Durban - If the world was a place of logic, as Ian Mcintosh himself once said, then men would ride side saddle … and Natal would not have beaten Northern Transvaal in the Currie Cup final at Loftus Versfeld on October 6, 1990.
But that is exactly what happened in one of the greatest and most romantic sporting upsets of all time.
Hollywood could not have scripted it better. Natal had not been playing the Currie Cup big boys for long after languishing in the B section for most of the ’80s; two weeks before the final they had been beaten 28-6 by Naas Botha’s Northern Transvaal at Loftus and the same team had given Natal a 24-9 hiding at Kings Park a month before, and then Natal squeaked into the final thanks to a last-minute Joel Stransky drop goal against Northern Free State.
So after 99 years of trying without success, what chance did the Natal Cinderellas have of winning the Cup in their centenary year and against a mighty Bulls team packed with Springboks? Zero chance according to the Pretoria News, who on the eve of the match published on their front page a snorting blue bull trampling over a terrified banana (Natal were the banana boys in the pre-sharks era).
But wily Mcintosh came up with a cunning game plan to surprise the cocky Bulls, including a secret selection that involved bringing Natal stalwart Andre Botha out of semi-retirement and into the second row, with Steve Atherton moving to the flank and John Plumtree dropping to the bench for an impact role.
The score would be 18-12 to Natal and any Natalian who had cognitive ability at that time will tell you it was the greatest day in the history of the province. The celebrations in Durban were spectacular and ongoing for weeks and motorists driving through Van Reenen’s Pass into Natal were greeted with a sign, “Welcome to Currie Cup country!”
That Natal team would become South Africa’s Team of the ’90s and they laid the foundation for the team culture and business model that grew into the Sharks brand we have today.
Unsurprisingly, that team had a special bond and they recently held a 30-year reunion which had to be held in 2022 because of the Covid pandemic.
Incredibly, nearly all of the squad and management made the week-long reunion that included visits to Bayete game lodge in Zululand, Shayamanzi houseboat in Jozini and culminated in the squad watching the Springboks v Pumas Test match at Hollywoodbets Kings Park.
The only two players that could not make it because of overseas commitments were No 8 Andrew Aitken and Plumtree while the try-scoring hero that day, Tony Watson, flew in from Scotland, and hooker Tom Lawton from Australia.
Much of the reunion was the players and management only and captain Craig Jamieson says that it was goosebump stuff when the players gathered.
“The first night felt like we were getting together for a team talk before a game … It was amazing how the guys just naturally slipped back into team mode. Physically, we are older, fatter, greyer, but the spirit and camaraderie is still there,” said Jamieson who in
1990 was known as “the cabbage patch kid” because of his unruly mop, but today is bald!
“It was just incredible how mates could gather from around the globe and it was like nothing had changed — the characters are exactly the same: naughty Dick Muir, serious Vleis Visagie, jovial Guy Kebble smashing the red wine, Tony Watson revving Mac …”
Watson says he had arrived with a little trepidation.
“I had my reservations because I had not seen many of the guys for decades but immediately we were the same old band of brothers,” Watson said.
“We are supposed to be these tough rugby guys but there was a lot of affection and sentimentality. Honestly, I would give this reunion nothing short of 11 out of 10.”
A few of the players had changed dramatically, notably Lawton, who shocked his teammates by arriving from Australia slim and trim and a far cry from the burly, 120kg hooker of his rugby prime.
Jamieson explained that Lawton had grown sick of being “the big guy,” and had a tummy tuck operation to shed 30kgs and now is very picky about what he eats.
“But he can still drink wine like a world champion and, incredibly, kept pace with Kebble!” Jamieson exclaimed.
Speaking of Lawton, Jamieson said that the arrival of the Wallaby hooker in Durban had been one of the turning points for Natal.
“We had an Australian selector in Dick Cocks and he persuaded Tom to come and play for us. He was a seasoned Wallaby and had been a key part of their team that won a Grand Slam in 1984,” Jamieson says. “Tom was instrumental in changing the way we scrummed.”
Jamieson said the guys watched a Youtube recording of the match on a big screen on the houseboat to great festivity.
“Most of us hadn’t watched a replay for 30 years and it was immediately apparent that we killed them in the forwards.”
Watson agrees: “From the first kickoff, from my position on the wing I watched our forwards charge towards the Bulls like utter maniacs. They just ploughed into them like men possessed. I instantly knew we were going to win.”
Loftus Versfeld was stunned into silence at the final whistle. Almost nobody could believe what had happened.
“The Bulls were shocked and I think embarrassed,” Watson recalls. “They had had special bow ties made for the after-match function to show they were the champions … They seemed shy but were gracious in defeat and they did mingle with us although we were partying just a little bit harder!”
Jamieson said there was a special evening around the campfire in the Zululand bush where the players recalled the greatest rugby season of their lives.
“It is amazing how each guy remembered something that the others had forgotten, and all the pieces were put together of a very special time in our lives.”
And around that campfire, the players were unanimous that none of it would have happened without their father figure, Ian Mcintosh.
Watson said: “Mac treated us as family and was willing to go to war for us, and that is why we are such a strong group to this day.
“And we had a special captain in ‘Jamtin’ (Jamieson). He never tried to be better than anyone, he was just your captain, and he had a very special relationship with Mac that filtered through the team.
“There was no hierarchy in our team — just a band of brothers.”