South Africa is a Rugby-mad country.
Just like any other major sport in other countries, Rugby became a fever with those who supported it. As there was no television in my younger life we used to listen to the radio to the various games being played on a Saturday afternoon. And then announcers used to whip up the excitement if and when, a spectacular run was made, by an individual. The Springboks were the National team in those days and to play for your country was a great achievement and honour. Over the years no less than four rugby players in our district made it to the national team.
I was introduced to Rugby at an early age. Each male schoolteacher had a number of boys in his charge to practice and play, the Rugby Union Football code.
We started off at age 12 with an Under 13 Team, then an Under 14 Team and depending on the size of the school Fourth, Third, Second and First Teams.
Sitting: ?, Gert Cloete, Heinz Meissner,
Kneeling: Garth Cloete, Espie Tredoux, Charles Stevens, Hennie Barnard, Johan Sinclair
Standing: Okkerd de Lange, Isak de Vries, Christo le Roux, Willem Kempen(Captain), Mr Basson(Coach),
Chris van der Merwe, Bennie Hugo
So when autumn came around we started our training on Wednesday afternoons at about 3pm until dark. We would be herded in to groups to compete with one another doing various physical exercises to get to the fitness level where we needed to play the game over an hour period excluding a ten-minute, half time rest. The game was played on a level field with areas demarcated as a half, a quarter and a goal area. If you crossed into the opponents goal area of the playing field and touched the ball down then you were awarded three points. Then you were allowed to try to kick the ball from the ground, opposite where the touch down occurred, so that the ball flew over the crossbar of the goal posts. If you were successful at this you were awarded another two points. If an infringement occurred and the referee awarded a penalty you were allowed to place the ball on the ground and you would try to kick it so that it crossed the crossbar between the goal posts. This would earn your team a further three points. More points could be earned if you kicked the ball whilst running so that it connected with the ground in the action of the kick. This was known as a dropped kick and earned your team three points.
When I was youngster I lived in one of the driest areas on earth and having a surface covered by grass to play rugby on would be a real treat. There was no water for grass, so we played on a dirt surface. The area was raked clean of any foliage, debris, three cornered jacks and stones. The boundary lines of the field were demarcated with French chalk whilst the goal posts were painted white. This process had to be done every week as the movement of humans blurred the lines and caused dust to be scattered everywhere.
When we were playing in the lower teams we sometimes did not wear rugby boots but if you were chosen to play within the pack then that was an advisable bit of apparel to wear. Needless to say we got scarred with gravel rashes, cuts and bruises for our efforts at playing and mothers spent hours cleaning the wounds of youngsters after the game. Monday morning we would brag at school as to who had the biggest gravel rash.
The playing season started at the beginning of winter and as there was only one school in our town catering for white children, we had to, like the other towns, drive to the various venues to play our games. Some times we were lucky and we would be transported to our games by the parents of other children in their cars. The majority of the time we were transported in the back of a 3 ton truck, which had a canvas canopy and wooden bench seats, supplied by the school. Thirty children could ride in the truck. We would leave town before sunrise on a frosty morning and we sat close together to stay warm as the inevitable draughts circulated through the canopy. There was no communication with the driver and the people riding in the cabin with him so we were trapped for the duration of the journey. Invariably there came a time when someone had the call of nature and vain attempts were made to wee off the back of the truck while it was moving. The updraft from the turbulence caused by the movement of the truck always blew the liquid back at the person hanging out the side of the canvas doing the act. It paid not to have much to drink before getting into the truck. As the girls of our co-ed school played Netball they also had to be taken to the neighbouring towns and another truck was required for them. Sometimes a farmer would come with a utility truck and a canopy and the girls would get a more comfortable ride that way. We were never allowed to travel in a mixed situation where boys and girls were on the same truck. This how pregnancies were avoided as we came in to adolescence. All of the transport was donated by members and parents of the community and in all our years of travelling around we did not encounter one mishap. The only discomfort, apart from the cold, was nursing a grazed knee or thigh, whilst packed like sardines in the back of the truck.
At the age of thirteen I was sent away to boarding school to further my education, or so my parents concluded. I had a distinct feeling that they wanted to get rid of me as I was too naughty and five hundred kilometres in distant between me and them was a safe environment for all. I soon made good friends with the kids who got in to the most trouble and together we ganged up to play the best rugby of our time. Which ever team we were on, we worked the game to our advantage and became a formidable attack or defence team at times. We never made it to the first team though but had an unbeaten record in a separate shield competition. I sustained the normal injuries, which happen in a game of rugby, such as a broken arm, a dislocated shoulder, broken collarbone, damaged wrist, broken ankle and the odd cracked rib which was always very painful.
Then the time came to go back to the government school where for the last two years of my schooling I played in the first team. My last year at school I was elected Captain of the First Team and with my knowledge gained at boarding school I was successful in leading the team to an unbeaten record. We even beat the strongest team from a regional town and gave them such a hiding that they left without staying for the after match barbecue.
Front row: Stephan van Biljon, Attie Labuscagne, Johan Scholtz, André Pienaar, Hennie Sinclair, Pieter Swanepoel.
Sitting: Gert Cloete, Mr WAS Basson(Coach), Mr Gaaf van Rensburg(Asst Coach), Willem Kempen (Captain), Mr Jan Hofmeyr(Principal), Mr Dropper Viljoen(Asst.Coach), Helgard de Jager
Backrow: Justus Marais, Fransie van Heerden, Chris le Roux, Neels Engels, Deetlef Kunz, Heinz Meissner, Jan du Plessis.
At University I played for the House Team and we excelled once again winning most of our matches. But here I started coming up against fiercer and stronger competition and had to resort to daring tackles to stop the opposition from advancing down the field. Then after my short-lived stint at University I played for a regional country town and it was whilst playing for the First Team in an away game, I tackled the winger while he was making for the goal line. I went in low against his legs but positioned my head on the wrong side of the tackle and he saw me coming. Knowing that he was about to be tackled, he kicked the ball away. At that precise moment I tackled. The impact with his leg dislocated my neck, cracked my shoulder blade and broke my collar-bone. I lay in a daze on the field and some rough, untrained hands picked me up. My neck, which had dislocated, let my head fall back on to my shoulders. They got such a fright they put me down and found a stretcher. The chap I had tackled had a broken leg and was groaning on the ground next to me. They took him by car to a hospital about seventy kilometres away but I was taken down to the local hotel and laid out on the bar counter. A visiting doctor came along and manipulated my neck back in to position again. He gave me some pain killers and told me to keep warm. After the game everyone poured in to the pub and had a few beers and after dark we took off again in the car to drive the two hundred or so kilometres home. The pain-killers had worn off by then and I was in pain. It was a rough dirt road and the other occupants decided to stop off at a party along the way. I lay in the back of the car whimpering until they had had their fill. Then we left again arriving home at three o’clock in the morning. By then I was in agony. The other blokes left me to my own devices and I struggled up the stairs to my flat and lay on my bed. It seemed like hours before the sun came up. I struggled back down the stairs to my car, managed to get in to it, and behind the wheel, and then after a long while of cranking it started. I made my way to my doctor’s house and woke him up. He said that he would be along soon if I presented myself to the hospital. He eventually arrived and after I had related my story to him he put me in a neck brace, gave an injection and some painkillers and said I would be OK. But I was back at the hospital within two hours in excruciating pain. My doctor was called back and then when he saw my condition decided to take x-rays. They discovered that I had a broken collarbone, a cracked shoulder blade, and severely sprained muscles in my neck. There was no real cure except to take strong painkillers and wait for the bones to heal. I was put on sick leave for six weeks and warned to take things very easy. My rugby was over for that year.
The following year I went on a bit of an excursion and then ended up back in my hometown working for my father’s legal practice. Soon I was to join the town team again and this time under the training and supervision of Uncle Isaac. He was now in his late sixties and semi-retired and had taken on the rugby team under his wing. He was a driving force to get us motivated with his rather crude names he used to call us with his funny accent. Being a Lithuanian by birth, he and his two brothers had escaped Europe during World War One and had made their way to our town. They started off dirt poor and shovelled coal from trains at railway sidings to make a living. Over a period of forty-five years they had put their money to good use and had built up a business in livestock production that would span the country. By this time Uncle Isaac, the town rugby team and the school, had clubbed together and had bought a bus for the team’s journeys away to neighbouring towns. We always had a good time but slowly I started feeling that I was getting soft and did not want to play the rough game any longer.
One night, after a game, with Uncle Isaac to drive us home, we had a big party at the neighbouring town;s clubrooms. They had an upstairs landing, which they used for projectors to show movies on occasions and a balustrade facing out on to a tennis court. I had had a few beers too many and needed to relieve myself. So I stood up on the balustrade, overbalanced and fell forward in to the tennis court fence. I put my arm out in front automatically and my hands brushed up against the chicken wire fencing cutting into the fleshy parts. It broke my fall and I disengaged myself and ran in to the bus to grab my rugby jersey to wrap up my bleeding hands. Too embarrassed to let anyone know I was drunk and stupid I curled up in the back of the bus and went to sleep. When we got home I got Uncle Isaac to drop me off at the hospital where everyone was horrified when I left the bus with my bloodied rugby jersey. The nurses were very kind but couldn’t do too much for me except to clean the wounds and bandage them. They took a while to heal and I was out again for the rest of the rugby season.
I carried those scars for the rest of my life.
The following year saw me working back in the city again. I joined a well-known city club and was soon playing their second team. We trained hard and enjoyed the games but one afternoon I half-heartedly tackled an opponent and felt my shoulder twitch and a sharp pain run through my arm. I sat down on the side of the field and the referee came over to enquire what I was doing. I told him that I did not feel well. Then our coach came over and asked the question. I explained and he said that I was a softie and told me to get back on to the field. I refused, got up, collected my gear and walked away from the game forever. I was twenty two years of age.
When I reached the age of fifty eight I was declared disabled due to the severe form of osteoarthritis which had attacked my system. I put it all down to playing rugby and getting hurt.
Such is life!