Sport at the highest level is a fickle master. Only those who have flirted with it know how cruel yet pleasure-filled it can almost at the same time.
The loss by the once-revered Springbok rugby machine to Japan was once such moment in time. History said it was an improbability. It was never an impossibility because that’s the nature of the beast called sport.
Sadly it came at a terrible time. Expectations are masters that are very often tough to please most of the time. The Springboks carried with them the hopes and dreams of millions made up from all walks of life and this burden is one that could never have been taken lightly. I have no doubt that each and every player understood that well when they boarded the plane to England. So too the management.
With the loss has come the predictable fall-out. Our sport is deeply inter-woven with politics and hidden agendas. It has been that way for a long, long time. Utterances from all quarters are merely frustrations that expectations are not being met. Be it from politicians or the bloke who buys his green “Bok” shirt and wants to see his team win every single time. Also, rugby has another divide which is never far away when teams do poorly. Provincialism is alive and well with every household that sits every Saturday hoping to see “their” team triumph even if it’s to smile at work on Monday despite the negative issues that often surround a true-blue South African rugby supporter.
Players and coaches take the heat for upsets. They also take the glory for great victories. That is also the way it should be. They are paid handsomely and the public out there know it only too well.
In the loss to Japan, the coach has been placed in the firing line and so have all the players deemed to be “old” in rugby terms. It is also nothing new. That is how era’s come and go. A clean-out happens every few years and it normally co-incides with the tenure of the coach.
Unfortunately, it is not always correct though. Older players add value often unseen from the seat right up in the stands or on the television. I understand that scenario well.
Let me re-wind the clock to my own cricketing days to illustrate why. In 1997 we as the Proteas were facing a series against Pakistan. The previous year we had lost to the West Indies in the quarter Final of the World Cup and calls for greater transformation to the team were loud despite it being premature. The day before the first Test at the Wanderers a parliamentary discussion on cricket happened and the media quoted extensively how one prominent politician had called for all “old white” players to be booted out the team and to be replaced by “young warriors’. As one who fitted in that category I was hurt to the core. Here I was, about to play for my country against the fastest bowler in cricket history at the time, and now had to somehow work through that any failure would have disastrous consequences for my career which I had invested heavily in over the years.
The morning started with us batting first and by tea-time we were in dire straits with eight wickets down for just over 160 on the board. I recollect walking into bat down the long stairway of the Wanderers where many great players had gone before and knew that if I failed, not only were we as a team done but so was my career.
It was the greatest motivating moment I have ever had. All I needed was someone to stay with me. Somehow I got through the barrage of bouncers that came with the second new ball. Somehow I hung in with all I could using every bit of experience gained over 20 years of first-class cricket and it got easier. The day ended with Mark Boucher and myself still together at the crease and us having a more respectable score on that enormous scoreboard. The night was long. I was on 77 and no number 10 hade ever scored a ton in a century of cricket! I needed just 23 runs. Somehow I was determined to get through the early session which I knew would see Shoaib Akhtar and Waqar Younis run in hard and make life scary at the crease. Those that have ever played cricket at any decent level will know that at the Wanderers the bounce is good, the track is fast and those two were as fast as you will ever see. It is not a place to be if you have any fear.
Suddenly I was in the nineties and we had passed a 16 year old World Record partnership. I needed to get through the last few runs and get to that hundred to silence those that had never walked down a cricket stairway to face a ball in anger yet who were judging what I could bring to the table. The last run to get to the hundred came and the rest is history. It is still a world record today. We posted a good total and escaped to fight again another day. It was a triumph not only for us as a team but also for others in the team who were perhaps also being seen as past their prime. The third and final Test of that series saw Fanie de Villiers just bail out of Test cricket amidst similar pressure after taking six wickets. He still had a lot to offer.
I tell the story because similar calls are being made to the older players in the Springbok rugby team that lost to Japan.
Top sportsmen never gripe about being criticized when it is fair and due AND when it comes from those who have earned the right to do so. How often don’t I hear calls for great players to be ditched! Can anyone comprehend the amount of times someone like Jannie du Plessis has put his head in a scrum against the toughest and strongest men in the rugby world. How many times during the week the scrum is practised and how much training he needs to do to maintain his strength. Just imagine for a second how mentally tough you need to be to do that day-in-day-out. Every scrum means you are being tested by someone who wants your place. Yes, we can sit in a bar and shout our mouth off and think we are able to judge. But do we really know what it’s like in that cauldron of fire. Only those who have been there know.
The Proteas lost to Bangladesh just a short while ago. Not too long ago they were in the same class as Japan in rugby terms and they were underestimated. Every week we see a new golfer emerge and cause an upset. That is the mystery and beauty of sport.
The Springboks may have lost to Japan and may yet even bow out of the tournament early but I will continue to resist calling for players that have carved out deep tracks in their time because I know how it feels. However, I do know that every player who may be deemed by someone outside the game to be too old will be motivated beyond belief and if that is harnessed correctly, it could yet be the biggest challenge the rugby World Cup has ever seen.