John Pinching chats exclusively to Springbok legends John Allan and Thinus Delport about their lives in rugby and the 2011 World Cup.
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: 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: Has the World Cup helped to increase rugby’s global appeal?
JA: 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 sport. 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: 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.
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: 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 semifinals 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 Fiji, 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 Fiji 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 dimea- 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.