If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you...
Often, when a proverbial 'big' thing happens in my life, I embark on a trip down 'big things memory lane'. The weird thing is, I don't really remember too many things of a 'big' nature – it's more like 'big things memory panhandle'. There's rather an abundance of insignificant moments from my childhood.
For instance, I remember a conversation I had with my mother before the movie 'Diabolique' premiered, which means I must have been about nine years old. She noticed that Isabelle Adjani was the supporting actress, and presumed to tell me that she always considered her to be one of the most beautiful women in the world.
That was the conversation – pretty insignificant right? I can recall it as if it happened yesterday, and for what reason? Well... what if I told you I cross-referenced a photo of Isabelle with photos of all my ex-girlfriends, and all of them bear a striking resemblance to her? How bizarre, how bizarre.
I'm just joking though, that would have been weird.
I guess when something as big as my 'big memory' happens to a person, other things don't seem as big. Once or twice in previous columns I've referred to that period in my life where the big thing happened, and once again I'm taken back to that time following recent events.
It's a couple of weeks before my 14th birthday, and my parents are apologising for the fact that they won't be getting me a gift this time around. You see, in no situation would we be mistaken for the Bransons or the Buffets – a fact that isn't lost on me – so I dismiss even having an interest in such a foolish exchange, all things considered. You see, it's been this way since even before we discovered that my six-year old brother's little body was being consumed by cancer. This specific phone call is made from within the walls of a hospital in Cape Town.
My birthday arrives, and my father proceeds to drive through to Daniel Pienaar Technical High School's hostel Lubbe in Uitenhage, just outside Port Elizabeth, and he does so all the way from Cape Town – just so I don't feel like a total outcast – and he doesn't come alone either. We greet, and he stuffs this rather large package in my hands, uttering something about a 'nicer' gift being on the same horizon as the ship coming in. I cut him off immediately, feeling like a felon – who obviously failed to sell his indifference during that conversation a couple of weeks earlier.
The gift is a scrapbook, with two entries.
On the first page – Rudyard Kipling's If, handwritten by my father – the word 'man' capitalised in the last verse. Little did I know at the time just how significant those words would become in my life.
On the second is a photo of my little boet. The message is that Tihan dreams to be the kind of man I am, although he doesn't know if he'll have much more time left for dreaming, and although this is a book meant to display what will hopefully be some great future achievements, my biggest achievement will always be the example I am to him.
Sadly – as most of my faithful readers will know by now – Tihan died five months later.
Wherever he is, I find myself wondering if he also shouted 'POLES!' as he watched our semifinal...
I started on this column a couple of days after that whole thing. In that specific moment, I was lying on a mattress in the living room of my otherwise empty house. I basically sold everything I have in a spur of the moment auction during the farewell braai I hosted the night before. Lying next to me fast asleep was Freebird – not to be confused with an animal. She is an actual person – a very special one. Zsa Zsa – not to be confused with a person, was lying at my feet, next to the soulmate I had chosen for her – none other than the grossly overweight Bulldog known as Beau. He also goes by Beau'ner – an attempt of mine to remind him of what he is good for. If you're thinking 'cute', I have failed miserably to convey what it is I was feeling at that stage.
You see, I was getting ready to leave all that behind to further pursue my career in Japan. It's kind of a weird coincidence when some people turn their back on you a couple of days earlier, and the next thing you're lying there unable to take the rest of them with you. You feel sad, there's no other way to describe it. In hindsight I should have felt a bit of relief – the collective weight of Zsa Zsa and Beau would've brought down the airplane for sure.
Did I feel that way because of the on-field decisions I made? No. Sorry if that infuriates you.
For what it's worth, I'll invite you in for the moment, and talk about it. It's going to be tough to put the things in my mind down on paper in a way that make sense, but I'll give it a shot. I apologise if I jump around a bit – that's how it looks in there.
Philosophy seems like a good place to start.
I've always been a keen observer of when and how people or teams change their philosophies, and how that impacts their performance, and eventually their outcomes.
Over the past six seasons of playing Super Rugby with the Bulls there have been certain occasions where we've made minor adaptations to our philosophy, most of them in recent years, and most of those when we were away from Loftus, quite understandably.
It's tough to win away from home – conditions are different, and many other factors start playing a role. In these circumstances emphasis often needs to be placed on certain things more than others, for instance – kicking game, use of the maul, altering the so-called 'green zone' or attacking zone, playing the percentage options – all of them essential.
On a couple of occasions we got it wrong though. Instead of a tightening of the system, hyper-conservatism ensued. I remember a specific game against the Chiefs on tour in 2012 where we got it wrong. I remember us mauling absolutely everything, and when that got defused we started to pick-and-go at the rucks. We started from as far as 30 meters out, and we got smashed back every time, and when we were 40 metres out we kicked. I couldn't understand why that transformation happened – it's never been the way we play, or at least the way we want to, and it definitely wasn't coaches' orders. Listening to that, you'll think that we didn't have a hope in hell of winning that game, but we actually came really close in the end. Yes, the way we played made for a close-scoring game, and a glorious defeat might be good enough for some, but that's all we ever could have hoped for – to get close.
It just seemed like whenever we spoke of really tightening things up, we didn't get the best out of the guys. After that it spirals down pretty quickly. These days referees seem to reward the team with the attacking agenda more often – and those teams are often the ones playing at home. It's almost as if you're rewarded with a penalty rather than being awarded one. When you think about it, most overseas games are played at sea level, so the kicking game is made infinitely harder, and if you have a referee that doesn't police the mauls expertly, you've got three strikes right there and you haven't even started yet.
Many of you might think we're about as conservative as they come, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
In 2009 and 2010 everyone initially complained that we were too conservative, but in 2009 we won the final by 60 points, and in 2010 we scored 200 points in our first four games. If I'm not mistaken we were quite possibly one of the two top try-scoring teams in those comps. We still kicked a lot and mauled a lot, but we were balanced.
When you think of the Bulls, you'll probably think kick-and-chase, but not me. These are the kind of teams I think about – ones with attacking mindsets and ones who play total rugby. I've always been wary when we veer away from that recipe.
Which brings us to the Stormers game before the semifinal...
Before that game, we won nine times in a row – a record for any Bulls side. We were playing a brand of total rugby, despite some room for improvement in one or two facets of play. In the week leading up to the match there was a feeling that the game will probably be a very tactical one – which seems to be an accurate description of Bulls v Stormers games in recent years. The emphasis was put on territory, discipline and making the least amount of mistakes – three factors that remain critical, of course. We wanted to suffocate them and force them into mistakes. The attacking zone was made a bit smaller too, but if we were in the right areas we wanted to launch full attacks.
I remember sitting in the chair in front of the big screen hoping that it wouldn't mess with the mindset. I mean, a victory would have secured the top of the log spot, so everything was to play for. Well, as you recall, we barely pitched up.
Of course, in the semifinal week you hardly heard anything other than 'attacking mindset' out of my mouth. I reminisced over Bulls v Brumbies games of the past too, trying to remember some key moments. I recalled the game on tour in 2009, where we were leading comfortably, and the Brumbies scored towards the end to win the game. I remembered the game we played earlier in the year, when the Brumbies kicked the penalty after the siren to win the match after we didn't exit from the final kick-off.
Playing till the end was obviously part of their team's character.
It seemed like we pitched up with a bit of the Stormers game mindset, and we were quickly punished by the Brumbies, trailing by many points after only a few minutes – I don't even remember the specifics. I do remember standing behind the poles thinking to myself – I better get an attacking mindset going one way or another. We seemed lacklustre, and we were on the wrong side of Craig's whistle, and we couldn't get out of our own half. We needed to get out of the hole quickly.
Our next line-out was somewhere near the halfway line. Morne jogged up to me and assumed we were going to drive and box kick, which was on the play sheet. I called an attacking option, much to his surprise.
We broke the line, and ended up being awarded a penalty in front of the poles. We started to fight back, and by halftime the score looked much better.
After a couple of minutes in the second half we were within striking distance. We had a line-out in the grey zone – the same spot where I had called the attacking play in the first half. I almost fell victim to the mindset that I was trying to avoid, and when Morne asked for the play, I suggested the box kick, since things were much closer, also considering it was a semifinal and all. He looked at me and said – come on, where's that attacking mindset? Smiling, I called the play. We got the reward again.
Before long we were leading, and in that moment I remember being so incredibly proud of the boys and the way they kept clawing, and the way they responded to my calls, and the way they kept their heads on a swivel.
The next thing we were awarded with another penalty, and a decision had to be made.
I looked at the whole situation, many things going through my head. Taking the three points would put us foue points clear, but we would be back in our own 22, and not out of danger. We didn't exit well all night, and the Brumbies got most of their points after our failure to do so. I dreaded being in a situation where we were left to defend our line for the final minutes of play. I knew the Brumbies had a penchant for finishing strong, and if they scored a try, we might leave ourselves with too much to do with too little time.
The confident mindset had resurrected us, and I firmly believed that it would win the game for us. I knew that opting for touch would be a controversial call to make, and so I consulted with the man who doesn't miss often. Before I even said anything, he concurred, and so I went for it. The crowd was really getting behind us at that stage, and after I made the call they erupted. I couldn't quite make out if it was blind rage or them egging us on, so I told myself they were behind us. As soon as I made the call, it literally felt like the world was crashing down on my shoulders, as if to say – it's on you now. The roar of the crowd made me feel a little stronger, even though ironically they were probably shouting for my head, to which I was oblivious at that stage...
The first line-out wasn't a success, but the plan wasn't solely to score – though admittedly that would have been a BIG bonus. We were keeping them pegged in their own 22m area, and although we didn't get the reward in the way of points, our attacking mindset got us reward in the way of Craig's whistle, and by kicking for touch a further two times, we kept them there for the best part of 10 minutes. Even though the mauls still didn't pay off with points, I was fine with winning the game 20-19. I knew they wouldn't get out.
By the time the fourth penalty was awarded, I was acutely aware that everyone wasn't sharing my sentiments. It seemed like there were only 22 people that were keeping their heads while all about them were losing theirs. I would do anything to win a game, and I would've gone for touch the fourth time too, especially the fourth time, but making myself guilty of blatant insubordination is another thing altogether.
The rest is history. We couldn't exit after the kick-off, we gave the Brumbies an opportunity to finish the game in their characteristic strong fashion, and they took it. Only, instead of having little time to come back, we had no time. We lost the game.
And it was all put on me.
I'm guessing there are many people that want me to admit I was wrong. It seems that in life everyone wants things packed in a neat little box and wrapped with a pretty little bow.
Well, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I was over-thinking. Maybe I blew it. Ask me if I believe we would have won the game had I kicked for poles after being awarded the first penalty? We might have. Ask me if I believe we would have won the game had I kicked for touch after being rewarded with the fourth penalty? We might have.
All I know for certain is, to win a semifinal we were asked to defend our line for four minutes. We should have been able to do that.
A leader takes his people where they have to be, not necessarily where they want to be, and that's all I ever tried to do. I wasn't 'risking it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss'. I was given an option to either back our attack or our defence, and I decided on attack. Nevertheless, I was picked to do a job, and I didn't see it through, and for that I have to take ownership.
In my time at the Bulls I devoted my life to the cause. I've never been a record breaker, but I have broken many bones. I've never pulled off an 80 meter sprint to score a diving try in the corner, but I'm betting there's more O+ blood courtesy of Dewald Potgieter in the ground that Bjorn Basson dives on than anyone else's.
In my time at the Bulls I devoted my life to the cause, and I loved every second. I wasn't always loved, but that's okay. Maybe I will forever be remembered as the guy that cost the Bulls the trophy, and that's okay too. I never wanted to be the hero. I wanted to make history and memories with my teammates, and that I did. After everything has been said and done, the only thing that matters is leaving a place better than you found it. That, I hope I did.
If there is an angry mob still out there, and you're reading this, and you feel like tearing me my 215th new one in the comment section below, feel free... That's why it's there. It has nothing to do with people sharing their lives and accounts amicably, don't worry. Also, if you've recently watched The Lone Ranger, and in that light you feel like calling me Kemosabe because 'the wrong brother died', I would like to remind you that mommy reads this too, and it will upset her deeply... and I've already thought of it, so it won't hurt me.... as much.
It's weird how being a rugby player conditions you to figure out what nasty things other people will say before they say it themselves. I must admit though, some of those photos were funny – I especially liked the one where I'm pulled over by the traffic cop who asks me where I'm going, and I say I'm going to the touchline...
Well there you have it. Perhaps I should consider the possibility that no one cares anymore and that I've just wasted 3 333 words exactly. If that's the case, I apologise, but if you came here looking for something, perhaps there's a 'why' in there somewhere.
Anyway, I'm in Japan now, hoping to leave Yamaha Jubilo a better place too.
I spent most of my life trying to fill that scrapbook, and not just did it save me after what happened to my brother, but it gave me a living, and it lead me to the Bulls, and now it lead me here. One of the first things you notice when you study Japanese is that there isn't a present and future tense – they have what is called a past tense and a non-past tense. I covered a lot of past tense in this column, but in the future I'll be more interested in the non-past tense. Please allow me to turn the page, but we don't have to close the book just yet. To those people still keen on sticking with me – I wanna get on with you lot.
I'd love to keep writing these columns if you guys will have me, perhaps it'll provide some insight into the obscure realm of Japanese rugby and Japanese life – we have a whole bunch of our boys over here after all. This one had a lot of words, and I apologise for my length. Hope you haven't been hearing a lot of that lately.
We've got our first game of the season this weekend. It's great to still get butterflies even if the gig isn't that big, so I'm proud.
I'm proud twice actually – despite using 'big' as often as possible, not once did I use an Alphaville reference. You're welcome.