In 1981, when sensible people were leaving or boycotting the old South Africa, we came here to live. It was a rugby decision, to play here for a year. In hindsight it was naïve and stupid. Mea Culpa, and I cannot pretend otherwise. However, ironically, had it not happened we would have missed experiencing the incredible adventure of falling in love with this country and being part of the transition from the old to new South Africa without the violent revolution that could easily have occurred. Ask any Syrian, Libyan or Iraqi for their opinion.
The very first rugby match I was involved with, upon arriving, was the Annual Raikes Invitation Match at Wits in 1982. Wits played an invitation side in what was the traditional season opener in the then, Transvaal. Murray Mexted and I were the two foreign players and it was a tough game played before a full, caucasian house in Empire Road.
The most recent game I was involved in was last night at the very same stadium. At a loose end, on a whim, I decided to attend.
I arrived at 17h30 and entered the almost empty stand as the teams started to warm up. Loud hip-hop music was playing, very different from the menu at Super Rugby games where the 1980s seems to be the favoured genre. My time. It was not looking very optimistic for this old sixty two year old former rugby player.
In a rush the stadium filled. The vast majority were youngsters, students from Wits and North West University (NWU). There was banter but it was friendly. Drinks were on offer but then a dancing, prancing MC in a natty suit appeared on the pitch to inform and entertain. Don’t you hate the warm-up guys? Could it get worse?
Then I realised the guy was good. Very good. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand and slowly, employing music, dance and humour, he brought proceedings to a fever pitch. The teams ran on and a young singer, with no accompaniment at all, gave the best rendition of the anthem I have ever heard. The crowd belted it out and, as the game began, the stadium felt alive. It was a dramatic metamorphosis from half an hour before.
That the players are students and virtual amateurs is beyond belief. The fitness, physicality and skills on show were of a staggering standard. In fact, the speed of the game seemed faster than that at a higher level. There was an absence of the interminable phase play that can become so repetitive. Initially, NWU dominated by aggressively tackling the Wits forward runners but rarely contesting the resultant rucks. Thus when Wits ran it wide there were no overlaps. They had done their homework and led well at half time.
In the second half Wits changed tactics and repeatedly pressured close in to force bodies to commit. This, alongside marginally superior fitness, led to overlaps and tries. There was virtually no aimless kicking in the game. The referee was magnificent and there were far fewer scrum stoppages than in Super rugby or Tests. The game was hard with the occasional scuffle but nothing sly or really nasty was observed. The Wits kicker had an off day, which was strange as in warm up he had entertained the crowd by never once missing.
The worst thing about the whole affair was the power play where each side loses two players for five minutes, in turn, to the advantage of the other team. This is ridiculous as suddenly, in turn, evenly matched sides face a contrived and massive disadvantage. Both duly scored before sanity was restored. It is just not necessary where rugby was of such a standard. It offends the sense of fair play on which sport is based.
In the end, NWU won 35-31.
In the old days it would have been, virtually, a caucasian occasion, on and off the field. Last night was gloriously representative of the Rainbow Nation, on and off the field. The singing and dancing in the stands was a major part of it. My goodness, this old codger was even observed to move at times, even if it elicited the occasional sympathetic look. Dad dancing? Grandad dancing and proud of it.
I reckon half the players on show are of professional rugby standard and a couple could play at international level. I won’t go through the names as this is not the point. However, on chatting, many are putting study and employment above the game. They don’t want to be full time professionals. Yes, there are such people.
In the early days of professionalism when varsity rugby was dying, I remember Francois Pienaar saying that the US College model was the way to go. Most laughed at him, including me.
If you haven’t yet been to a Varsity Cup game, do yourself a favour and go. There is a freshness and vigour about it that is very enjoyable, and the whole event demonstrates that as the chattering classes focus on national disunity and negatives, there are people who are making the Rainbow Nation happen. Go! You will thank me.