A full-on and fierce rivalry to savour
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Names like Percy Bush, Dicky Owen and JL Williams might not strike a chord with South African rugby lovers, but they were among the first Welshmen faced by a Springbok team.
Back in 1906, SA embarked on their first overseas tour, to the UK, with legendary Paul Roos as captain. It was on this very expedition that the “Springbok” name was birthed.
In any event, South Africa shocked Wales in Swansea, centre Japie Krige outplaying the legendary Welshman Gwyn Nicholls, regarded as the finest centre of his day.
Fullback Stevie Joubert, it was written, “went through the enemy’s line like a rat through a drain pipe” as SA won 11-0.
And thus was born a rivalry that has seldom been predictable or uninteresting. Today, in Japan, the World Cup semi-final showdown against Wales ought to add another layer to this rich rugby tapestry.
For over 100 years, South Africa tended to dominate the Test battles, but recent history has been less kind; Wales having won five of the last six matches.
Ironically, a long run of wins by the Boks was snapped in 1999 when Wales invited South Africa to play them as the official opener of the magnificent Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. If Wales always won the singing contest, on this day they won the rugby contest, too. The Boks were swept aside 29-19.
It was a happy day for the Welsh and a vast contrast to what had occurred five years previously.
“The Battle of the Gnoll” has gone down in rugby lore as one of the filthiest mass brawls in rugby history.
Determined not to be intimidated by the unsmiling Springboks, Neath packed a healthy supply of aggression that bubbled over when Drikus Hattingh was nailed head high. It ignited the first of several brawls with referee Roy Megson unable to take control.
At one point, Tiaan Strauss took out prop Brian Williams, the team’s hard man, although Strauss himself later had his nose broken.
Even now, watching on YouTube, clips of the mayhem are scarcely believable such was the ferocity on show. “I think they went on the field to fight us,” said Strauss with charming understatement.
Wales of old famously boasted one of the great all-time sides in the 1970s, with legends like Phil Bennett, Gareth Edwards and JJ Williams, but the shift to professionalism in the 1990s was a struggle. In June, 1998, Wales suffered one of their darkest days as the Springboks humbled them 96-13 at Loftus Versfeld.
That day the Boks were led by Gary Teichmann, a man who would later seek solace in the small Welsh town of Newport, which gave him a home after Nick Mallett had snubbed him. Teichmann fast became a hero at Rodney Parade, leading Newport to their first Principality Cup win in 24 years.
Many more South Africans played in Wales over the years, among them Percy Montgomery, Bobby Skinstad, Ricky Januarie, Adrian Garvey, Pieter Muller and Stefan Terblanche.
Yet another SA link to Newport comes via Andy Marinos, the Zimbabwe-born former Western Province centre who later played several Test matches for Wales. He later became Newport’s chief executive.
Today’s big match in Yokohama is likely to embellish the fascinating history between the two nations.
As ever, passions will be fiery and the rugby nothing less than full-on and fierce.