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Rugby’s greatest hits

The English media may find the Springbok team which embarks on a four test tour of the United Kingdom this weekend a little different to the beast they know and love to prey on. For once the South Africans will be venturing across the equator without any known villains in their midst.

Ok, ok, maybe if those British hacks took some time out to watch every Currie Cup and Super 12 game from the past few years, they might make a slight case against AJ Venter. The big blond loose-forward has been known to get himself into trouble once or twice, and did serve a suspension earlier this year for head-butting.

But for the rest, you have to say the men and women of Fleet Street are going to battle to equate the young men who arrive at Heathrow with the ones who played in the last match the Boks played on British soil – the disastrous 50 pointer against England at Twickenham on November of 2002.

It would be very different if Corne Krige was still in charge. Then the Boks could have expected a couple of replays of the footage picked up by Clive Woodward’s extra camera during that last meeting.

And they might have made a bit of a meal of the arrival of Robbie Fleck and Butch James too. Those two centres spent much of their afternoon out at Twickenham two years ago invoking the ire of the Sky commentary team for their robust hits on the English midfield. Poor old Jannes Labuschagne.

Were he still playing for the Boks and not sitting at home injured, he too would be wheeled out at some stage in the buildup to the Twickenham test on November 20 to face the English media and answer questions about THAT sending off. Nick Mallett described it in his Sunday newspaper column the next day as a clumsy challenge, but Labuschagne was probably some way from being the worst Springbok offender that day. Yet it was he who managed to find his way into the halls of infamy by being sent off by referee Paddy O’Brien, so making inevitable the carnage that followed.

But one man who, were he still playing, would attract hardly a whisper from members of the Fourth Estate would be James “Bullet” Dalton. There is irony in that, for earlier in his career Dalton was seen as the biggest hot-head of the lot.

Dalton though played out what was to be his final game for the Boks without losing his head. Indeed, he finished his career in South Africa as one of the respected elder statesmen, and might have been a good choice as skipper had Rudolf Straeuli decided to persevere with him.

Because he had a reputation for truculence, to put it mildy, Dalton was however an excellent choice as the voice and presenter of a new DVD which has hit the market and which is a must for any rugby lover to include in their Christmas stocking.

It was with a glint in the eye that I greeted Dalton at the launch of “Rugby’s Greatest Hits – South African Edition” and asked “So James, why are you here?” Of course he had to be there. Dalton didn’t like being reminded of it in his playing career, but he was the man involved in one of South African rugby’s most talked about sending offs.

No-one should need reminding - South Africa versus Canada in the 1995 World Cup in Port Elizabeth. Dalton ended up being expelled from the World Cup and was denied a chance to sip from the cup of success.

But watching that video again something struck me. If Dalton did anything, he might have thrown a punch. Nothing sinister like kicking someone’s head in, or, like Pieter Hendricks did, a big body charge out of nowhere.

And punching, as the video further reminded me, has been part of the game since the year dot. Referees do punish it, as they must, but unlike head high tackles, kicks, butting and ear-biting, punching is still to some extent seen as acceptable. Maybe not the from behind the head punch with which Burger Geldenhuys broke Andy Dalton’s jaw during the Cavaliers tour in 1986 (featured on the DVD), but a good in your face right cross can even occasionally be seen as part of the entertainment.

Those who buy the video can make up their own minds, but Keith “Potjie” Andrews probably landed the best of the lot. He felled an Argentinian in the Battle of Tucuman on the 1993 tour with a short right that would have been envied by Larry Holmes.

And yet, though Andrews did dish out his own form of justice on the field (you just have to ask his cousin Mark, who was a victim on his first visit to Newlands with Natal), it was never of the underhand variety and he ended his career as one of the most liked and respected players in the country.

Like the Gert Smal punch which felled Gary Knight in one of the Cavaliers tests, the Andrews punch at Twickenham may even be remembered as a celebrated event. Correct me if I am wrong, but it was a similar story with Dalton. He got into trouble many times, yet it was almost always for using his fists, never for using his feet, teeth or head.

Dalton was one of the hard men, and you got the impression he would not have played the game at all if it was not for that aspect. And he saw it as just a fun part of the whole rugby package. For instance, in 1998 he and England hooker Robin Cockrill, a renowned hot-head, were at each other throughout the test at Newlands.

Watching from the press box, you would have got the impression the pair hated each other. Certainly, at the time, while they were playing between the white lines, they probably did. But then at the final whistle, instead of continuing the feud, they embraced each other with huge smiles on their faces and appeared to have a good laugh about it as they left the field.

You get an idea of that aspect of the game during the video, just as you get a good idea that it was not always South African teams who got their retaliation in first. There is good footage of the British Lions of 1974 implementing their famous 99 call, which was a cue for every player to belt the nearest South African.

In 1986 there was a match between the NZ Cavaliers and Natal which bordered on the bizarre. Natal flank Graham Hefer put in one good punch, but then had to hot-foot it towards the tunnel as half the NZ Cavaliers team chased after him. The rest were engaged in open warfare with the other Natal players, while referee Steve Strydom stood by, apparently powerless to do anything.

According to former Natal captain Craig Jamieson, the whole New Zealand approach that evening had been to dish out the rough stuff. Murray Mexted was part of the Cavaliers team, and after playing for Natal a few years earlier, he told his teammates that the home side would surrender meekly if they were belted early on.

“What Mexted reckoned without was the fact that there were a couple of new players in the Natal team by then who had a reputation for being able to dish it out themselves and who were certainly not afraid of getting involved. We had spent a couple of years in the B Section by then and the attitude had toughened,” said Jamieson.

Dalton, in opening the presentation, makes the point that the DVD is not meant to encourage dirty play. “Hard, but not dirty”, appears to be his catch phrase. Yet it still makes riveting viewing.

For my part, I was a little disappointed that some punches did not make it into the video. For instance, how many people out there remember the right arm bolo with which Eben Jansen pole-axed Morne du Plessis in a Currie Cup match back in 1978.

Kallie Knoetze, then rising up through the ranks of the world heavyweights, even commented on it on television and said he would have loved to have thrown a punch like that. And talking of Morne, where was footage of the shiner he received from Derek Quinnell at the very first loose scrum in the 1980 series between the Boks and the Lions.

There was no footage of Morne’s infamous “tackle” on Naas, but then, maybe like the omission of the Uli Schmidt/Tony Watson incident in 1993 and a couple of other similar incidents during the ‘80s and early nineties which did not look good and left players injured, that is a good thing. Somehow it leaves the video looking a little cleaner and reminds us that in rugby there are different shades of bad.

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