The Glory of '95: The Battle of Boet Erasmus ... for once Bullet was innocent
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THOSE who were there will swear there was something sinister simmering in the air above Algoa Bay the night the Springboks hosted Canada in a Pool A match.
It might have been the late kickoff of 7.45pm that had given locals deprived of Test rugby for several years that extra opportunity to imbibe in the throbbing beachfront pubs before they went up the road to Boet Erasmus Stadium, a ramshackle cauldron that had rusty old railway carriages looming atop the openside stand.
And that air of hostile expectancy was fuelled when the lights went out as the teams lined up for the national anthems. The 31 000 Port Elizabethans present loved it as the bizarre added to their night of unique 1995 Rugby World Cup entertainment, and the stadium pubs thronged once more.
Also pre-match, there had been the eyebrow-raising pluck of Sarfu chief executive Edward Griffiths personally threading his way across that boisterous openside stand to implore the numerous holders of the old SA flag to lower their colours. Some did, some didn’t and some told him his fortune ...
The teams had retreated to their changerooms when the darkness descended, where the Canadians continued to whip themselves into a frenzy - that week, captain Gareth Rees (with understatement) had said: “We’re not a particularly good side, but in the physical confrontation we’re hoping to set up a battle, and to win it. Nothing illegal ... Just good old, confrontational rugby in which the game can be won or lost.”
In fact, Canada were a good team - Rees was an accomplished flyhalf for London Harlequins; their Western Province centre Christian Stewart would later play for the Boks; Rod Snow had anchored the Newport scrum for 200 games and captain Al Charron was one of the best locks in Welsh rugby - but they knew they could not beat the Boks in a fair exchange.
So when the game eventually kicked off just before 9pm, they opted to niggle, irritate, annoy and unsettle the Boks - an elbow here, a jersey tug there, hidden punches in the rucks and plenty of inflammatory expletives.
Discipline had been a non-negotiable cornerstone of the Springboks’ preparations for the World Cup under no-nonsense coach Kitch Christie, and in the first half the Boks literally rolled with the punches and kept focused only on getting the result that would secure them a quarter-final (if they had lost to Canada, there was a chance they would not make the knockout stage, despite having beaten Australia in their first match).
They comfortably led 17-0 at halftime (No 8 Adriaan Richter had twice scored off advancing forward efforts), but the only further score in the match would be a Joel Stransky penalty early in the second half.
The game lost shape as the niggling intensified, and then the fuse to the powder keg was lit when Canadian wing Winston Stanley, hurtling down the wing, was clattered into the advertising boards by Pieter Hendriks, his over-exuberant opposite number.
All hell broke loose when Stanley got up and tried to throttle Hendriks. Players flew in like missiles, and among them and perhaps inevitably, was Bok hooker James Dalton.
At that time the law emphasised that a third party arriving with hostile intent at a tussle between two players had to be heavily penalised (because he was an incendiary to the fire), and referee David McHugh incorrectly identified Dalton as the third arrival when video evidence clearly showed that it was Canadian fullback Scott Stewart who exploded the situation.
Virtually every player on the field traded blows but it was the unfortunate Dalton that was ordered off the field by McHugh (maybe this is why demented Bok fan Piet van Zyl years later tackled this Irish ref at Kings Park), along with Rees and Snow.
Dalton, for once in his life was innocent - he never threw a punch - and was injudiciously banned from the rest of the tournament (this was before the days when TMO evidence could exonerate a player in a hearing); and the upshot is that had the Boks’ semi-final against France been rained off, they would have exited the World Cup because of Dalton’s red card (France had the better disciplinary record).