For more than a hundred years rugby union has grown in leaps and bounds as a worldwide game. Since embracing professionalism, it has carved its essence in the hearts of countless people all over the world.
In 2011 rugby found it’s way into my own soul and hasn’t let go since.
We call it the game they play in Heaven.
The global rugby union community stretches from the United States south to Argentina, from England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Wales and Italy all the way down to the Republic of South Africa, branching out to the shores of Australia and New Zealand, extending to the Pacific Nations of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
To us, the game represents so much more than just the pride of a nation, but includes our very own psyche.
Speaking for my own country and from my own personal experience, the game of rugby has helped us grow as a nation. Here in the Republic we, of all races and cultures, live, eat and breathe rugby. After everything that has happened in our Rainbow Nation how could we not?
In 1995, the year we hosted the Rugby World Cup, our former president and global icon Nelson Mandela sought to unite the country through what they called “the white man’s game’ at the time.
It was a generous sentiment Mandela extended towards us of Dutch descent.
After the years of the Apartheid’s reign, our president intended not to scorn or exclude us from the new South African era, but to include us in its jubilation and when Springbok captain Francois Pienaar lifted the Webb-Ellis, it signaled the coming of democracy and equality to all of South Africa.
We still have our ups and downs. It’s true. We fight about quota systems and whether they are fair or not, we fight about the state of transformation, we argue about whether SARU is doing it’s best to promote the game at every level for everyone of every lineage.
It hasn’t been a spotless road we have travelled, but it’s ultimately been a road to a better place.
We have our heroes in the Springbok team. Our beloved Bismarck du Plessis, the intergalactic titan warrior who summarises the Springbok game so well.
We have the representation of youth in our 22-year-old Eben Etzebeth, the powerful Springbok enforcer of a new era. Then we possess Duane Vermeulen – who is more known as Thor in our part of the world – the man who captured our hearts and became an emblem of our pride since debuting in 2012, 26 years of age.
After countless seasons of being overlooked he proved it’s never to late to become a great of Bok rugby. Lastly we have the honour of being represented by our captain Jean de Villiers, a man well respected over the entire world.
Like the Bok teams of the past, before the age of equality, we have our Caucasian heroes. But now, in the dawn of democracy we have so much more.
The monsterous cheers of ‘Beast’ whenever Tendai Mtawarira captures the oval in those big hands, that is an experience to behold in a live stadium. From left to right, whether we are Caucasian, African, Japanese, Capetonian or Indian, every single fan in the crowd cheers on Mtawarira.
In the western part of our nation, in WP country a new cult hero emerged in 2012. Siya Kolisi built a reputation as a fearsome tackler within the jurisdiction of Newlands. He along with Juan de Jongh, Gio Aplon, Seabelo Senatla and Cheslin Kolbe have established themselves as the darlings of Stormers rugby.
It was Juan de Jongh, Tera Mtembu and Lionel Mapoe who captained Western Provence, Natal Sharks and the Golden Lions respectively in this year’s Currie Cup.
Cornall Hendricks cut open the All Black defence in Wellington this year to produce a wonderful try against the world’s magnificent leading team. And by his side he has South Africa’s greatest winger of all time, Bryan Habana who has given us so much joy since his debut.
And who could ever forget Breyton Paulse, the summersaulting winger who played against rugby’s greatest superstar, Jonah Lomu? A small man with a heart as big as Lomu, never once stood down against the legend. Another who faced this giant, Chester Williams, the progenitor of legendary Springboks of colour.
The impact that rugby has had on my own life will also never be forgotten. It has changed me not only in perspective, but in character, to becoming a man as well.
I remember when I was just a boy growing up in such a rugby mad household, my brother and I had never taken to the sport our father loved so.
In truth watching or listening to them supporting their teams had become so annoying that we had decided to abandon the house, escaping to the great outdoors whenever a game would come up on the TV screen.
We had never understood the appeal until 2011’s World Cup where we finally saw and understood the unity the sport brought. I remember that fateful Friday morning the World Cup started that year. It’s opening game, New Zealand versus Tonga.
I was in 11th grade that year in Klerksdorp High and that Thursday all the staff of the school announced that we would be watching the opening game in the assembly hall, and that we could wear our Springbok jerseys in support for the Boks the next day or an All Black jersey in support of New Zealand that morning.
Not wanting to be left out of the fun, I then acquired an All Black jersey in the house and set off to school to watch what I then considered to be boring. Everything happened as they said it would.
We arrived at the gates, assembled outside our homeroom classes and waited to be called for the game. Eventually the call came, I was disheartened.
The matriculation exams were already in effect at the time so our seniors would not be present in the assembly hall, leaving us 11th years as the senior years of the school. We were the usurpers.
The assembly hall at KHS was uniquely built. It looked pretty normal from the stage to the back, but there the seniors were treated to sitting a level above on a special balcony built specifically for the 12th graders.
Feeling like kings we all made ourselves at home, knowing that that would be our throne going forward to the next year. The game started, projected on the big screen, the view above, the best in the house.
And though I wasn’t an All Black, watching them play and seeing what it meant to all the Kiwis in the stands moved me. The way the All Blacks played excited me, it was a helluva show, hugely entertaining. At long last, rugby had piqued my interest.
That night I had spoken to my father about it and to my surprise I had learned that he was an accomplished rugby player who had represented his region in times long passed. He showed me a special tie he had received from Northern Transvaal in his last year of school after playing for Lichtenburg and as well as Stellaland who won the regional trophy.
In 1989 he was set to play for Northern Tranvaal’s (the Blue Bulls in that time) age group teams, had it not been for an unfortunate car accident that left his leg damaged and skull fractured. The setback was not career ending but it was too much of a turnaround after two years to get back into the game. Thus his career came to the most unfortunate of ends.
My inspiration was fulfilled when the Boks were dismissed by the Wallabies that year. But it was more than I had bargained for. I didn’t just want to watch rugby anymore, I wanted to play it like my father had before me and his father before him.
I remember my obsession with the centre position, the position my father played. At that time I drew all my inspiration from Ma’a Nonu who was my first favourite player. That afternoon I told my father “I want to play like Ma’a Nonu”.
At the time I was of the exact same height as Nonu which further fueled my belief that I would be Nonu reincarnated in South Africa. But to do that, I needed lots of training and lots of weight, I wasn’t the biggest of kids, 60 kilograms to be exact. To the gym it was for me.
Two years later I had grown seven centimetres and gained 37 kilograms. Rugby had not only inspired a dream for me, it gave me the character to rise above myself. Where I had been physically off track and highly lazy, rugby gave me what I needed, an incentive to put myself in the right track and to move forward with that in mind.
That is but only one story of what rugby can mean to anyone, what it meant and still means to me. Right across the globe, there are countless children or teenagers like me who need that push in the right direction.
The game they play in Heaven can give that to you. After all that is what sport gives mankind. It unites, it inspires and it directs us. I find the best summation of rugby union to be the title of the World Cup’s theme song – A world in union.
I came to The Roar because I couldn’t just rely on what I could physically do on a rugby pitch. I needed to sharpen up my knowledge and understanding of the game and The Roar has given me exactly that.
I would like to thank the staff at The Roar for giving me the opportunity to voice my opinions and to grow as a writer and as a player. I would also like to thank all the various Roarers who have taken the time to read my pieces and to correct my mistakes and advise me about the game.
To my various mentor figures who always take the time to comment, I’m looking at you Diggercane, firstxv, Old Bugger, RollAway7 and any others I forgot to mention, oh yeah, Sensei Harry Jones who always has funny yet completely informative things to say, and my other compatriot Biltongbek who’s knowledge is immeasureable and insight is always valuable. My first year on The Roar has been nothing short of fun and highly profitable in terms of rugby knowledge.
See you again next year for the highly anticipated 2015 rugby season, happy holidays to all who read this and those who don’t. Keep Roaring!