This essay by Nick Mulgrew was originally published in Volume 2, Issue 4 of South African literary magazine, Prufrock.

 

I – 2007

Of the five thousand-odd seconds in a match of rugby, sometimes it’s the last few that count the most.

            Twenty left. Gary Botha, the Bulls hooker, finds a gap in midfield. He’s quick for a front-rower, but defenders soon close in on him. He panics, grubbering the ball aimlessly from the halfway line. François Steyn, the Sharks centre, gathers in his own 22. Steyn – twenty years and five days old – could punt the ball into touch and the match would effectively be over. Steyn kicks vast distances with ease. Earlier this season, he launched a drop goal from 55 metres out at sea level. Later, in the World Cup Final against England in Paris, Steyn will land a penalty from the halfway line, securing the Springboks their second world championship.

Perhaps, however, he learns that future composure from what happens today; because today, of all days, Steyn scuffs his kick. 

            Victor Matfield, the veteran Bulls lock, catches the ball ten metres away from the right-hand touchline. He strides infield and passes. Matfield, Olivier, Ndungane. Tackle, ruck. Adams, Spies, Hoegaard. Tackle, ruck.

            The noise in King’s Park – or the ABSA Stadium, as it was known then – grows with each phase of play. Fifty-four thousand people, hollering and grating. During one ruck, after a break from the Bulls backs, the ball spurts out from a Bulls player’s hands and rolls forward a couple of metres. One half of the stadium sees it. A knock-on. Euphoria. The home team has won. The Sharks have won the Super 14 Final, 19 points to 13.

            In small pockets the crowd begins to sing:

We are black! /

We are white! /

We are, we are

/ Dynamite!

 

            But the referee – the handsomely-stubbled Australian Steve Walsh – doesn’t see the knock-on. Nor do his linesmen. The Bulls scramble and regain the ball, and the match continues.

Hoegaard, van der Westhuysen, Engels, Ndungane. Tackle, ruck. Adams, Olivier. Tackle, offload.

            Behind me, in the stands, a man in a black T-shirt covers his face and hunches down on his seat. With each pass, each tackle, each offload, a crescendo of voice – of pleading, of anger, of prayer – rises and falls around us. Time has long elapsed. Walsh signals that the Sharks are offside. He plays penalty advantage to the Bulls.

            “Jesus, no,” the man says. “Please, Jesus.”

            The stadium clock has elapsed, and the sun has banked under the stands. It’s that time of day in Durban, just after sunset, when the sky rings clearest and blue, when the salt and the haze is no longer caught by the light; when the city turns silver and tired and stoic. I remember looking out from my seat that day in May 2007, in the spaces between the towering concrete stands, and taking in the suburbs around the stadium: the apartment blocks towering over each other; the hills dotted with waking streetlights. Anywhere instead of a field where the Bulls have the ball in a dominant position.

            After some confused running from the backs, the ball ends up with Bryan Habana, the Bulls wing, and by far the fastest man on the pitch. He cuts wide. The Sharks’ defence, exhausted after 80-plus minutes of repelling an incisive Bulls attack, tracks across. Habana spots space infield, between the defenders. A corridor opens between the backs to his right trying to cover the sideline, and the ragged forwards to his left. He cuts inside. A Sharks player misses a tackle. Habana accelerates and dives to the right of the goalposts.

            “Please no,” the man says, “Jesus, please no.” Time compresses. It all goes too fast to take in. Derick Hougaard, the Bulls flyhalf, lines up the conversion, twenty metres out on the slightest of angles. The Sharks players attempt to charge the ball down, but are called back by Walsh. Unimpeded, undistracted, Hougaard chips the ball over.

            Sharks 19, Bulls 20. Full time. The Bulls have won the championship, the biggest in club rugby anywhere in the world, 600 kilometres away from home. Van der Westhuyzen, the replacement Bulls flyhalf, climbs the goalposts and shoots horns with his hands at the supporters in the stands. Matfield collapses on the pitch – with exhaustion or jubilation, or both.

The presentation is rolled out as the home supporters leave their seats. Numbly, the Sharks players approach and leave. John Smit, the Sharks captain, accepts his consolation, and then retires to the change rooms, where he will cry to himself in the bathroom for half an hour.

By the time the Bulls are handed the trophy, the stadium is mostly empty. The Bulls players jump around as confetti settles around them. The sky glows orange and gray above the floodlights.

I’m still in the stands. And so is the man behind me. “Jesus,” he says, over and over. “Jesus, Jesus.”

On the field, Van der Westhuyzen pops out to the front of the throng of players and raises his arms in triumph. He started his career with the Sharks in 1997 as a 19-year-old. Today, ten years later, on the field on which he first made his name, he’s celebrating with their great rivals as their fans sing their anthem, “Ek bly ’n Bul”.

Sometime between climbing the goalposts and lifting the trophy, van der Westhuyzen has found a white T-shirt, which he has scrawled all over and pulled over his blue jersey.

The T-shirt says: “JESUS IS KING.”

b-page-0

“That’s the most painful rugby memory I have,” John Smit says. “The hardest day of my entire career by far.”

            Smit leans back in his chair and looks out across the empty expanse of his office. After 15 years of representing the Sharks, Smit became the CEO of the team in June 2013 and in the process inherited this room, a palatial corporate den buried into the concrete backside of King’s Park grandstand. He leans back into his chair, running his hands through his cropped hair. He’s the biggest man I’ve ever met – six-foot-two and 120 kilos – with a booming, almost preternaturally confident voice. When we talk about that day in 2007, however, that voice begins to waver.

“I only really had two days that were hard in my career,” he says. “Losing my 100th Test for the Springboks in Soweto was awful,[1] but that paled in comparison to how I felt losing that final.”

            “We had had the most incredible season. We had the most incredible group of guys. We had the best team in the competition by far. We were just in such a good place, and to watch it slip away on the sidelines and make guys make silly decisions…”

            His voice trails off. He sighs.

“Look, it will never get easier.” He forces a close-lipped smile. “I’ll never get over it.”

It sounds a bit sad to say it, but I don’t think I will either. I remember re-watching the final the morning afterward in my parents’ front room, and being about as furious as a 16-year-old boy could be. I had just come home from Mass, where our parish priest had asked forgiveness for all Bulls supporters in the congregation, and, like many people in KZN that morning, had hunched over on the couch in front of the TV, with the highlights on repeat.

I remember I drew particular ire from the commentary of Joel Stransky – the former Sharks player whose made-for-Hollywood drop-goal gave South Africa its first World Cup in 1995 – and Hugh Bladen, the gnarly-voweled voice of local rugby broadcasting.[2] Even today, watching the match on YouTube, you can hear how Stransky and Bladen trip over themselves when Francois Steyn misses a late conversion, which would have given the Sharks an unassailable eight-point lead with a minute to go. “The Bulls can still win,” they say, tempting fate. “A converted try would do it.” Later, you can hear how Bladen calls Habana’s try, seemingly speaking in all-caps, celebrating, crying out, THIS COULD BE IT! THIS IS IT!”

And how bitter I felt at this back then. That’s what I remember most about that sunny mid-winter’s morning in Durban North. My father swearing at Walsh failing to pick up the knock-on. At van der Westhuyzen’s celebrations. At feeling that, after eleven years without the Sharks winning a trophy, this was the most cruel thing that could have happened to us.

But watching the video again, now, in 2015, I’m more struck by something that Bladen says just after the final whistle.

            “This game wasn’t won by people,” he says, with the camera cutting between crestfallen images of my childhood heroes – Butch James, Tendai Mtawawira, AJ Venter. “It was lost by people.” And Bladen was right, of course. The Sharks only had themselves to blame for losing. But they also had every right to feel devastated at coming short on the most important day of most of their careers. Anyone would cry at missing out on what would be the crowning achievement of their professional lives: a commission, or an award, or a promotion.

            But what can you say for the supporters? What can you say for the supporters who, the next morning and for thousands of mornings after such disappointments, harbour sadness and anger and regret because of the actions of highly-paid people playing a simple game?

            The truth is – just like the players – we only had ourselves to blame for the way we felt. For the way we feel. For the way we reacted. For the way we let these things take us over, and how we let them possess us.

            Except, of course, we have a way out. We don’t have to care.

            In truth, we have only ourselves to blame.

 

II – Childhood

Bar none, the Sharks were the most influential cultural force of my childhood. In the first seven years of my life, the Sharks won the Currie Cup four times. They also twice reached the final of Super Rugby – which features the best teams from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand – among a handful of other playoff appearances. I don’t think I missed a home game from the time I could walk until I was seven.

            I have my father to thank for that. My father was born in England and came to South Africa in the ‘80s. A toolmaker by trade, rugby was – and still is – his greatest obsession. He adopted the Sharks as his team when he moved to Durban toward the turn of the decade, dragging my mother and my brother to matches at King’s Park every second week. My brother, as it turned out, ended up less interested in rugby than heavy metal, so when I was born in 1990 there was no way I would escape being indoctrinated into the sport.

            In retrospect, it was all a bit obsessive. There are hundreds of pictures of me as a child wearing a Sharks jersey or kicking a Sharks-branded Gilbert around fields and beaches in Virginia and uMhlanga and any other place my family moved to within the nebulous boundaries of Durban North. I was the child that brand managers and marketers dream of: I listened to the Sharks CD;[3] I was dressed almost daily in Sharks-branded “lifestyle apparel”.

            Maybe this set me up to be bullied when my family emigrated to New Zealand. In this strange place, in a small, stuffy neighbourhood 40 kilometres north of Auckland, the Sharks were the only thing that was familiar to me; the only thing with which I could identify. The problem was, as things would have it, that the Sharks were then in the midst of a tetchy rivalry with the local team, the Auckland Blues – and this was as hardcore a Blues-supporting neighbourhood as one could be, in a country as hardcore a rugby-supporting country as one could be. I remember going to school on my first or second day wearing a Sharks jersey and being pelted with fruit from my classmates. And later, I would be exposed to a kind of disdain from my teachers that, if I had the words for it then, I might’ve called “petty xenophobia”.

Supporting the Sharks marked me out as an interloper in a place that wasn’t quite used to the hundreds of white flighters white-flighting their way to the antipodean. One day, after a particularly hard-fought match between New Zealand and South Africa in the Tri-Nations, a teacher called me and my best friend – who happened to be from Port Elizabeth – a pair of “refugees”. I couldn’t understand this hostility – and what eight-year-old would?

a-page-0

III – A Sporting Life

All of this is anecdotal, of course. Maybe the other thousands of South African families who left home in the ‘90s had much more pleasant experiences. It is, however, unavoidably true that sport does strange things to people; the sorts of things that compel adults to say awful things to eight-year-old boys.

And by “them”, I mean “me”. Because rugby does something to me, too. When I watch a match, the entire composition of my being changes. I swear, I shout, I gesticulate wildly. I plan my weekends around watching rugby. Some weeks, it’s all my friends and I think about.

Some people – Noam Chomsky, for example – might imagine that caring about sport is the trademark of a mind ignorant to greater social concerns, whatever those concerns might be. But I think that’s disingenuous: people can think about and care about sport at the same time as they care and think about other things. JM Coetzee loves Test cricket – even though he might “concede”, in his awful letters to Paul Auster, that it is “a waste” of the many hours he spends watching it. Nelson Mandela loved to box, and Stephen King obsesses over the Boston Red Sox. Roger Angell – probably the most famous sports writer of all time – was also at one time the fiction editor of the New Yorker.

Albert Camus in particular loved soccer, saying in a magazine interview that “what I know most surely about morality and the duty of man I owe to sport”.

But just as it’s disingenuous to call all sports lovers ignorant, it’s disingenuous to argue that they’re all like Albert Camus.

The answer is likely in the middle. Sport can be thought of as a kind of dynamic, spontaneous physical theatre. As in theatre, sport has its stages and arenas: the pitch, the court, the green, the board. It has its tropes, its traditions, its schools of thought. Like dance, like drama, like fine art, most sports require knowledge of conventions – of rules, scorings, positions, history – to understand and appreciate them fully.

Compare rugby and ballet. Both, at even moderate levels of proficiency, require great resources of strength. Their mastery requires uncommon dedication and, at its best, an unbroken pursuit of physical perfection. Both require theoretical and practical mastery.

They have different codes, each requiring collaborative movement between performers, whether it’s a scrum or a pas de quatre. Both require choreography, tactics, costumes. Both are affected by the chaos of character, by chance, by spectators.[4]

The thing that really separates sport and art is direct competition. Theatre can be competition, of course, but sport is always competitive.

Even so, sport, like art, creates an arena for expression and catharsis and discourse. For millions of people, sport is a space in which people can express destructive emotions in a way that doesn’t matter that much. It’s a game. A game upon which a lot of money may ride. A game upon which people’s careers are built. A game upon which people are free to project themselves, to live vicariously through men and women at the peak of physical performance. But a game, nonetheless.

It’s the fact that rugby doesn’t really matter that makes it really matter.

IV – 1990

I can remember every time the Sharks have lost a final since I was conscious enough to remember them.

There was the time in 1996 when I watched the Blues thrash Natal (as the Sharks were known then) in the early morning at home in my pajamas. Or the time in ‘99, in the stands at King’s Park, when the Lions absolutely leathered Gary Teichmann’s men. Or in 2001, in one of my best friend’s dad’s cars, listening on the radio as the Sharks lost haplessly in Canberra. Or in 2012, seated with my dad and brother in an Australian bar in London – the kind of place where antipodeans on gap years gather to drink Tui and Bundaberg – when Waikato thumped a Sharks team that were lucky to be in the final in the first place.

To old Natalian fans, complaining about a lost final would sound ridiculous. As Albert Heenop writes in his book, Natal Sharks: Team of the 90s:

When occasionally in the pre-Nineties Natal had reached the semi-finals of the Currie Cup, the local rugby fraternity were always over the moon. The thing is that back in those humble days, just reaching the playoffs was reason for immense pride.

Not in the Nineties, though. No way. By 1997, the rugby public – which had increased by mammoth proportions since the first Currie Cup title was achieved […] – had become so fickle that the Natal Sharks season was deemed a disappointment, despite the team qualifying for both the Super 12 and Currie Cup semi-finals.

            Well, call me fickle. For me, a season without a trophy is a disappointment. And so it’s probably a good thing I was born in 1990. Until 1990, Natal had reached the Currie Cup final only twice in 99 years, losing on both occasions. For most of the ‘80s, Natal languished in the second-tier B Section of the Currie Cup. Although they reached a final against Western Province in 1984 – thanks to the bizarre machinations of the Currie Cup in those days – the Banana Boys of Natal[5] were second-stringers, consistently repulsed from promotion by Northern Orange Free State, the perennial wooden-spoonists of the A Section.

             It was political intervention that allowed Natal to compete for the Currie Cup in the 1990s. In November 1986, writes Reg Sweet in Natal 100: Centenary of Natal Rugby Union, “a special meeting of the SA Rugby Board effectively terminated Natal’s five years in Section B, by increasing the amount of sides in Section A to seven. It was to be a probationary move […] In effect, the SA Board had opted to take Natal on trust; and Natal was now required to justify that confidence.”[6]

            It took three years of trying from the team, led by Zimbabwean coach Ian McIntosh, but Natal eventually justified their inclusion, winning the Currie Cup for the first time in 100 years in their centenary year.

            When it eventually happened, the local rugby hacks called it a fairy tale. In fact, it had required compromise and planning. Natal had long been known as a team that played with style and tactical abandon; a team, McIntosh says, that “could play dazzling rugby against the best of teams, including international sides, and even beat them” – as they did against Australia three times between 1953 and 1969 and against Italy in 1973. But their game plan slumped against ostensibly worse teams, who were more disciplined and physically imposing. Natal, once deemed “the last outpost” of the British Empire, had traditionally smaller forwards than their northern and western counterparts. It was only once McIntosh began recruiting larger forwards and imposing a more rigid and conservative game plan, that Natal ever looked like title contenders.

Before I began writing this story, I’d never seen a video of the 1990 final, which was held at Loftus Versveld in Pretoria. No video of it existed online. No sports channel ever showed it. Not even the KwaZulu-Natal Rugby Union had a copy. It took months digging around, but eventually I secured a digitised copy from the SABC archives in Johannesburg. On watching it, I at once realised why I’d never seen it on TV: the tape was incomplete, parsed together from different broadcasts and SABC highlight reels. The archive manager told me that someone had cut up the master tape. As such, there exists no complete, publicly-accessible footage of one of the most significant matches in South African sporting history.

            Perhaps this is fitting, because what the tape holds is not a well-rehearsed spectacle. Rugby only became a professional sport in 1995, and so the pyrotechnics and surround-sound clamour of the modern-day Currie Cup Final are not present here.[7]

            The broadcast is half in English, half in Afrikaans, with the Afrikaans commentator covering the Natalians, and the English commentator[8] focusing on their opposition – the Blue Bulls of Northern Transvaal. The pre-match presentation is all synthesisers and gradient-heavy graphics, with Natal represented by an anthropomorphised banana trampling on the crushed coats of arms of rival unions.

            Northerns, on the other hand, get a rampaging bull. On the field, a potbellied man leads a nose-ringed Brahman onto the halfway line, while a bunch of skinny surfers stand in a semi-circle, toting inflatable fruit and a homemade banner reading: “PEEL ‘EM NATAL”.  Word comes that the Natal lock and future Sharks coach, John Plumtree, has had an asthma attack and can’t play. The ideological advantage is firmly with Northerns.

            The opposing teams meet in the belly of the stadium to conduct the coin toss with a Krugerrand, while 50 000 people in the stands roar out “Die Stem”. Soon afterwards, the players jog on to the pitch into the stark highveld sun. Here is White South Africa’s crowning day. The vindication of their culture, in the middle of one of South Africa’s most turbulent and unpredictable eras.

            The game itself is one for the purists: defence-heavy, sloppy, brutal. The first half is a battle of boots. Naas Botha, the Northerns captain and possibly the greatest flyhalf in the history of the game, misses a first-minute penalty, then goes on to miss two more. Pre-fame, 23-year-old Joel Stransky lands three penalties with blood dripping unabated from his forehead. Botha attempts to respond with the kind of drop goal that would become Stransky’s trademark in years to come; one is charged down, and one misses. It comes to the Northerns fullback Gerbrand Grobbler – who played cricket as well as rugby for his province – to land a penalty on the stroke of half-time. Natal lead 9-3 at the break.

            Bladen calls this “extraordinary”, and it’s easy to forget that it actually was. Northerns were the three-times defending champions. They had already thumped Natal, at home and away, twice this season, and had only lost one match the entire year. Surely they would turn this around.

            And they did. The SABC’s master copy shows only ten minutes of the second half, but to a Sharks supporter they’re the only bit that matters. Fifteen minutes into the second half, Northerns take the lead thanks to a Grobbler try and a Naas Botha drop. Then, a hard cut later, Tony Watson, the fleet-footed Natal wing, shakes off Theo van Rensburg and dots down, only to be kneed in the face by a retreating Northerns defender. Stransky takes the conversion, and then a penalty awarded against Northerns for foul play. It was immediately deemed the “nine-point try”[9], and it sealed the match.

            At the final whistle the surfers invade the pitch, lifting massive men onto their shoulders, while the bulk of the partisan crowd leaves. The remaining supporters, my father included, coalesce on the pitch, crying and shirtless and triumphant. The players meanwhile retreat to the changing rooms, where they drink Castle Lager out of a hulking gold trophy.

Dis pandemonium!” the SABC anchor shouts, having snuck into the Natal dressing room. “Absoluut pandemonium!”  Cameraman in tow, the anchorman stops Craig Jamieson, the Natal captain, and asks him how he feels.

“It’s been hell,” Jamieson says, almost whispering, “but we got there.”

d-page-0

V – 2012

From 1990 to the present day, the Sharks have won more Currie Cups than any other team, save the Blue Bulls: they’ve won seven apiece.

The Sharks, however, are the undisputed champions of losing Currie Cup finals: one for every one they’ve won. Out of all of them, there’s one that stands out most to me.

In 2012 I was living in Woodstock in Cape Town with four friends, all of whom were from KZN. One of them, one of my best friends growing up, had been living in Cape Town for a good while and now supported Western Province. That year, the Sharks were playing at home against Province in the Currie Cup final, and we had decided to have a party at our house to watch it. My friend brought around a bunch of friends, and we all sat down and had a few drinks. My rugby-apathetic mother had arrived earlier to visit me for the weekend, and she decided to join in the festivities. It was unlike her to care about rugby, but I appreciated it.

As it turned out the Sharks played horribly, but somehow conjured up a last, potentially game-saving attack with time up on the clock, A front-rower ended up knocking the ball on, but unlike in 2007, the referee couldn’t miss it. Province had won their first Currie Cup in 11 years, and while the Province supporters were high-fiving in the living room, I changed out of my jersey and decided to take my mother out to dinner. My dad hadn’t messaged me about the match yet – he was probably already halfway through a consolatory six-pack, I thought.

On the way out to dinner, somewhere on De Waal Drive above the lights of the city, my mother asked me if I was OK.

“Yeah,” I said, forcing a smile. “We won a couple years ago, so it’s not so bad. We’ll win next year.” She laughed at that.

I then paused. “Are you OK?” I asked. In my excitement for the match, I hadn’t thought to ask her that all day.

Her face went pale. “No, pal,” she said. “I’m not.” Before I could ask her why, she started shaking.

“Your dad has left me,” she said.

VI – Black & White

By now it’s now a cliché to mention that, after the 1990 Final, Naas Botha would tell a reporter bitterly that it would take Natal another century to win the Currie Cup again. It’s perhaps more of a cliché to point out how wrong he was.

            What’s less thought about is how, on that day, for the first time in the history of the Currie Cup, a coloured player lifted the trophy in triumph.

For all the curiousity-quenching trivia they offer, it’s uncanny to look at books that focus on the history of the Sharks: books full of white men in a black country, wearing black-and-white jerseys, in black-and-white photographs. Perhaps another reason why so many Sharks fans – myself included – decide to ignore the team’s past. Natal sucked during apartheid. But, let’s imagine that they didn’t. Would it be possible to celebrate such a team, built up of the cream of a system of white men?

            One of the great lies perpetrated during the maelstrom of apartheid boycotts is that sport and politics should not mix. It’s a lie that still gets bandied around, usually in resistance to transformative interventions in South African sport in general. The truth, however, is that sports and politics have always mixed in South Africa. They’re inseparable, in fact.

From 1906 until 1992, only two black players ever turned out for the Springboks: the mercurial flyhalf Errol Tobias, who earned six Test caps from 1981-1984,[10] and Avril Williams, who played on the wing in two home victories against England in ‘84.[11] Both players were derided by the presses of the countries they played against: the Sydney Morning Herald in particular labeled Tobias a “token black” and an “Uncle Tom”. In the eyes of anti-apartheid activists, players like Tobias were political pawns, played by politicians and administrators to give South Africa a facade of multi-racialism; to attempt to convince other nations to break sanctions and give white South Africa its holy grail of entertainment: international rugby involving the Springboks.

            And you know what? They probably were pawns. Because sport and politics don’t just mix. They play off each other. They reflect each other.

            Sometimes literally. On the walls of King’s Park’s massive function rooms – named after Basil Medway, a stalwart of the Natal union – there hang hundreds of team photographs. Natal and Sharks first teams, all the way back to the late 19th century. Until 1990, not one black face is present in those teams. You might get the idea that no black player played rugby at a high level until that year; but if you look to the opposite walls, you’ll find a different story. Two framed collages, titled “Unsung Heroes”, filled with yellowing newspaper clippings, improvised team photographs, and memorabilia from apartheid-era non-racial teams from Natal. Parallel histories. An incomplete visual catalogue of excellent sportsmen, administrators and community leaders – many as good or better as the white men who have conference suites and stands named after them – fading in an obscure corner of a stadium.

            The apartheid model of separate development extended into sports, to the point South Africa in effect had four racially-distinct national rugby teams: the Springboks, selected by the South African Rugby Board; the SARU team, selected by the South African Rugby Union; and the Leopards from the South African Rugby Association; and the Proteas of the South African Rugby Federation. As SARU player Gary Boshoff wrote in South African Sports Illustrated in 2011:

The separation of the various rugby-playing communities on racial grounds under apartheid made it virtually impossible for white South Africans to notice the available rugby talent within the numerous rugby-playing communities and structures affiliated to non-racial sport.

Non-racial rugby boards suffered from, in Boshoff’s words, “a lack of facilities, limited resources, absence of international competition, lack of sponsorship from big business, and constant harassment of its administrators and players by the Special Security Branch of the SA Police.” The Group Areas Act and the Separate Amenities Act effectively banned most inter-racial sports meetings. In our memories they remain separate. Few know their names. Few care.

VII – Noble/Tera

As apartheid began its wane in the late 80s, more black players found their ways into previously all-white teams. While non-racial sport was, in effect, a rejection of establishment sport and of the apartheid system in its entirety, the fact remained that white rugby – Currie Cup rugby – was the pinnacle of the sport in South Africa, mostly thanks to the powers of white capital and politics. The Currie Cup remained the most visible and competitive testing ground for any South African player, regardless of whether you were allowed to play in it or not. Unsurprisingly, crossing the racial barrier was fraught with difficulty.

            “You know, I want to write a book about it.” Christie Noble’s voice is hoarse and faint. “I didn’t know if I was ever going to play for a Currie Cup team, never mind ever having the Currie Cup in my hand.” Noble succeeded on both counts, as the sole coloured player in the 1990 Natal squad.

            It was a long road to get there. Born into a distinguished rugby-playing family in Stellenbosch, he played for a number of clubs and representative teams, including Western Province League, before he was eventually picked for usually all-white Western Province team in 1988. Noble scored four tries in one of his first matches for Province, a 51-6 thrashing of the newly-promoted Natal side. Much to his confusion, however, he was dropped for the next game.

            “I had to be ten times better than a white player to play for the white team,” Noble told a reporter from The Times of London in 2009. There were only two coloured players playing in the Currie Cup at that time, so Noble tells me, and he often felt uneasy at being the only coloured player in the Province team.

            “I wouldn’t say the support was bad in Cape Town,” he says, “but it wasn’t always supportive. And in the Western Province team itself, I used to look up to my teammates rugby-wise – but they weren’t exactly my stars.”

            That isn’t to say Noble wasn’t something of a star himself. He recounts with excitement how a brief clip of him scoring a try at Newlands against Transvaal was used between gags in Leon Schuster’s blackface-ridden candid camera film Oh Schucks… It’s Schuster!  Even so, Noble didn’t end up featuring in the final of the Currie Cup that year, in which Province lost narrowly to the Bulls, and so he chose to spend some time playing in France with Poitiers. Ian McIntosh then asked him to join the Sharks in 1990. He relished the new setting.

            “Natal at that time was a more liberal province, you understand. I didn’t feel lesser for being a black or coloured player, even if it was in an all-white team.” Noble ended up playing 20 times for Natal, from 1990 to 1995 – a statistic he puts down to being “indisciplined” – but his affection for the club has lasted throughout his post-playing career, which – from junior coaching positions at the Pumas to assistant roles with the South African women’s rugby team – has been as harlequin as his early years. He takes special pride in his mentorship of his nephew JP Pietersen, who currently plays on the wing for the Sharks, and who won the World Cup with South Africa in 2007. “I made him into a Springbok”, Noble says.

            On the tape of the 1990 final, Noble looks as overwhelmed as all the other Natal players. “It was really an achievement,” he says. “I was ecstatic. I was surprised.” And it would be something great to say now that Noble’s triumph marked a turning point in Sharks and South African rugby. But it wasn’t, and it didn’t. Rugby changed quickly in some ways, and not at all in others. Professionalism swept the sport in less than a decade. Nowadays, rule changes are adopted in a matter of months, not years. But rugby is still, by and large, not a representative sport in South Africa. Most top-level players are still white, to the point where, more often than not, the bulk of black[12] players playing in a Test match involving the Springboks belong to the opposition. So, to ensure greater representation in top-level rugby, quotas will be instated in the domestic Vodacom Cup tournament – the third-tier of provincial rugby – starting in 2015.

            Quotas alone won’t likely make rugby genuinely more representative in South Africa. It’s too simple a fix to racism and other power structures that manifest themselves within the game, from grassroots to boardrooms.

            It was only in 2014, a full two decades after the beginning of democracy, after seventy-one white captains and one-and-a-quarter-centuries of existence, that the Sharks appointed their first permanent black captain, the dynamic loose-forward, Lubabalo “Tera” Mtembu.

Putting a 23-year-old in charge of a team full of experienced, international-level players might have been a surprise, but, in Smit’s words, “Tera was just the natural choice. Sure, it ticked a lot of boxes, but what matters most is that he’s played and led the team unbelievably well.”

            For his part, Mtembu doesn’t place much symbolic importance in his appointment. “It’s not something I really think about,” he says. “It does matter to other people in a sense, because I am the first black captain, but to me it doesn’t really matter.”

            “I’m not saying that there aren’t issues still in rugby,” he continues. “Like if you go to the Eastern Cape, there’s a huge pool of talent of black players who just don’t get through the ranks. But in my opinion it’s about opportunity; about taking opportunities, and making the most of things.”

            But, of course, it’s impossible for youngsters to take opportunities that don’t exist – and opportunities tend not to exist for kids who don’t go to excellent, sports-oriented schools or the Sharks Academy, like Mtembu did. But then again, it’s not Tera’s job to create these opportunities: he just has to play rugby.

            Nevertheless, Smit believes that Tera’s appointment is progressive. “I love the fact that we chose Tera because he was the best captain at our disposal,” he says, “and that he was black by chance.”

            “But more importantly,” he adds, “this country’s come a long way in twenty years, and rugby teams nowadays have to represent not just a sector of this country, but the whole country.”

            “And if you don’t like that, you’re going to get left behind.”

c-page-0

VIII – 2013

Sometimes I get into bed on a Saturday after an afternoon of watching rugby – on television, in the stands, however, wherever – and I look at the ceiling, half-drunk, in the dark; and I think about why I care.

I’ve been trying to figure this out, not just over the course of this essay, but over the past dozen years or so. How do I justify my love of rugby?

We all have things that we love unreasonably. Artists, hobbies, places, other people. Distractions. Things that make life feel better or more meaningful. Things to hang on to. Things that centre us.

But rugby is something that reflects so much that is wrong with South African society. For decades it embodied the ethos of apartheid. Currently its administrators publicly juggle with class and race issues, usually clumsily, and often dishearteningly. It remains a symbol of cultural hegemony, of patriarchy, of overt, damaging masculinity.

But it also reflects a few things that are OK about South African society. While it doesn’t unite people – by definition, competition breeds conflict – it is something that a lot of people are invested in. It offers a common ground for discussion, and a potential avenue through which people can engage with things outside of the sport. (Whether or not they actually do that is a different argument entirely.)

Rugby is also entertainment, and, frankly, most kinds of entertainment is laced with all manner of problematic things. And just because you enjoy a genre of entertainment, it doesn’t follow that you uphold the values that are dominant within them. Modern, globalised sport may well be the greatest confidence trick in mankind’s history. The world’s greatest waste of time. Its most costly distraction. A reflection of the worst and best parts of our humanity, writ and witnessed large.

Where does this let me stand? I don’t know. I’m not sure I’ll ever know.

But maybe I’m intellectualising things too much. I should maybe illustrate why it matters to me with a final story – “final” in both senses of the word.

In 2013, exactly a year after my parents told me they were separating, and after a year during which I was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder among other things, it came to be that the Sharks were to play Western Province in the Currie Cup final for the second year running. This time they were to play at Newlands – the first time Province would host a final at home in thirteen years. I immediately bought a ticket for myself in the bottom tier of the grandstand.

I don’t recall ever being so nervous about a game of rugby before. Not for World Cup matches[13]. Not for games I’ve played in, against bigger and more bloodthirsty opponents. I sat the entire day of the match in palpitations, waiting to get to the stadium and see what would unfold.

The afternoon was warm and bright. From Salt River I took a minibus, in which the loose-mouthed gaartjie ribbed me endlessly, but good-naturedly, for wearing a Sharks jersey I alighted outside a house on Main Road I used to live in, and took the back path to the stadium, down Arbor Road, over the Liesbeek. The entirety of Newlands was throbbing with people and noise and the smell of boerewors being skottled en masse. Cape Argus-branded placards rested on the walls, shouting: WP JOU LEKKA DING; WP TURN SHARKS INTO SNOEK; SHARKS: YOU’RE IN OUR TANK NOW. I pushed past the turnstiles and bought two beers from one of the stadium bars.

The pre-game was all pageantry. Hundreds of minstrels with brass instruments had gathered in the standing area, dressed in red and luminous yellow outfits. The Sharks warmed up not twenty metres away; my view of them obstructed only by the man in front of me throwing his little boy into the air, much as my father would have done with me at King’s Park decades earlier.

Ten minutes before kick-off, Johnny Clegg walked onfield with a guitar and raced through a performance of “Impi”. It was camp and awful and cheesy, and altogether perfect. Impi! Wo nans’ impi ‘yeza! War. Here comes war.

The Province players ran out phalanxed by fireworks and blue smoke bombs. Under a haze, under looming flags of blue-stripe and disa flower, with the last strains of the national anthem ringing from the PA, the Sharks players waited for the kick off.

What followed was one of the greatest Sharks performances of all time. Only five minutes in, the Sharks scrumhalf Charl McLeod seized upon a loose Province pass and ran in a 60-metre intercept try. And what happened when I watched him run it in will forever mystify me. I found myself making noises I’d never heard myself make before. Animal noises. Primal noises. I was at once bewildered and ashamed of myself. I did not know what took me – I was a spectacle, an embarrassment – but I let it take me.

And it took me at every score: at a Lambie penalty; at his two perfect drop-goals; at a Lwazi Mvovo try in the corner that was eventually chalked off for offside; at a McLeod try that stood.

At the final whistle, I finally lost my voice. The Province supporters had begun to vacate the stands long before the final whistle. When that whistle came, I found myself in the middle of an emptying stand in the suburbs of an adopted city, in black-and-white; uncontrollable, manic, possessed. I didn’t care. I couldn’t care.

For all our lives, we search for moments of transcendence. For moments of oneness. For moments when the universe focuses on a single point, and you, for however short and fleeting a time, feel at the grand, authentic centre of it.

For a moment, I had escaped myself.

[1] And it would have been, seeing as he missed a last-minute tackle that cost the Springboks the match – in front of 94 000 people, no less.

[2] I hate Hugh Bladen’s commentary, by the way. I always have. I hate his platitudes and his propensity to call perfectly credible things “unbelievable”. I hate his perennially breathless, words-stumbling-over-themselves way of speaking, and the way he forces himself to shout when something exciting happens.

[3] Filled with such great hits as “Shark Attack”, “We Are Black, We Are White”, “People of Natal”, and – best of all – “Natal, We Stand For You”, a version of “Amazing Grace” sung in praise of the Sharks.

[4] Although, admittedly, you probably won’t find a ballet enthusiast rushing the stage to tackle a performer, as a few drunk rugby supporters have done in the past. Google: “Piet van Zyl, Springboks vs All Blacks, Durban, 2002.”

[5] Nicknames for rugby teams before the advent of professionalism: Natal, of course, were the Banana Boys, before they were re-branded to the Sharks in 1995. Eastern Transvaal (today the Falcons) were the Red Devils. Northern Orange Free State (now the Griffons) were the Purple People Eaters. And Western Transvaal (now the Leopards) were the Mielieboere, obviously.

[6] Many followers of rugby politics in recent years will be familiar with the controversies that have surrounded the professional team from Port Elizabeth, which has variously been known as Eastern Province, the Mighty Elephants, the Southern Spears, and, now, the Kings. While traditionally a hotbed of rugby talent, the Eastern Cape has recently struggled to have regular representation in the top-flight of the Currie Cup or Super Rugby; a status quo that has seen the team been promoted to both the Currie Cup Premier Division and, in 2013, to Super Rugby’s South African conference. Many fans have protested this, calling it a classic example of political interference.

Funny then, how these people forget that a similar intervention is the only reason Natal managed to ever realistically compete for the Currie Cup in the first place.

[7] That said, you can hear a vuvuzela or two ringing out from the crowd.

[8] Hugh Bladen, obviously.

[9] Tries were worth only 4 points until 1992, with conversions worth 2 and penalties 3.

[10] After retirement, Tobias also became the first black mayor of his hometown of Caledon.

[11] Avril’s nephew would also later play for the Springboks. You’ve maybe heard of him: his name is Chester.

[12] “Black” in the Biko-ist sense, of course.

[13] Digression: I celebrated the World Cup Final in 2007 at a run-down hotel/dive-bar in Umbilo with four friends, with whom I was in a hardcore punk band at the time. For some reason we had agreed to play a show at this bar on this very evening, but had decided to watch the game before going onstage. Seventeen-years-old and tanked on tequila, we played an out-of-tune version of “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” to a crowd of exactly three people after the final whistle. It was one of the formative nights of my youth.

Nick Mulgrew was born in Durban in 1990 to British parents. He is the author of two books, the latest of which is Stations, a suite of award-winning short fiction. He lives in Cape Town.

Prufrock is a print quarterly of writing — fiction, nonfiction and poetry — in any South African language, started in 2013. You can subscribe, find out the nearest place to pick up the latest issue, and read the magazine’s submission guidelines here: www.prufrock.co.za. Follow Prufrock on Facebook and Twitter and find a piece of writing from one of their past issues on 10and5 every week.

)

Comments are closed.