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'We all end up as props': A rugby memoir

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12th December, 2021
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An article of faith in rugby is our game is for all shapes and sizes.

Witness the lumpy ballasted prop. The yapping gymnast behind the ruck. Wispy wingers winging it out wide. Beanpoles gangling at lock.

Some of us matured in such a jagged line we played in many numbers.

Whilst we cannot imagine the granite-skulled Tadgh Furlong playing any position outside the front row, fellow bruisers Malcolm Marx and Beast Mtawarira began as loose forwards; Eben Etzebeth was a terrifying centre in senior schools.

Puma forwards always look to me like they could pack down in any order and be fine, which may be why their famed scrum is ailing.

Every Pacific Islander outside back seems perfectly ready to blindside you as a fast flanker holding the ball in one hand.

Rugby is a game for boys. We grow into our shapes and sizes at different rates.

A lad will often grow into a man in fits and starts: suddenly a height spurt, rib bones showing, and then a halt, and a filling in for two years.

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We played against a Greek high school in Cape Town. At 13, they sported full beards, smelled like pipes, and stretched jerseys with dock-worker chests.

It was like wrestling your uncle from the old country. No hope. By 16, we were heads taller, with the suggestions of mustaches emerging, and registered a 72-0 win, with their coach left uttering ancient oaths.

From nature and nurture, mysteriously mismatched growth creates a unique chance in rugby: can you play in every single position over your career? Play well, I mean, and not just for one match.

I almost did. Scrum-half, centre, and wing escaped me. Too big and not elusive enough for those happy positions.

My rugby DNA life-strand reads rather randomly like this: 2, 8, 10, 1, 7, 15, 8, 6, 4, 3.

Each number, each shape, each skill set fit my life, my flaws, and my journey at that time. My life has been rugby-shaped and rugby-sized.

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Dirty Hooker (No. 2):

A couple of years younger than my primary school teammates, but finally allowed to wear those hall-hammering studs as we ran from cloakroom to field, I was thrown in at hooker. My only credential was provincial shot put.

I think my heave style was illegal, but that prepared me well for late-1970s lineouts. In those wobbly days, scrums heaved and pitched and you had to beat the other rake to the ball. Knees caught knees, swearing powered you up; then it was disentangle, sledge, and try to hit someone or a hole.

Throwing into a lineout was as simple as tossing a blood sausage to a pack of mongrels. The calls were useless. The finer points awaited: hook and hit and hope was my ethos.

When I walked back home from school after practice, I’d see how many streetlights I could smash with rocks, and climb up our neighbour’s roof to peek at his infamous photoshoots by the pool. A hooker’s brain is unmolested by nuance.

At the season end braai, I was named ‘most improved’ by the coach, an old randy fool.

Captain (8):

When I finally played in my own age group, I was made skipper and the coach asked me what position I wanted to play. Without hesitation, I announced ‘eighth-man’.

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The prototype in those days was Western Province’s hero Morne du Plessis, an elegant player, who offloaded like a modern centre, used an NFL pass when he felt it, and had a remarkable sense for space and timing. I did everything he did… or tried.

Luckily, I had shot up four inches in eighteen months. Suddenly rangy, and a high jumper instead of a shot putter, I could see around the pitch, a far cry from the suffocating confines of no. 2.

In a high school which prized open, attacking rugby, I was able to play as loose as I liked. I won a red card or two, and earned them, but most of the time, I stayed on track and we scored a lot more tries than our opponents and our predecessors.

It was our heyday. We had our unbeaten season, cleaned up the Paarl and Stellenbosch schools, and I got that letter from Province.

In school, in life, at home; I was beginning to listen to my dad’s wise proverb: ‘Stop being stupid’. I was becoming better at being bad; a smarter sinner.

And is there a more useful definition of a loose forward and captain than that?

Flyhalf by Default (10):

For half a season, because our mad German No. 10 exploded his knee and his understudy Theron was in London with his dad and nobody else could reliably kick for poles, I was moved to flyhalf.

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My boot was not uneducated. My drop-kick kickoff usually fell sweetly into the melee of packs. My crosskick often found our wing. And I could convert from touchline about half the time, with a weak arc, fluttering in the Saturday morning mist.

The problem was I had no distance. Not on exit or from the mounds of earth we used for penalties. I had a Bernard Foley-calibre popgun.

Bernard Foley

Australia’s fly-half Bernard Foley lines up a kick during the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup Pool D match between Australia and Wales at the Tokyo Stadium in Tokyo on September 29, 2019. (Photo by Toshifumi KITAMURA / AFP) (Photo credit should read TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)

I remember one of my mate’s mums exclaim in disgust at one of my attempts at poles. I heard her voice among the well-dressed crowd, under the oaks, as if she had picked a note and pitch only I could hear: “Ag, Harry, no! Sit bietjie sous op!” (Put some sauce on it!)

My solution was to play 10 like an 8: carrying hard into contact and forgetting my backline until the last second, and trying miracle balls, or pretending I was kicking short on purpose.

We were very happy when Gunnar returned. And no letter came that year from Province. Several boys had to be injured before I got a mercy call.

Very Loosehead Prop (1):

After a break for various personal and academic reasons, all whilst South Africa was at the nadir of isolation, ending hundreds of players’ dreams at higher honours, I returned robustly to rugby as a skinny prop in varsity footy, but overseas in muddy climes.

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You know the type in the eighties: strong enough to grapple, but not a proper prop. More of an extra fetcher, because the bind in fleeting scrums was tenuous. Survive the hit, and then wriggle free to carry and tackle and fetch.

I must say, I enjoyed my time at number one, but I was as loose as a Camps Bay streetwalker and less honest.

Left Flanker (7):

When all my natural growth had been completed, I was the shape and size of a loosie, and was running marathons in less than four hours, but we had a better No. 8 than me at my club.

He went on to have a serious career. I had by then realised my career would be serious but it would not be rugby. My neck and back wouldn’t cooperate with my dreams. I had two concussions in one season.

But as long as I could, I wanted to play.

So, I played left flank. We did not distinguish between open and blindside in those days: just left and right, like some midfields, too.

What I loved about loose forward was how utterly involved you could stay all match long. Never standing cold like an outside back, never stuck with your head in a woodchipper, and wholly integrated into almost every attack.

When you are shaped and sized a bit like Richie McCaw, not a giant, but not shaped for soccer or tennis or basketball or swimming, you are suited for rugby, or water polo, or some sort of collision game.

Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw lifts the 2011 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Fullback with Bad Back (15):

See the man in his thirties in a suit with a black eye in court, explaining to the judge, who refs rugby, how it happened.

Shamefully, I had moved out of the pack to the back, and was doing the kicking. Now, accuracy trumped length: club rugby is fine with 28-metre ranges.

Distance running, tennis, and a maniacal diet had taken all the prop out of me, and I was a big, crafty 15 for a few years. The chip and chase was my dear friend.

Pieces of Eight (8):

My rugby reincarnation in my forties, with a more beer-soaked and Bohemian diet, and a miraculously healthier spine (was it the hops or the barley?), had me back where I belonged: an industriously lazy No. 8.

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A carnival, a tourney, classic rugby, magical competitions in Vegas, Knysna, Lyon, and False Bay: my friends were my foes and my foes were my friends. Even the fights were friendly.

Fetch me a Flank Steak (6):

A better 8 arrived at my club. Younger, taller, better looking, and fitter. So, I beefed up and played blindside seven.

Everything began to hurt, and stayed hurt. Exactly when the right knee felt better, the left tanked. Sometimes I couldn’t close my hands to grip a racket or axe.

Can you Jump Four (4):

At some age, you arrive at matches and someone just looks at you, evaluates your dimensions, and asks if you can play out of position because someone didn’t show up. You say yes. Even if you know you look taller than you are.

So, I played lock for four straight matches. A shortish lock with a medium leap, who never mastered the lineout calls because all of them were profoundly disturbing in content, tone, and manner.

I also found scrummaging to be horrendous at lock. I began to wonder if it was time.

We all End as a Prop (3):

We believe in Santa Claus. Then we don’t. Then we pretend to be Santa. Then we look like him, without trying.

Thus, in rugby. We all end up as props for Christmas.

Taniela Tupou of Australia scores a try

(Photo by Kenta Harada/Getty Images)

My last serious, refereed match was as an uncomfortable tighthead.

Just because you top 110 kilos doesn’t mean your neck is ready for 110 kilos to hit it dead on.

In the last scrum, as we engaged violently, I felt a crack. I suppose everyone heard it, because we all stood up. The ref asked me if I was okay, and the opposing loosehead apologised for his bad hit.

“I’m fine,” I replied. I could not feel my hands, then, nor for the next week.

It was time. Fifty and up is an iffy age for rugby.

Hooker to prop, loose to tight, pack to back, dust to dust.

What was your journey through the numbers of rugby?

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