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The last all-white Boks

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It is hard to ascertain just how much this unfortunate build-up had to do with Wales’ 29-19 victory, but it surely did not help

Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus. Picture credit: Phando Jikelo (ANA)

WHEN the Springboks lose, we are quick to condemn in our disappointment, but what if we were privy to events building up to the defeat, the untold stories that contribute to what happens on the pitch?

The Springboks’ first ever defeat to Wales in 1999 is a classic case in point. Wales had failed in 12 previous attempts to beat the Boks, dating back to 1906, but in a match against the ‘95 world champions to commemorate the opening of the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the Boks were beaten in a team meeting with Saru boss Rian Oberholzer on the Thursday before the match.

Prior to that match, the Boks had played home games against touring Italy and had annihilated them 74-3 in Port Elizabeth and then 101-0 in Durban. In PE, Breyton Paulse had marked his debut with a hat-trick of tries and scored another the next week.

But when Nick Mallett announced his team to play Wales in Cardiff a week later, Paulse had been dropped for Stefan Terblanche (who to be fair had scored five tries against Italy), with Pieter Rossouw on the other wing. The big issue was that the removal of Paulse made it an all-white Springbok team, and back in South Africa the s*** hit the fan.

ANC politicians were livid, and they immediately made their disapproval clear to Sarfu.

Mallett, confronted by my illustrious colleague Gavin Rich, defiantly said: “I will not be pushed around on this issue. I feel very strongly about it.”

Mallett said that he wanted to protect the black players in contention for the team – Paulse and Deon Kayser – from being seen as “window-dressing”.

“Every player that is in the team must know that he deserves his place and is strictly there on merit,” Mallett told Rich. “I don’t want to see Kayser and Paulse being in a position where they might feel they owe their place in the team to anything other than rugby ability. The fact that they are black must have nothing to do with their chances of playing for the Boks.”

But John Ncinane, an ANC MP and a Sarfu executive member, was just as emotional. He phoned Sarfu chief executive Oberholzer and said: “When Nick Mallett was sitting in Constantia eating bacon and eggs, my people were on Robben Island breaking stones.”

The heat was on Oberholzer and he ultimately became the fall guy in this saga because he had to be seen to be doing something about a situation that was untenable to many politicians in South Africa.

He famously hopped on the next available flight to the UK and, in the team room of the Boks’ hotel in Cardiff, delivered a speech that is quite possibly the most demotivating any national team has ever had in the history of sport.

Oberholzer told the players and the coaching staff that the Boks were out of tune with transformation policy and that they were the last all-white team that would play for South Africa.

The players booed him. Not that they had a problem with transformation. They were simply infuriated for being blamed when they had nothing to do with the situation, and now their livelihood was being threatened. They did not pick themselves. It was a thoroughly disheartening experience. Just days before a big Test match, the players felt that their own union did not back them and that their future in the green and gold was uncertain.

It is hard to ascertain just how much this unfortunate build-up had to do with Wales’ 29-19 victory, but it surely did not help.