I WAS THERE: The icy night the Falcons almost beat England in Brakpan

By Jacques van der Westhuizen Time of article published Apr 2, 2020

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FOUR days earlier England had beaten the Springboks 27-22 in the second Test in Bloemfontein to draw the 2000 series. In their last game of their five-match tour they were asked to take on the Gauteng Falcons at the Bosman Stadium.

The Teams

GAUTENG FALCONS starting XV: Matthys, Douw, Esterhuizen, Meyer, Van Deventer, Van Rensburg, De Kock, Steinbach, Botha, Wegner, Schroeder, Espag, Van der Walt, Williamson; Replacements: Willemse, Jordaan, Badenhorst, Roux, De Beer, Britz, Pieters  

ENGLAND starting XV: Lewesy, Thirlby, Greenwood, Johnson, Hanley, Hepher, Walshe, Corry, Volley, Worsely, Borthwick, Sheridan, Garforth, Long, Rowntree. Replacements: Wood, Lloyd, Stimpson, Flatman, Regan, Greening, Shaw

1. The background 

England’s five-match tour of South Africa in May and June of 2000 consisted of two Tests - in Pretoria and Bloemfontein - and three midweek games, in Potchefstroom, Kimberley and Brakpan. England, under Clive Woodward, arrived in South Africa having been crowned Six Nations champions earlier in the year. They were a star-studded side, led by Martin Johnson, and flyhalf Jonny Wilkinson their big-name attraction.

They won their opening game against the Leopards 52-22, but then lost the first Test to the Boks at Loftus (13-18). On the Wednesday that followed they beat Griquas 55-16 in Kimberley and then won 27-22 in the second Test in Bloemfontein - Wilkinson starring for his side. There was one more game to play though - against the then Gauteng Falcons, in Brakpan.

Jonny Wilkinson wasn't in the England starting lineup that faced the Falcons. Picture: AP

2. Match-day

It was a breezy, icy cold Wednesday evening on June 28 in the East Rand town of Brakpan. Three days earlier I’d driven back to Joburg from Bloemfontein where I’d covered my first Test match as a young sports writer for a major national newspaper (The Citizen).

I’d loved the excitement of the build-up to the Test match in Bloemfontein, and had listened to plenty of stories told by former Bok centre Wilf Rosenberg, who at that stage worked at The Citizen as a columnist. Anyway, with the series drawn, there was just the one tour match to be played and I didn’t quite know what to expect when I drove out to the East Rand to cover the game.

It got dark early, being mid-winter, and it was cold. I took one look at the bone-dry, brown field at Bosman Stadium and was glad I wasn’t running out to play. I also got the sense it was going to be no ordinary tour game. The crowd was loud and the stands were packed. It was also dark; the floodlights certainly not as bright as the ones at Ellis Park.

And, from the first whistle, it was brutal. England, led by Martin Corry with the likes of Johnson and Wilkinson rested, raced into a 17-3 lead but by halftime the Falcons had clawed their way back to be level at 17-all. It wasn’t a pretty game. Falcons prop Jaco Espag and England’s Darren Garforth got stuck into each other, and big Gunder Williamson of the home team was sin-binned for poor discipline.

The tackles were always hard, sometimes high, and often late. England led 29-27 with two minutes to go, but then Joe Worsley went over for the tourists to seal a dramatic and unconvincing win. Falcons centre Joe Esterhuizen was his team’s star player.

Will Greenwood, the England centre who went on to help his team lift the Webb Ellis Cup in Australia three years later, recalled the match in his autobiography. “We won, but not before both sides had effectively punched and kicked the living daylights out of each other. This was, quite honestly, a disgraceful fight of a game and that was partly down to the fact that there were no video cameras there to capture a litany of indiscretions sufficient to put both sides behind bars for several years.” 

#OnThisDay 16 years ago. pic.twitter.com/CqCkU0QU06

— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) November 22, 2019

3. What came next

The Falcons, under the guidance of Phil Pretorius, never quite reached the great heights they had achieved against the English, and in the Currie Cup competition later that year failed to qualify from what was then Section X of the competition - to play for the big and ultimate prize. They won only two of six matches and played in the B section. They did, however, pull off one of their most famous wins, again at Bosman Stadium, when they beat coach Laurie Mains’ Lions 43-42.

The Lions (or the Cats) had earlier in the year played in the Super 12 semi-finals and the side included the likes of Bok stars Thinus Delport, Dean Hall, Grant Esterhuizen, Louis Koen and Chester Williams. The Falcons team of the following year (2001) gave us the brilliant centre pairing of Adrian Jacobs and Ettienne Botha, while hooker James Dalton captained the side after making a return to top-flight rugby.

Interestingly, former Bok assistant coach, who was part of the World Cup winning team last year, Matthew Proudfoot, packed down in the No 3 jersey. England would go on to win the Six Nations again the following year (2001) and in 2003 they’d also bag the World Cup.

@jacq_west

The Star

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