By Peter Bills
It's seven o'clock on a winter's night in southern France and the lights of the town on the Mediterranean are fast disappearing from view.
The driver in front has already done three U turns in less than 10 minutes. Given that I haven't a clue where we're going and I'm just trying to keep up with Lawrence Sephaka through the back routes and country lanes around Toulon, it's not the ideal scenario.
Maybe it's no surprise the South African isn't sure where he's going. He's only been over here about a week and perhaps his uncertain direction on the road mirrors his own situation.
Sephaka is the latest of the Springboks to make France his new rugby home. The Springbok prop forward with 24 caps at least found one nice touch when he arrived. His new flat was in a road named Nelson Mandela Avenue...
But, Sephaka isn't yearning to be back in South Africa this instant. He has come to paint upon a fresh canvas, to open up a new vista in his life. Read carefully the following words and you may detect just a hint of the turbulence whirling around Sephaka's mind at this time.
"They say you can never change history but you can change the future."
He says it after a lengthy deliberation, accompanied by a deep sigh. For emotion is a centrifugal force within this man's mind at the present time.
This has not been a great year for 29-year-old Sephaka. He encountered personal difficulties with the Lions and missed out on the World Cup, his dream of involvement in rugby's showpiece event melting like chocolate on a hot summer's morning.
But he was not alone.
Others felt similarly disappointed: Solly Tybilika, Eddie Andrews, Hanyani Shimange, Wayne Julies, Odwa Ndungane, Waylon Murray, Kabamba Floors, Hilton Lobberts, Jongikhaya Nokwe, Tonderai Chavanga . . .
There are others, too. All had brief appearances among the Springbok elite but none survived to enjoy the fruits of their labours at the World Cup. What is Sephaka's honest, reflective interpretation of the Jake White years and transformation?
"We do feel at times we were used. You try to kill that thought because it destroys your confidence. But in many respects, we felt it was fairer when Rudolph Straeuli was coach, especially early on.
"Certainly at international level, I had a better picture with Rudolph than I had with Jake. I still don't know what Jake's initial picture was for me, whether it was just to fulfil the expectations placed on him by the transformation issue or to give me a genuine chance."
Sephaka tells an extraordinary tale concerning his last dealing with White.
It occurred on the Springboks' end of season tour to Ireland and England in November 2006, during which trip White had to fly home to fight for his job. What was not revealed at the time, indeed what has never been documented until now, is the angst suffered by one of the Springboks on that trip. Lawrence Sephaka.
"I just had a funny feeling as soon as we got together to prepare for that tour. Until then, things had been looking good for me and in 2005 I started coming back into the team slowly.
"So I thought the tour at the end of 2006 was a chance for me, with some familiar names left at home. Os didn't come and I was about the only loosehead on that tour.
"But things were chaotic before the first match in Ireland. We were playing in a strange strip because it was the Boks centenary, but it all felt wrong too. You want to give your best, but nothing actually worked in that game: the players didn't play together. It was a weird feeling, a bad game and we weren't scrummaging together. Things were not happening as we had practised in training."
There was a seismic shock awaiting Sephaka at half time. He was told he wasn't going out for the rest of the game. But no-one said a word.
"Jake White didn't speak to me to explain why. Not even Gert Small said anything. Nothing was asked, nothing was said. Jake didn't talk to me even when we got to London to prepare for the England game. The last time I spoke to him was before the match in Ireland. Then he just said, 'Listen. This is your chance, take it'."
Sephaka has not played for the Springboks in a major Test match since. His words reveal the anguish suffered by sportsmen in such circumstances.
"I was slaughtering myself inside, but the worst part was no one told me why it had happened. No explanations, no help, nothing. I was really disappointed. The least I would have expected was one of the coaches saying 'We feel you didn't take your chance because you didn't do this or that'. At least that would have been something. But I never knew where I was. That was where I feel Jake White was not fair.
"Yet when I got back to South Africa and later on saw a couple of the Boks who had stayed home, one of them told me, 'You were one of the very few players trying in difficult circumstances'.
"When those difficult times come, you think 'This South Africa is wrong because I have done my best'. But only God can really judge us."
Yet Sephaka's words reveal a discomfort he felt within the Springbok camp. "I am not the sort of guy that sucks up to the coach. But even then, you could see the guys that would go all the way through to the World Cup with Jake. He spoke to them, kept talking. I could never sit at the same table with them; I just didn't feel comfortable.
"I respected the coach as a person but I couldn't find any common things to talk about outside rugby or anything else. And he never said a word to me."
Yet such a situation was a mystery given that Sephaka had impressed in Test match rugby in 2005. He had played loose head prop against France at Port Elizabeth and done a sterling job against the renowned French front row including Sylvain Marconnet and Pieter de Villiers. No mugs survive against those guys but that day, Sephaka stood tall. His reward? "I was suddenly moved across to tighthead for the next match, against Australia. Playing out of position is hard for any player and after that match I was dropped."
Yet it had all promised so much for Lawrence Sephaka under a Jake White regime. Even when he got injured during the 2003 World Cup, during Straeuli's coaching era, White made contact with him.
"He SMSed me even before he was chosen as coach. I'd caught a finger in the eye and then was taken off against Georgia in Sydney but he said, 'Don't worry, things will be alright'. I thought to myself, this guy seemed the business and I'd get a real chance if he took over."
It is Sephaka's case that few players ever make it in international sport when handed only occasional, individual opportunities.
Most, whether they are rugby players, cricketers, equestrian competitors, soccer players or whatever, need a consistent run of games to adapt, mentally and physically, to the higher demands of international sport. His charge, supported by the facts, is that neither he nor most of those other players mentioned earlier, were ever given that sustained opportunity. "If I'd had four or six games together, then things might have been different.
"You should have those three to six games because if you mess up your first or second matches, you can relax and still aim for your best. You must have something to offer otherwise you wouldn't have been chosen anyway."
The past year has been largely an unmitigated disaster for him. Things didn't work out with the Lions, and his Springbok hopes collapsed. He hardly played Super 14 rugby for a variety of reasons, some it is alleged, self-inflicted. But another promising career had fallen flat, the latest in a long line.
A coincidence or evidence of a sustained failure on the part of so many black players?
Sephaka sits at the dining table in his Toulon flat and the clock ticks on past 10pm. The expression on his face reveals the solemnity of the tale he tells. "South African rugby put a lot of effort into me and a lot of others like me. But when I, and they, were supposed to blossom we were just shown the door.
"I know there were a thousand reasons given but they just wouldn't pick me. And there was no chance of continuity.
"Black players would like to play for the Springboks on merit and be given an equal chance.
"You don't want to be making up the numbers because of colour. You want to be competing fairly with the other players.
"But a guy like Solly (Tybilika) didn't get enough chances, either. And when he did play well, what was the justification for taking him off? His whole story is heartbreaking. He was labelled the bad boy of rugby but if only people knew . . ."
But now, he insists, South Africa has to go forward, although certain things need to happen for the benefit of the next generation.
Transformation should start at provincial level, he says, where players should be chosen on form regardless of colour. But in his view, provincial coaches are not doing that at the moment. He is adamant that this highly contentious issue should not be the national coach's problem.
But he is equally anxious to celebrate the many gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. Did the pain of rejection hurt when he was in the Springbok set up? "I always saw rugby as an opportunity so I should be grateful to the Lord. To complain that things are not going well is perhaps unfair to the One that gives you the talent.
"But when I was sitting alone, you do start to look at these little philosophies. It does hurt but it is how you deal with it that matters. "You don't show the pain.
"I will never blame South Africa for my hurt. It has given me opportunities and a different life I would not have had. Before rugby, I didn't know what to do. But rugby meant I had options in terms of a better life. So I will always remember the good times ahead of the bad ones."
And now he is at French club Toulon, eager to tackle a new challenge in his playing life, and help keep them top of Division 2 (as they now stand) and on track for promotion.
"I have come here to enjoy my rugby. I think this environment is created for the players to play their best and enjoy themselves, while taking the club forward. They want us to give the club a profile and push them into the top league."
But Sephaka knows he has to put aside memories of the past and focus on the immediate future. Otherwise, his French sojourn might also turn out to be a disappointment.
And right now, Lawrence Sephaka doesn't need any more of those.