As the last century ended, Nelson Mandela was resigning from public office. His 1999 farewell speech to Parliament closed with his dream that “all our children may play in the sun” and warning “the long walk continues”.
It was four years after his immortal World Cup triumph photograph with Francois Pienaar, who looked the very essence of the old school Afrikaner, but Mandela knew rugby was still a door closed to millions of boys not in the twenty schools which produce eighty per cent of all Springboks. A tenth of all Boks have come from two schools. Even now.
For perspective, when Mandela gave his farewell speech, Pieter-Steph du Toit was six years old, Lukhanyo Am and Cheslin Kolbe were five, and Malcolm Marx was four. There was no way Marx, du Toit, Am, and Kolbe were playing in the sun together; the walk between them was far too long.
But twenty years later, Marx was smashing, Am was scooping, PSDT was aiming, and Kolbe was dashing. And just after they were finishing their rugby choreography, Prince Harry was hugging and congratulating the South African premier. Marx to Am to du Toit to Kolbe. The end.
In 1999, first-grader Pieter-Steph was already very tall. Bony, fast, with a freakishly strong grip, but always injured from his escapades around the family wine farm, just outside a town named Malmesbury in the blackland terroir between the Atlantic and the Boland. His father played the nine-hole course in the town fed by Dieprivier (not deep).
His grandfather was Piet “Spiere” (or “Muscles”), an undersized tighthead prop (six foot, 95 kilograms) mainstay for the Boks in the late 1950s. Do you know how strong you have to be to get that nickname in the Boland?
Malmesbury is less than seventy kilometres from the Waterfront in Cape Town, but it is a world away. In 1999, you could not get a latte, but you would know a dozen qualified welders and a cooper. Not a soccer field in town, but seven rugby fields, velvety green and not a weed in sight.
If you wanted to do anything at all in Malmesbury, you would need to speak and understand Afrikaans. Nobody was truly ‘elite’, all boys of all colours went barefoot until forced into shoes, and the distinction between boss and worker was a bit academic in the vineyards. Everyone sweated, and nobody was exempt.
Growing up on the very farm that his oupa, a 14-cap Bok prop, worked, young Piet (his father is also Piet) had big goals: play flanker on the first team at Swartland High School, on Dirkie Uys Street, make Craven Week (the elite schoolboy tournament which predicts nine of ten Boks), don the famous blue-and-white hoops of Western Province in the Mother City down the N7, and be a Bok. Ask him about that and you would get practical goals.
But underneath was quiet passion. Pieter-Steph was a small-town boy with big Springbok pedigree, a strangely high pain threshold, and a very simple set of circumstances: work for hours even when young, play in the barns and fields until dark, eat like a barbarian and then get thirds, go to church every time it opened, and play rugby.
A thousand miles away, in the working-class East Rand town of Germiston, four-year-old Malcolm weighed the same as six-year-old Pieter-Steph. His mum Bernadine had the opposite problem to Mrs du Toit. Single, with two hungry boys, she was just making ends meet every day. “How can I keep these boys full?”
If you want to live in a place in South Africa with the most languages used daily, Germiston might be the one: every language group has about 14 per cent of the people. It was the hotbed of union politics; an industrial town near enough Johannesburg for the bad stuff, not far enough away for the good things of country life.
Malcolm and his brother and mum were English-speakers. Even now, his Afrikaans, the language of rugby in the Republic, is weak, despite captaining the Golden Lions for a season. Four-year-old Malcolm was a wrecking ball of energy, but nothing about his destiny as a World Rugby Player of the Year nominee and South African Player of the Year was a sure thing.
As he puts it: “It’s been a long road for the three of us together. A lot of great times. A lot of sad times, ups and downs. She never gave up on us. She sat next to the field. She supported us.”
Rugby was his out.
But unlike Pieter-Steph, who was clearly an amazing athlete with Bok genes and an obvious star, Malcolm was a kid who thought: “I will try, but there’s so many other good rugby players out there. I don’t think that will ever happen for me.”
If he had stayed in Germiston schools, it would never have happened. But Bernadine brought home the bacon, Malcolm grew into a specimen, and sacrificing everything, she got him into King Edward VII School in Upper Houghton, proper Johannesburg, and posher than posh.
The school is itself a national monument. Their pipe band goes to the highlands every year. KES produced Proteas captain Graeme Smith and golf god Gary Player. It is as coveted to be chess captain or dramatic society star as rugby captain. The chief justices, CEOs, Kyoto Prize winners, and top barristers who hail from KES have names like Gordon, Kentridge, Lipworth, Weinberg, and Bloom. Not too many Burgers or du Toits.
KES was a million miles away from four-year-old Malcolm in a Germiston flat. He did not think he would be a Bok, or a Lion, or a first-team KES boy, or a rugby star. He was a big, nervous kid. Years later, even when he was in everyone’s World XV and getting 10 ratings from the New Zealand Herald for the Test in Cape Town, his lineout throws made all of South Africa nervous. If Pieter-Steph was the Sure Thing, Malcolm was the Maybe.
Lukhanyo Am has never been nervous a day in his life. In 1999 he was taking the exact long walk Mandela spoke of: five years old, walking on sand and thorns in desperate soccer fields in King William’s Town, on the banks of the Buffalo River, near what was then East London.
Nobody in his family had ever played rugby. This region was the heartland of anti-apartheid activism. Steve Biko was born in this town, as were dozens of ANC founders. Rugby was a symbol of oppression back in the day, and Mandela could not simply wish that animus away.
The Border, as the region is called, does have a tradition of black rugby clubs, and tends to produce rock-hard players of all colours. But Am was in a soccer community, and more than that, he was good at soccer. He has fast feet, and his mother Zukiswa was sure he would be a soccer star.
The problem was, Am instinctively loved rugby.
“I loved rugby from a kid, but my mom told me I had to play soccer. I told her ‘No, ma. I like rugby. One day you will see me in these colours.”
And even at the age of five, he wore green and gold clothes, not the Bok jersey, which was not attainable, but any yellow and green combination he could find. He told his sister, Thabisa: “I will play for the Boks one day.” So he looked for every rugby match in his town and refused to play soccer, no matter how much his mother cried.
Am was a lock at first, because he was tall, an early grower. At 13 he was about as tall as he is now (1.86 metres). He was the only one of the four in this story who did not play Craven Week. He did not attend a top rugby school (there are many in the Eastern Cape, such as Dale, Selborne, and Queens), going to nondescript De Vos Malan High School, next to a hospital and a jail.
‘Vossies’ play rugby against other public schools, without much fanfare. Am was the best player in his school but went unnoticed for higher honours. He was not a flashy player, but disciplined; he did the basics well. His mantra then and now is: “The battle is won before the battle begins”.
Am likes to study video. He likes to watch opponents’ feet. He is normally not out of control. He saw a lot of violence when young. His relaxed air should fool nobody by now. He can hit. He is comfortable with extreme contact. He finishes tackles well; he gets over the ball and won’t shift.
A thousand kilometres west, in one of the highest crime precincts in a blood-soaked country, lived a five-year-old who was almost half the height of six-year-old Pieter-Steph, whose peaceful farm town was only a thirty minutes from Kraaifontein as the crow flies, but again, a different world. If you look at the top ten murderous towns over the last twenty years, Kraaifontein is a perennial.
Everyone will tell you not to tarry in Kraaifontein. If you are there, and you can see (the bum of) Table Mountain, you immediately realise the mountain is too small for you to be safe. The rule of thumb in the Cape is make sure Table Mountain is bigger than your thumb, preferably the size of your whole hand.
But Kraaifontein is not safe, never safe, and you need a plan to leave, quickly. ‘Only’ having one hundred and fifty murders is cause for optimism in Kraaifontein; last year, more than 180 were reported, but everyone knows the true figure is higher by far.
Cheslin Kolbe grew up in Kraaifontein. Like Pieter-Steph and Malcolm, he was a quiet lad. But nobody could catch him. His cousin Wayde van Niekerk is the fastest human over 400 metres who ever competed, and Wayde’s mother was one of the fastest women to run in South Africa. Cheslin’s dad is the athlete in his bloodlines: a rugby star who represented South Africa in the apartheid-era ‘Coloured’ national team.
Cheslin could move. He was faster than Wayde at some points, over 100 metres, and also in the hurdles. Imagine the spring in your step you need to hurdle when you are that short? You might think Cheslin would have been the scrumhalf in primary school, but he was always a fullback, the position he ultimately won the Top 14 in.
Madiba, as he is known in the Republic, would have loved to see the humble national captain Siya Kolisi hoist the William Webb Ellis Cup in Japan, in 2019, proud of his long walk into the sun.
But perhaps he would have loved another moment even more: with the Boks up 25-12 and the clock ticking away English hopes, raw-boned Marx launched himself at a perfect ball-and-all height into Henry Slade, jarring the ball loose. Am cleverly declined to fall on the ball to force yet another scrum; instead, he scooped the pill to the indefatigable and omnipresent du Toit. The rangy blonde battler spun the ball wide to Kolbe, the slipperiest wing in the world, who hopped, skipped, and jumped past four despairing defenders to put the final to bed.
The strapping, tattooed Marx, the English-speaking Jo’burg boy, son of single mum Bernadine, a 2018 World Rugby Player of the Year nominee, but part of the bench ‘Bomb Squad’ in 2019 due to his wobbly lineout woes and the rise of scrum-hooker Bongi Mbonambi, had just rattled Slade’s skeleton.
He and Francois Louw coming on in the second halves of the three knockout games had stressed opponents’ breakdown and ruck security to the limit, but Marx was also a brute in the tackle. He has never been carded for his tackling technique; it is just legal erasure of carriers.
Watching Am play outside centre is like watching a real dancer enter a mosh pit.
Marx’s hit gave Am a chance to pounce and ignite. Am brought only 15 caps into the World Cup, and with Jesse Kriel sent home after the pool match loss to New Zealand, he was the only true outside centre left. He has always been a defensive 13 for the Sharks; snaffling and jackling and poaching outside muscleman Andre Esterhuizen. But the Bok coaches wanted more from Am than just mastering the rush-umbrella and slowing the ball. They wanted his silky hands.
Am is the brain in the Bok backline. Handre Pollard is a flyhalf who thinks he is a flanker, Damian de Allende is a centre who thinks he is Duane Vermuelen, and Makazole Mapimpi is still learning the game. Willie le Roux and Faf de Klerk often have their brains on fire during a test, and Frans Steyn will use one word when five are essential, and never saw a ball he didn’t want to kick.
Am is the super-chilled dancer in the Bok backline, who can stick and move, fly like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Missing part of one middle finger, he is shy, but not as shy as Kolbe, Marx, and Pieter-Steph. All his teammates say he is the best dancer in the team; a bit of a dude.
Watching Am play outside centre is like watching a real dancer enter a mosh pit. He is always calm. He knows he can get to the places he needs to be; his team needs to be.
The big blunt blonde boy from the farm, the lightning pocket rocket from Kraaifontein, the unsure and hungry kid from Germiston, and the Xhosa dancer who rejected soccer; in 1999 they started Mandela’s long walk to their personal sun, and their dreams coincided.
Along the way, they faced edicts of failure.
After playing under-16 at Western Province, he never grew, so Cheslin was told he was too small. “Go play sevens.” So, he did. Thirty times. In the Olympics. He added five kilos of muscle, and kept his speed. “Still too small.”
So, he played for Toulouse, and was nominated as best foreign signing, best try scorer, and recently, best player in the league. In 2018, he was big enough to score a try against the All Blacks in New Zealand. In 2019, he was big enough to bamboozle England and put the final nail in the sweet chariot coffin.
Am did not go to Craven Week, almost the prerequisite for South African higher honours. He looked like a speedster, but when timed, was slower than Jesse Kriel or Ruhan Nel. Just after his initial selection, he broke his arm and lost an entire year. When he found his way back to the Boks, the early rush umbrella defence puts so much onus on the 13 that every one of the plentiful tries which seemed to rain down on South Africa looked like his fault. And he didn’t run away from defenders when on break. His offloads didn’t stick. He just seemed like Unlucky Am.
Sure, Pieter-Steph became a Bok at 21, after being an under-21 world champion in 2012. But he had never wanted to be a lock. He was dropped from Swartland High School for refusing to be a lock. And yet that is what the Stormers and Boks decided he was. So his first attempt at flank was a disaster, against England of all sides. He looked lumbering and slow as the halfback opposite dummied him repetitively.
As he tried to lose the weight and add the agility to stick at (South African) 7, he kept suffering catastrophic injuries. A knee injury just before the 2015 World Cup threatened his participation, but his dad donated his tendons to prevent a month’s wait for cadaver tendons, and du Toit had the cruciate ligament repairs he needed.
They wondered: how good could PSDT be if he was ever healthy for a year or two? He never was.
Marx found his confidence at KES, played under-13 Craven Week, under-16 Grant Khomo Week, and under-19 Craven Week for the Lions. He made the South African Academy team in 2011. He was in the team for the Junior World Championships in 2014. And he was 2017 Player of the Year. But he had an Achilles hand: his throwing hand. Marx just couldn’t seem to hit the side of a barn.
The odds against each man playing the last sixty minutes of a Rugby World Cup final for the Boks were astronomical.
For a robust runner with brutal combat efficiency, he threw tentatively. His throws wobbled. Was he humiliated to be a reserve on the biggest stage, with dart-thrower Bongi Mbonambi preferred?
Was Kolbe big enough in the air? Well, in a pool match against Italy, he went up and took the ball from giant Sergio Parisse. Was Pieter-Steph quick enough to play flank? Well, in the final, his job was to man-mark little George Ford. Could Marx make his throws; we knew he could do everything else better than any hooker? Well, the Boks only lost one lineout in the World Cup and it was not Marx’s throw-in. Could Am organise the backline? Well, the Boks only let in four tries all tournament.
The odds against each man playing the last sixty minutes of a Rugby World Cup final for the Boks were astronomical. Add the qualification, in 1999, that those exact four boys would play? Never.
But here they were, on the immaculate pitch in Yokohama, in front of 70,000 spectators and tens of millions watching on televisions. In a Kraaifontein tavern, safe for two hours, at a King William’s Town shabeen with half the audience unsure of the laws of rugby, in a packed den in a Cape Dutch homestead in Malmesbury, and a Jo’burg sports bar: Bok fans were rabidly hoping.
Were the conversations intelligible to each other? Probably not fully. Even the Afrikaans of Kraaifontein is a tongue unto itself. Slang does not survive even one postal code, at times. The long walk continues; linguistically, socially, and in spirit. But one word was hammering, drumming, with every Pieter-Steph smash-tackle, every Marx cleanout, every time Cheslin took Courtney Lawes down, and every silky Am break: “Bokke!”
Each of these boys had their moments in the seventy-three minutes preceding their little joint move. Du Toit battered English ball carriers, without ceasing, and seemed to singlehandedly bench Ford. He might not have been on any English pundits’ pre-match composite team, with Curryhill and Undercurry all the rage, but he was on everyone’s post-tournament team.
Marx came on early for a concussed Mbonambi, and seemed to up the ante in all areas, particularly at scrum time. His momentum-stopping hits during the critical three minutes from 29:00 to 32:00 when England was knocking down the front door were monumental. One could almost feel the simmering, quiet rage of the boy from Germiston who did not quite fit in anywhere.
Kolbe was one-on-one with Lawes twice and put the big Englishman down twice, ball and all. And much-maligned Am, botcher of a sure try against Japan, anchor to a backline nobody fancied, had delivered the sweetest no-look pass of the tourney to a streaking Mapimpi, unselfish as always, and did not even get a high five.
So, here was Slade, diagonal in midfield on sixth phase, fixing Marx to find an overlap and a prayer. Marx broke him in two, and the ball slid free. Am was being grappled by Maro Itoje, but had the presence of mind not to claim the ball, but while being tackled by Itoje without it, instead ‘spatula’ it in one quick motion to a miraculously still-sprinting PSDT, who immediately threw a flat pass with his left hand to a finally free Kolbe. The sequence took three seconds.
Seven seconds later, Kolbe had dotted down, with force, having put Owen Farrell down on his bum and left three other defenders shaking their heads. He punched the air before he was lifted into the sky by two Bok locks and Pollard; you can take the boy out of Kraaifontein, but you cannot take Kraaifontein out of him.
This was Bok rugby, old and new, preserved and progressed, embodied in ten seconds. A perfect open-field tackle by a mobile tight forward who fought to come home to his mum safe: heir to Bismarck du Plessis, James Dalton, and Uli Schmidt. Quick thinking continuation by a fast-handed Border centre who defied his family to play the ‘white man’s game’; Jacque Fourie and Danie Gerber would be proud. A tireless blindside still galloping with seven minutes to go, six days after emptying his tank against Wales, with the skill of Rassie Erasmus and the hands of Juan Smith making the pass look easy. And a deadly finisher in the tradition of Ray Mordt and Bryan Habana. Let’s listen to Mandela again: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.
When Mandela was retiring, barefooted Pieter-Steph, Malcolm, Lukhanyo, and Cheslin were separated by chasms of history, fear, culture, and chance. They had one common element: they loved rugby. Rugby brought them a new family, transcending archaic notions of race and soil and blood. Until the day each man dies, no matter what mistakes and triumphs they make again, they share three seconds of unity. A tackle, a flip, a pass, and a jig. Together. Instinctive and happy.
From 2000, at the Laureus Awards, Mandela one last time:
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, it has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope, where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination.”
There was only green and gold in those three seconds. Nobody had their jersey handed to them for free. None of the four players would have ever known each other except for rugby. The joy they shared during those seconds is the sun all kids can share.
Written by Harry Jones
Harry Jones is a rugby fanatic and long-time Roar contributor, having written his first article for the site in 2013. He’ll probably never stop talking about the Boks’ 2019 World Cup victory.
Editing, design and layout by Daniel Jeffrey
Image credit: All images are copyright Getty Images, except for the ‘Lukhanyo Am’ image of King William’s Town, which is copyright Morne van Rooyen.