Rugby World Cup 2011 exclusive: Thinus Delport
JP: Did you enjoy your spell in Japan and what was the standard like there?
TD: It's probably around Championship level. They are semi-professional-the majority of guys worked for the company in the offices or factory, but we also had 10 professionals. We trained pretty much every day they couldn't use full days and it was tricky finding the balance between work and training.
JP: What was it like adapting to the lifestyle-were there lots of hotel bars involved?
TD: Yes, in many ways it was like Lost In Translation. We were based on an artificial island and our accommodation was a block of flats geared towards westerners. There was a combination of foreign businessmen from Nestlé, Asics and Proctor & Gamble, and other professional athletes-like American Baseball players. We created quite a nice little self-contained society but, as soon as you left Rokko Island to go onto mainland Japan, it was quite difficult to function because no one could speak the language. I really enjoyed the first year because it was all new inputs and experiences. The second year was tough because all the novelties began to wear off.
JP: Is it good to be back in England?
TD: Hopefully I can find my way back to South Africa one day, but my wife is English-I met her while I was at Worcester. I have lived and experienced a lot of different places and it's all thanks to professional rugby. As a result my life experiences have been broadened and I'm very grateful for the opportunities I've had. I never would have considered going to Japan, but it was a great chance to make some money and see a different part of the world-I'm really glad I did it.
JP: Are you looking forward to this year's World Cup?
TD: Yeah, I'm really excited about it. The warm up games leading up to the tournament have been very interesting. Even though they sent out a reserve side to South Africa the defeats inflicted on the All Blacks have sparked a lot of confidence in the other teams. Suddenly the Kiwis don't seem quite so invincible. Australia are on an upward curve; I think the win in the last game was massive because the All Blacks would have been confident of turning them over, especially after the first game in Auckland.
JP: Do you still think the Kiwis will trouble the trophy engravers for the first time since '87?
TD: They haven't got as tougher pool as some of the other teams, so will probably have an easier ride into the knock out stages. The French may well see the group match against their old World Cup rivals as a chance to change their own fortunes, and plot a different route into the semis or final, and that could harm New Zealand's chances. It will be one of the few times the All Blacks go into the World Cup with some niggling doubts.
JP: Who are the other major threats?
TD: I think the Welsh, after their victory over England, will have been given a huge lift and they see to be very well conditioned. Apart from Ireland, I think all the other major teams can feel pretty pumped up going into the tournament. What South Africa and England both have is the knack of carrying out a 'game plan' that can win tournaments. It might not be the most expansive and entertaining ploy but, boy, it's effective. If you look at any of the World Cup finals and semi-finals the majority were won with strong set-pieces and a tactical kicking game. We haven't really seen a massively expansive final apart from Australia beating France in '99.
JP: Could England surprise a few people again after their incredible run in 2007?
TD: They definitely can. What 2007 showed was that the tougher your pool, the more chance you have of going further in the competition. It was a really difficult group with a couple of close matches, both for South Africa and England. I won't linger on the group game that the Springboks played against England because they didn't have a recognised number 10! Tonga threatened both teams and in the quarter finals South Africa were tested against Figi, while England were well prepared to take on the Aussies. The All Blacks on the other hand did not have a tough pool and in the week leading up to the quarter finals they had a 'smash' training session to increase intensity and physicality and I think that showed in the game they played against France. They seemed physically and mentally drained because they'd had to simulate the harder conditions they didn't get from the group fixtures.
JP: The Aussies are finding form at just the right time, how do you rate their chances?
TD: Australia have been out of the limelight for a few years, but they've been experiencing a resurgence and have a very exciting player in Quade Cooper, combined with Will Genia at nine. As a team they bring a lot of excitement, especially in the backs with Kurtley Beale and Digby Ioane-they're game breakers in the back line.
JP: Quade Cooper seems like a bit of a character…
When there's parties around and you're doing well, you can do a couple of stupid things, but I think he's been cleared of all charges!
JP: Are the lower tier teams improving with each tournament?
TD: The tier two nations definitely are. Samoa are going to be a big threat for both South Africa and Wales. They turned over Australia, albeit a second string, but it proves that you can't approach these sides without taking them seriously-they're not a walkover anymore. Tonga and Figi also have a lot to offer-they always raise their game on the big stage. A lot of the smaller team's squad are playing in professional leagues, like the Premiership in France. They now get exposed to a higher standard of competition and that shows when the World Cup comes around. We've already seen how Italy and Argentina have improved through the years. I think the next big step is to provide more money to the Pacific Islanders who have shown that they can compete, but don't necessarily have the finances or infrastructure to sustain it. At the moment these countries only really get access to players during the World Cup.
JP: How important has the World Cup been in raising rugby's profile?
TD: Going professional in the mid-nineties was the best thing that ever could have happened to the sport. If that hadn't have happened we would have lost a generation of players to other sports. With technological advances everything has become more marketable, with the internet and Playstation being instrumental in increasing its popularity.
JP: Was 1995 a particularly pivotal year for the sport?
TD: It was held in South Africa so pretty much all the big unions and sides were involved for the first time. The emergence of Jonah Lomu broke the mould for your typical winger. If you look around now the mega-wingers are a dime-a-dozen. He was also a great product to market, adidas bought into him straight away and he was the face of rugby in the 90s. All the factors came together in that seminal year.
JP: How much did it influence you?
TD: I was 20 years old and in university and all these guys were my heros. I made the big decision to stop my studies and try a career in rugby. It was great that we could suddenly make a living from rugby and play full time-I was getting paid for something I loved. Two years later I was playing for Transvaal alongside players from the 1995 team like Japie Mulder and Hendrik le Roux. They were my teammates and my idols and it was great to draw from their energy and confidence. The 1995 victory certainly drove me on to become a Springbok.
JP: …and now some of your finest moments have been captured on YouTube forever
TD: Yeah, and some of my less fine moments as well!
JP: Right Thinus, who's going to win it?
TD: The patriot in me says South Africa