Cardiff – Wales and the Springboks have played 26 Test matches since 1906, the year the touring Boks won 11-0 in Swansea, and only once have the Dragons been triumphant – in 1999, and even then many a Springbok of that era will argue that the Boks would have won that day had it not been for dispiriting political interference.
It was indeed a turbulent time for coach Nick Mallett and captain Gary Teichmann’s Boks. As reigning world champions, they had been invited by Wales to play their team to mark the opening of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, which had been built because Wales were the hosts of the World Cup to take place later that year.
In Tests just prior to that match, the Boks had played home games against touring Italy and had annihilated them 74-3 in Port Elizabeth and then 101-0 in Durban. In PE, Breyton Paulse had marked his debut with a hat-trick of tries and scored another the next week.
But when Mallett announced his team to play Wales in Cardiff a week later, Paulse had been dropped for Stefan Terblanche, with Pieter Rossouw on the other wing. The big issue, as it turned out, is that the removal of Paulse made it an all-white Springbok team, and back in South Africa the faeces hit the fan.
ANC politicians were livid, and they immediately made their disapproval clear to the South African Rugby Football Union.
Mallett, confronted by South African rugby reporter Gavin Rich after a training session before that Cardiff match, defiantly said: “I will not be pushed around on this issue. I feel very strongly about it.”
Mallett said that he wanted to protect the black players in contention for the team – Paulse and Deon Kayser – from being seen as “window-dressing”.
“Every player that is in the team must know that he deserves his place and is strictly there on merit,” Mallett told Rich. “I don’t want to see Kayser and Paulse being in a position where they might feel they owe their place in the team to anything other than rugby ability. The fact that they are black must have nothing to do with their chances of playing for the Boks.”
But John Ncinane, an ANC MP and a Sarfu executive member, was just as emotional. He phoned Sarfu chief executive Rian Oberholzer and said: “When Nick Mallett was sitting in Constantia eating bacon and eggs, my people were on Robben Island breaking stones.”
The heat was on Oberholzer and he ultimately became the fall guy in this saga because he had to be seen to be doing something about a situation that was untenable to many politicians in South Africa.
He famously hopped on the next available flight to the UK and, in the team room of the Boks’ hotel in Cardiff, delivered a speech that is quite possibly the most demotivating any national team has ever had in the history of sport.
Oberholzer told the players and the coaching staff that the Boks were out of tune with transformation policy and that they were the last all-white team that would play for South Africa.
The players reportedly booed him. Not that they had a problem with transformation. They were simply infuriated for being blamed when they had nothing to do with the situation. They did not pick themselves. It was a thoroughly disheartening experience. Just days before a big Test match, the players felt that their own union did not back them and that their future in the green and gold was uncertain.
It is hard to ascertain just how much this unfortunate build-up had to do with Wales’ 29-19 victory, but it surely did not help.
Wales have not beaten the Boks since, and neither have the Boks fielded an all-white team.