we won, which was even better.
FOURIE DU PREEZ
What I remember most about my debut was the massive nerves. The one thought that pervaded above all others was that I just wanted to play a second test. I didn’t want to let the team down and for this game to be a one-off, and the experience a one-off.
I made my debut in the match against Ireland in Bloemfontein. The game that started the Jake White era. My focus was on just getting my basics right and being part of a successful system, and getting to play in the second test.
Fourie du Preez