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Rugby World Cup 2011 exclusive: John Allan

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John Pinching talks to ex-Springbok hooker John Allan

JP: Tell me more about the work you do with the South Africa Rugby Legends Association (SARLA)

JA: When we started ten years ago the original aim was to encourage kids to get involved with rugby at a young age, however, after going into the townships we realised we had to do a bit more in order to make a difference. Setting up programmes, leagues, facilities and coaches has made it sustainable.

JP: How much impact has SARLA had in the last 10 years?

JA: When we started, rugby was still a white dominated sport, with an 80/20 split-now it is 60 per cent black and forty per cent white. The problem we now have to tackle is not the quantity, but the quality. It takes money to get high performance, especially in the era of professionalism. We need the funding to develop academies, identify talent and build people up from a nutritional perspective, by putting them on conditioning programs. You have to look at it from the physiological perspective. A lot of Afrikaners come out of the womb already 6ft tall, so they have the ideal stature, but it is also important that we see black faces on the field of international rugby.

JP: Has political stability made your job easier?

JA: It has made it easier to a point, but there are still a lot of challenges in this country; predominantly educational. There is a real emphasis at the moment on teaching people to, for instance, build houses rather than get involved in sport. Although the politicians would love to see a team of black players, at SARLA we don't see colour-we want to give people opportunities regardless of the colour of their skin. Ultimately, if you spend money on sport and apply an educational model to it-teaching life skills and informing young people about AIDS and drugs-it will have a knock on effect and the quality of person produced will transform, not only rugby, but other sports too. Using this method would have a galvanising impact on wider society.

JP: South Africa has won the World Cup twice, what could a third trophy do for the county?

JA: If the Boks won the Rugby World Cup again it would clearly show the amount of talent that we definitely have here, but I think they've got their work cut out to retain the trophy. If they do it will lift the whole spirit of the country. When won it after Mandela brought the whole nation together in 1995, and that helped to reinforce the unification process. In terms of the future, by sheer numbers, we should get people of colour coming through-can you imagine in the future if we find those black pearls-we'd never lose a world cup!

JP: Tell me about your upbringing and when you first started playing rugby?

JA: I was born in Scotland and at first I didn't play any rugby. I was a soccer fanatic, living in Glasgow and supporting Rangers-rugby was very far from my horizons. My father worked in the shipyards but, when they closed down, the family moved to Durban in South Africa. I attended Glenwood High School where soccer was outlawed, so I was forced to play rugby. I tried to duck off at first, but eventually realised that rugby was my game, because I was quite enjoying getting stuck in!

JP: You ended up playing for both South Africa and Scotland, how did that come about?

JA: It was during the 'isolation days' and I was playing for the Sharks. I was picked for a Springbok team but the match was always off and on because of the political situation. At the time my father wanted me to go and play rugby in Scotland-it was his dream. I decided if I wanted to play international rugby I would have to go to Scotland. I thought it would take two years to get in the Scotland team for the Rugby World Cup in 1991, but when I arrived the existing hooker got injured, so I was fast-tracked into the Edinburgh Accies first team. My first game was against Hawick, where my hero Bill McLaren [the legendary commentator] is from, and I had the pleasure of meeting him and telling him all about South Africa, because he had never been. When we played the game it had been 25 years since the Accies had beaten Hawick, but all wanted to do was impress Bill! The selectors were there to watch the Hawick's hooker but, because we won the game, I got a lot of accolades and the next thing I knew I had been picked for the Scotland squad.

JP: What gave you the most pleasure, pulling on the green jersey or the blue?

JA: When I was growing up in South Africa my father had a broad Glaswegian accent and I used to read Oor Wullie, so I'm very Scottish by nature. South Africa taught me rugby so, in a sense, I'm torn-I'm a man with two hearts-my outlook in life is South African, but my passion is from Scotland. My father's dream was for me to play for Scotland and it was mine to represent South Africa, that's why they call me 'Bok Jock'.

JP: Has the World Cup helped to increase rugby's global appeal?

JP: We had the rugby world cup in South Africa and what it's done for this country has been amazing. Everyone talks about the World Cup-it creates awareness. To be a world champion is the aspiration of most sports people and when the whole world watches the tournament, it inspires the players and raises the profile of the country. Since '87 more and more teams talk about 'building towards the World Cup', so it has definitely raised the popularity. My only concern is that I don't think the IRB pay enough attention to the less well known rugby playing countries. They seem to focus too much on the already established nations. You've got countries with potential like Serbia and Croatia who produce big, tall chaps, and Holland-where Afrikaans originally hail from. I don't think they do enough for these nations to encourage them to keep playing, and yet, that is what the World Cup is supposed to do. It's the same in Africa with Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya. All the revenue generated is supposed to go to tier two and three countries but, in reality, I think the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

JP: How difficult is it for the smaller nations to improve?

JA: They get a 100,000 euro grant from the IRB-it's a disgrace. You can't build anything with that. A microcosm of that is happening with what we [SARLA] are trying to do. To get the disadvantaged players to compete with the top tier schools in South Africa it takes money. You've got to consider nutrition, high performance and conditioning. At the top it's exactly the same. The likes of Holland, Croatia and Georgia need the finances in place to build their performance levels and compete on an even keel.

JP: Was Jonah Lomu's destructive form in the 1995 World Cup a pivotal moment for rugby?

JA: Absolutely, it paved the way for rugby to go professional.

JP: What did you think of Clint Eastwood's interpretation of South Africa's great victory in 1995?

JA: I think he got it 70 per cent right. I was part of the Springboks team over that period and remember what went on. For example, in the build-up games against England, during the film, South Africa lose both games but, in actual fact, they lost one and won one-I know, because I played in them! Little things like that you pick up, but I think he got most of it right. Interestingly, the movie focuses as much on rugby as it does on the relationship between Mandela and the South African, white-dominated public.

JP: There are several established players at this year's tournament-could this be the greatest ever?

JA: During most world cups teams go into their shells as they enter the play-off stage and in the last two years it has been more of a kicking game. This year, however, the Aussies and the Kiwis are playing more of an expansive game and South Africa have also played with greater flair. If those three stick to that style it could easily be the best competition ever. The skill levels and the physique of the top eight teams are unparalleled to any other World Cup.

JP: Recently Australia and England have had their weapons, Quade Cooper and Chris Ashton, found out, how difficult is it to maintain form in modern international rugby?

JA: They say when you play your first international rugby year you get a freebee, if you're still shining in your third, then you are a bone fide international star. The likes of O'Driscoll and Carter shine no matter what and that's why they are world class. Quade Cooper could still impress though, he's got a lot of talent.

JP: Do you think it is time for New Zealand to leave a lasting legacy?

JA: If they don't win it this year they never will.

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