DURBAN – If the Springboks had defended the Webb Ellis Cup in 1999, it might well have come down to a chance meeting between two great comedians the inimitable Billy Connolly and the roly poly, burger-munching Bok prop Ollie le Roux.
The scene was a hotel pub in Glasgow following the Boks’ dispiriting win over Uruguay. Expanding the backdrop, the South Africans had arrived in Scotland, where they were based for their group games, as discontented as they were disenchanted with their coaching staff.
Highly-popular captain Gary Teichmann had been dropped a few months before, and the loyal teammates that the No 8 had led to a world record 17-consecutive victories were not amused.
But there were smiles at last that Saturday night when they chanced upon the hilarious Scottish comedian.
Connolly was parked in a corner smashing a few drams into his bearded face when in walked Le Roux, proclaiming to his mates already assembled: “We were ka* today, but there is nothing that vodka and Red Bull can’t fix!”
Connolly raised a furry eyebrow in delight, and soon the Boks were gathered around him for an impromptu gig.
On a sober note, the prelude to Le Roux’s interlude with Connolly was a team meeting at which coach Nick Mallett and his staff were not invited. Joost van der Westhuizen, appointed captain for the World Cup, had told Mallett and Alan Solomons that they were persona non grata.
The meeting was a triumph of player power. Karl Marx would have been proud of a workers revolution that resulted in a demand delivered to Mallett: “We play it our way...”
Intrinsic to the problem had been the selection of Bob Skinstad in place of the revered Teichmann. The players had nothing personal against Skinstad, but they were at odds with Mallett’s game plan based around Skinstad (who went to the World Cup injured after crocking his knee in a car accident).
In that meeting, the player voice that carried the most weight was that of legend Henry Honiball. A silent assassin on the field with his deadly tackling, Lem (or Blade in English), for once raised his voice. He said he would prefer not to be picked than be a “flank” clearing out tacklers after Skinstad, the planned first receiver for much of the game in the Mallett-Solomons strategy.
When Lem spoke, the players listened and there was a unanimous vote to ditch the plan of the coaches in favour of the players’ vision. The coaches had little choice but to accept.
The next week, the iffy performances in pool games against Scotland, Spain and Uruguay gave way to a rousing Bok quarter-final victory in Paris against the fancied England team of Clive Woodward.
If I take one abiding memory out of my coverage of Bok rugby it will be of watching Woodward’s lip drop incrementally as Jannie de Beer struck each of his record five drop goals that day.
The Boks went on to claim the bronze medal at that World Cup, losing to a Stephen Larkham drop-goal in the semi-final against the Wallabies, but then beating the All Blacks in the playoff for third place.
Incidentally, there was a telling sequel to the Connolly cameo.
The Boks, in merry mood, went on to a nightclub where, late into the night, locals confronted Western Province centre Tinus Linee... who like Van der Westhuizen would later tragically succumb to motor neuron disease.
For the first time in that World Cup the Bok players unified as a force and ruthlessly put the Bravehearts to the sword, in and out on the streets of the club in a fracas that went unreported. And with it being off the field, it was all the more significant for team unification.
Speaking of the late great Van der Westhuizen, he had an affection for Murrayfield that was reciprocated by the legendary local commentator Bill McLaren’s affinity for him.
On the eve of Van der Westhuizen’s first match at the home of Scottish rugby, in November 1994, the players had dared to walk onto the hallowed pitch and a groundsman had severely chastised Van der Westhuizen, who took umbrage. The next day he scored two brilliant tries, announcing himself on the international stage.
Hall of Famer McLaren, who picked Van der Westhuizen as scrumhalf in his all-time World XV, said this of one of the tries:
“Och, and again it’s that man Vun Durr Wester-hausen, just absolutely... mesmerical... down the far touchline! What is an outrageously gifted flank doing in a No 9 jersey?”
But it wasn’t the first time the Scots have gone all fuzzy about the Boks in Edinburgh.
In 1951 the Boks obliterated the Scotland 44-0, a scoreline that stood for decades as a record winning margin in Tests. In modern scoring it would have amounted to 62-0 (tries in those days were only three points, and the Boks scored nine of them).
The Scottish players were so overwhelmed in their admiration that they carried Bok captain Hennie Muller off the pitch at the final whistle!