JOHANNESBURG - Who remembers Andre Pretorius, the former Lions and occasional Springbok flyhalf? You can be forgiven if the memory banks need a bit of a jolt to recall the gifted but terribly injury-prone pivot.
It should not be that way given that Pretorius played a hugely significant role in the Springboks winning the 2007 World Cup, even though it was Butch James that ended up usurping the No 10 jersey from him at that World Cup. It goes back to an almost forgotten Springbok match against the All Blacks in the less than alluring surrounds of the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace in dusty Rustenburg.
The context of the match was hugely significant because John Smit’s Boks had lost five matches in a row, including copping 45 points from the same New Zealand side a week before in Pretoria. The public mood was ugly, and it was the same in the boardroom of the South African Rugby Union, which was itching to fire coach Jake White. Smit knew that a sixth consecutive defeat would mean the end of White, and most likely himself, as a new coach came in and gave the team a spring clean. Everything the Boks had worked for from 2004 towards the World Cup would go out the window.
After the heavy Loftus defeat, White changed plans and took the Boks out of Pretoria, away from the discontented public and put them in a resort near Sun City. Smit later reflected that his players were absolutely “gatvol” of losing and “didn’t give a damn anymore. Before kick-off there was something of a declaration of war in the change room, and the Boks ran out and played like frenzied animals. The All Blacks, who had won 15 in a row, responded in kind and the match turned into a throwback to the amateur era when it was a case of “anything goes,” especially in the set scrums.
A vivid memory I have of that game was a crazed Carl Hayman rising from a scrum in which he had obviously been given a ‘Welcome to Rustenburg’ from a tight forward and chasing Os du Randt to a ruck where he split his head open with a punch.
This ferocious but fascinating struggle built up to an almighty climax when All Black No 8 Rodney So’oialo had a moment of madness in the 79th minute and dived into a ruck, palpably from the side, with his team 20-18 ahead. That was when Smit tossed the ball to Pretorius, famously saying “rather you than me”, and then went into earnest prayer, the captain later admitted.
The kick sailed through the uprights, the All Blacks had been beaten 21-20, White was saved from the coaching gallows and a year later the Springboks had won the World Cup. The moral of the story is that a rugby team’s fortunes can turn on a ticky. Zeroes one day, heroes the next, and that goes for the Springboks under Rassie Erasmus as well as Eddie Jones’ England, again with the World Cup about a year away and both teams on losing streaks as they enter this intriguing three-Test series.
Finally, a postscript to that Battle of Rustenburg. The relief among the Boks was reflected in madcap celebrations at Sun City. The spanner in the works was that the All Blacks were also in the building, so to speak (where else do you go out in that neck of the woods?) and both teams ended up in the Traders bar where a distinctly combustible atmosphere prevailed. The All Blacks did not like losing and the Boks were happy to rub their victory in the Kiwis’ faces.
An injudicious remark by Butch James to assistant coach Steve Hansen almost caused a fracas and Smit decided that discretion would be the better part of valour and escorted his team to pastures new in the complex. The battle-lust waned as the night wore on and there was reconciliation in the wee hours when Smit encountered an All Black sitting in a bush, looking rather ruffled. “Dan, do you need a hand?” Smit asked, and Mr Carter replied: “Thanks Smitty, that would be nice,” and off the pair went to the casino.