This book was always going to be a fasten-your-seatbelts, high-octane blast given that one of rugby’s most unapologetic characters is telling his story to South African sport’s most fearless reporter.
We are talking about James Dalton, the Springbok hooker that you could well bump into if you lost your way down a dark alley, and Mark Keohane, alias “Cowboy” as they called him when he lived in New Zealand on account of his six guns shooting from the hip in his unambiguous stories.
Keohane will be remembered for the brutal manner in which he exposed the realities of Springbok rugby in the unfortunate era that followed the dawn of the new millennium, in his book Springbok Rugby Uncovered.
Metaphorically, he pulled no punches in that expose and Dalton literally did the same in a 43-cap Test career in which the Boks almost never lost when he was spearheading the forwards from the centre of the scrum.
The relevancy of a book on a rugby player that retired 17 years ago will be raised, but herein lies the charm of this riveting tale - it is far more than the blow-by-blow account of a Springbok rugby player.
It is also very much an incursion into South Africa’s sinister underworld of Hells Angels, drug running, assassinations and brothels. Dalton inhabited this world while, miraculously, starring as a Springbok hooker at the same time in a very different world and, as he vividly depicts, it also killed him.
He has literally survived to tell the tale, and Keohane does this full justice in a book that cannot be put down.
Dalton just does not hold back. Early on, it is Jeppe High coach Jake White that cops a barrage of bullets for what Dalton perceived as a gutless failure to defend him in the headmaster’s office following a punch-up in a match between Jeppe and Athlone High.
Dalton says he was honour-bound to belt an opposition player who had knocked out Dalton’s teammate, Brent Moyle (a future Bok prop) and was intent on kicking the defenceless Moyle.
But Dalton says White hung him out to dry in front of the headmaster, and he describes the future Bok coach as “Jake the Snake” and “self-serving and spineless”.
That sets the tone for the book, and Jake is hardly the first and last to get a salvo from the Bullet. In fact, the book closes with another coach suffering an excoriating roasting. The reader winces as Rudolf Straeuli is flayed alive for his misguided antics as Springbok coach.
In between, there are some wonderful insights, including what made Kitch Christie such a fine coach of the Springboks and Transvaal and why “miserable” New Zealander Laurie Mains forced Dalton to quit his beloved Transvaal.
Disturbing is the revelation that in the late ‘90s and early 2000s there was a significant recreational drug culture in South African rugby.
A number of players dabbled in drugs on Saturday nights following games, with Dalton admitting he was often the organiser.
He describes how in London in 1998 he asked “connected” England player Lawrence Dallaglio to arrange free entrance to a fashionable nightclub for some of the Boks on the Wednesday before they were to play England. Dalton wasn’t one of them and that night he received a call from a furious Dallaglio who claimed a Bok had asked one of the bouncers: “where are the drugs?”
Maybe that is part of the reason the Boks lost that weekend to England, having gone into the match locked on a world record 17 consecutive wins with New Zealand.