In the spirit of greats like Tobias, bin the Bok emblem
Calling the sorry lot currently in the green and gold Springboks sullies those who rose above the political noise to play damn fine rugby
It’s 3.25pm on June 2 1984 at the ugliest rugby ground this side of Carisbrook, and my life is about to change forever.
My brother’s boss, my brother and I are sat together close to where the deadball line meets the touchline at the northern end of the field. They’re not the greatest seats, but since the boss paid for them my brother and I aren’t complaining.
We drove three hours that morning from East London to Port Elizabeth. And here we are: waiting for John Scott’s England to hear the roar that will greet Theuns Stofberg’s Springboks as they emerge from the tunnel at the Boet Erasmus stadium.
Roar the crowd do. But only until a figure as lithe as he is dark dashes into the wintry sunshine, looking incongruous in green and gold. He is Errol Tobias, playing his third Test and his first at flyhalf – the position of Bennie Osler, Hansie Brewis, Keith Oxlee, Naas Botha and a host of others, all of them a whiter shade of pale.
Nothing reassured white South Africans of that era that “ons saak is reg” [our cause is just] like the sight of one of their own in the No 10 jersey directing operations from behind the pack. It was a no-brainer. It was forever. It was a job for a “baas”.
And here’s Tobias, his talent undeniable, his blackness all over, No 10 on his back.
Contemporary reports put the crowd that day at 46,000; interesting considering the Boet’s capacity was 33,852.
Either way that’s a lot of people booing at one man, and boo, howl and jeer they did at Tobias, their own flyhalf, their “baas”.
He is cheered a few minutes after kick-off, but in celebration of the fact that he is leaving the field with what looks like a dislocated shoulder.
The next bit of the story is legend. “You’re putting this into place right now because I’m going back out there to show them,” is the gist of what Tobias is said to have told the team doctor.
Who knows if that’s true, but I know the next part of the tale is because I’m there.
Tobias runs onto the field for the second time that afternoon, and you can hear his footfalls in the sudden silence. Nothing can be more eloquent.
There are other indelible memories of that day; of Carel du Plessis upgrading our seats to the best in the house by barely touching the after-burners but still easing away from floundering defenders to score in the corner not 10m away from us; of Divan Serfontein flinging himself full length at Dusty Hare trying to clear long after SA’s 33-15 victory is assured; of the sheer wonder of a kid at a Test for the first time.
But the feeling of thousands being chilled to the white of their bones by the triumphant return of the black “baas” who refused to be othered into the space they had claimed for themselves alone, a sensation that spread through the stands like news of death, will always be visceral.
Three years previously I had slept over at my other brother’s house on two Fridays in August and one in September. He was the only family member who had a television, and we would get out of bed in the frigid dark to watch the Springboks play the All Blacks. We saw a lot more than rugby on that September morning. It was Eden Park. It was 1981. It was buzzing aircraft and flour bombs.
Some people flee to sport because the real world is too boring or inconsequential or is plainly awful. You can spot them by the unhealthy seriousness they bring to the triviality of what happens, and doesn’t happen, on the field of play. In their quest to escape what’s real they infect the unreal with a twisted sense of reality.
I’m not among these pitiful souls. Instead, since June 2 1984, I’ve been drawn to the trees of reality in the forest of unreality that is sport; oaks – and okes – like Tobias.
But sometimes the unreality of sport is so stark it transcends itself and becomes the real. Like it did in Mendoza on Saturday when the Springboks played less like headless chickens and more like the decapitated heads.
The Boks didn’t blow it against Japan at the 2015 World Cup. They were beaten by a team who had come to play and were not afraid to try and win, and to hell with whatever anyone thought of that idea.
Saturday was different. Argentina play the messiest rugby imaginable: chaos theory on the hoof in which much more seems to go wrong than right. They make excellent watching, not least because it’s a treat when their invariably big ideas translate into big results. Mostly you’re watching committed, talented but not overly skilled players messing up in entertaining fashion. What’s not to like?
They followed the same script at the weekend, making fewer metres kicking, running and passing than their opponents – who made more than double the number of passes – they came second in the possession and territory stakes, they had fewer clean breaks and offloads and beat fewer defenders, and they conceded one more penalty and one more free kick.
Yet they also won the greater percentage of rucks and mauls, conceded fewer turnovers, tackled more effectively, and won a bigger share of their scrums and lineouts.
None of which matters. What does is that they played like a team: with heart. And that they were up against a motley bunch who played as if they were in dire need of heart transplants.
The only one among them who looked as if he had come to play and was not afraid to try and win was Aphiwe Dyantyi, whose youthful errors were thus forgivable.
But the rest of SA’s players are unforgivable, and have been for a while now. So it’s time to enforce another reality.
That the Springbok emblem that remains on SA’s jersey despite all the wrong it has stood for, has less to do with history and tradition and more with the fact that it makes money.
But even money cannot justify not doing the right thing. The right thing is to stop calling this team Springboks and to remove the emblem from their jerseys.
They don’t deserve the honour, but it’s not about that. It’s about proper Springboks not being sullied by their association with this sorry lot, people who rise above all the nonsense about patriotism and all the political noise to play damn fine rugby, people who know passion is bigger than pain, people who deserve better.
People like Errol Tobias.