What is your nation’s rugby DNA?
Jean De Villiers of the Springboks is brought down by Jamie Roberts of Wales. AFP PHOTO / Marty Melville
We often compare playing styles from various countries; some like the All Blacks and Wallabies want to give the ball air, while South Africa and England are more the ball under the armpit type of runners.
The environment I grew up in South Africa in the seventies had no gangs, crime, drugs or anything that you would call untoward. It was an environment that was pretty normal.
I went to seven primary schools in my life, we eventually settled when I went to Standard 7 (grade nine) where I managed to complete my last four years of secondary education at one school.
I guess most of us grow up in a school environment where bullies reign supreme and run most playgrounds, so I don’t think South Africa in the seventies were much different from any other place, at least not in the environment I grew up in.
So very early on in life I came to realise when you are the new kid on the block you need to stand your ground when the local school bullies come knocking. It was standard protocol; don’t give an inch and they leave you alone, give an inch and you’ll be giving away yards for the rest of your time there.
You then have rugby, the sporting code revered by Afrikaner fathers, when your son is born the first thing you do is buy him a rugby ball, no matter what it is made of, a little rubbery one filled with the stuff they make Teddy Bears from, or these ones you get at supermarkets and Garages, they have a thin plastic or latex covering and have a type of sponge in the center.
When the family visits, or the neighbor comes visiting, even when the uncle that comes to your house to fix the plumbing, all ask the same question when you are a boy: do you play rugby and in what position?
If you are a wing, they want to know how many tries you scored, and most importantly how many big blokes have you tackled. If you are a forward (like me), it is all about whether you can stand the heat in the kitchen.
At camp fires and family get-togethers, rugby is the one subject that doesn’t get neglected, yeah sure they talk about work, cars, women etc, but it is the rugby that gets heated, it is a way of life you see, little else carries the same importance.
So as you grow up you learn one thing pretty early on in life. Show fear is showing weakness, don’t run away, always stand your ground and hopefully that will get you through life and rugby.
There are times though where showing no fear will still require you put up or shut up, no more so than on a rugby field, it is a contact sport after all.
So at school I was fortunate enough to walk away without fighting most times, but there were a handful of times when those fights were necessary to establish your pecking order at school.
The same applied to the rugby field in those days. When I went to high school, my captain who was a year ahead of me told me before a game, “When a bloke hits you, mark him, so we can all take him out.” That is how it worked.
Many a time I would come off the field with a jersey full of blood (often mine as well) but you walked proudly back to the school bus because you manned up.
I am not trying to paint a picture of South Africans being uncouth, uneducated ruffians, but the mentality that goes with growing up in the seventies.
Looking at my son and his first year of 15 a side rugby I don’t think much have changed, the same principles apply, even if discipline and foul play is officiated more strictly these days.
The point I am trying to make is that each country have their own traditions, culture etc.
For an Afrikaner things are simpler, man up, respect your elders, respect your wife, love your children, make an honest day’s living and care for your family.
Discipline your children and give them the opportunities you can, but make sure they are always safe.
Rugby holds many of those values, respect, honor, honesty, hard work, love etc.
That is why we associate with rugby, the physical battle, the intimidation, the collisions, all comes naturally to us. It isn’t all to our benefit though, as we tend to run at the defender rather than the gap, we have this inbred mentality we are physically superior and the defender will yield.
It is there for not incorrect to say we are not the most intelligent players on the pitch. So if you want to taunt us to get retaliation it is likely to happen, only the most disciplined like Juan Smith, John Smit and the like have been able to go through their careers without being called for thuggery.
Remember Brad Thorn up ending John Smit in front of the referee in 2009? John went for neck surgery and the next season got Thorn back with one of the most perfectly executed driving tackles you’ll see in rugby.
So we aren’t all brutes who can’t discipline ourselves, we’ll get you, even if it is a year later and as legal as can be.
You see showing you are tough and being tough isn’t about elbows in the face, fingers in the eye, head butts or any other illegal dangerous transgressions, it is about facing your opponent head on and manning up.
Everything else is just semantics.
There is of course another aspect to this mentality, one where it is foolhardy to suggest we cannot do something, don’t tell us we can’t win, because no matter the skills of the opponent, our mentality simply doesn’t allow us to back down.
So in summary, every rugby playing nation has what you would call their core DNA, it varies obviously, but most likely we are not unique in our mentality.