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My parting gesture as a good thing comes to an end

Feeling just a little nostalgic as I write this, which I’ll go into detail about later.

But I am making my way towards Argentina, and from there to South Africa.

This weekend offers the All Blacks a chance to wrap up the Rugby Championship with a game to spare, but that does not seem to have played large on their thinking as they prepare to name a team shorn of several leading players.

They will take their chances with a mix of established front liners and a group of players inexperienced at test level in Buenos Aires.

Hopefully this will inspire a hitherto disappointing Pumas side to fire up, and we will have a contest of the sort their form in the last World Cup promised, but has not delivered.

The Pumas may be suffering the effects of two years of relentless travel, and possibly the effects of most of them being together through both Super Rugby and the test programme, and a touch of familiarity breeding staleness.

That’s a shame because they have some fine players in their mix, and we know how good they can be, but this year they are not bringing it.

The All Blacks decision to leave the likes of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock behind for a week is in part about keeping them fresh for the Springbok test in Cape Town, one they fully expect to be a lot tougher than the first meeting a fortnight ago, but it is also about the long term welfare of two players essential to New Zealand hopes of a World Cup three-peat in 2019.

Up til now the All Blacks have done well from their Argentina/South Africa leg, but when you add it to the end of year tour, it means the All Blacks making two round the world trips in the space of nine weeks, something that seems to have become a concern for Steve Hansen, and has prompted a short term risk for what he hopes will be long term gain.

And besides, two years out from the World Cup is the optimum time to bring in some new blood into the kitchen and seeing how they handle the heat.

After Argentina it will be on the plane to Sao Paulo and then Cape Town, something I am looking forward to immensely. I don’t think anyone this side of the Indian Ocean will be expecting the Springboks to fall apart the way they eventually did at Albany, and they will no doubt be desperate to atone.

It will be my 15th trip to South Africa, my first in three years, and my first time in Cape Town since 2005, having missed the 2008 trip because of illness.

Newlands is special. Sean Fitzpatrick reckons you haven’t experienced everything great in rugby unless you’ve been to an All Black South Africa test at Cape Town.

I remember well my first trip there in 1995.

After a couple of weeks in the thin air of the highveld it was good for this coastal boy to smell some sea air, and I loved the vibrant buzz of the city.

I wasn’t commentating in those days, I was reporting for TV news, and so had no qualms about a huge night out on the eve of the All Blacks England semifinal.

It started when we went to the lounge at our hotel mid afternoon to watch the South Africa France game. You’ll remember the game started late because of the torrential rain, and so my mates and I were rather well lit up by the time it even kicked off.

We got talking to an English fan, a good bloke of our same age who had managed to score a ticket and had splashed out on a last minute trip to South Africa because he had a good feeling about how England were going to go.

The England players had a similar good feeling, and had been very bullish about their chances of winning.

So we watched the epic from Durban and then headed out into the night. Dinner and then a night club in a lively part of town (The Loop springs to mind…does that sound right?).

Next day we gave a ride to Newlands to our new English mate and made a pact that no matter who won, we would hook up again after the game and give it another lash.

Poor guy, we never did see him again. I think he was a bit embarrassed by what happened. Shame, he wouldn’t have had to buy a single drink the mood we were in!

The Sunday was a rare day off for us, and before flying back to Jo’burg at night we drove out to Kalk Bay. A glorious sunny day, at an awesome pub right on the water, and life was good.

It was another five years before I went back to the Cape, and that was memorable for different, poignant reasons, as I had the company pitchside of the legendary Don Clarke as the All Blacks won a try-less test 12-3. We did our ReUnion show with Don, Murray Mexted, Chester Williams and Andy Capostagno at the Sports Café down in the Harbour and later I went a bought a bracelet for my then new girlfriend, who I am happy say is now/hopefully will continue to be my wife!

Don had been suffering from a brain tumour, and although he recovered for a while, he fell ill and passed away two years later. Having played two series against the Boks he had made a good life for himself and his family in South Africa.

In 2005 the Springboks won a tight one 22-16, with a try by one of my favourite Springboks Jean de Villiers. I remember the test, but not quite as fondly as the following day when a group of friendly locals took us out to Stellenbosch and then to a fantastic restaurant in Franschhoek.

I have been promised something similar this time!

So why am I waffling on all nostalgic?

Well, this will be my last column for SuperSport, and I guess I wanted to convey a sense of how lucky I feel to have been able to form a relationship with South Africa over the years.

It was the All Black tour of 1970 that really drew me so passionately to rugby. Those Springboks, Joggie Jansen, Piet Greyling, Jan Ellis and Frik du Preez became giants in the mind of a ten-year-old boy listening to the radio in the dead of night in a small town in New Zealand.

Meeting the great Frik and interviewing him for over an hour in Pretoria in 2003 is one of my most treasured memories. He told great stories with a dry wit and a twinkle in his eye, recalling the days when rugby was a game for very tough men!

The other man I was most honoured to meet was Tom van Vollenhoven, at a fund raiser for our friend Joost van der Westhuizen. My dad saw him play in 1956.

I’ve been lucky to meet many great figures of South African rugby.

So as a parting gesture I will take the opportunity to name my favourite Springbok team. Not all necessarily the best, or greatest players in their position, but the ones I have had such great pleasure watching, or getting to know :

Fulllback : Andre Joubert. Of course. The Rolls Royce.

Left Wing : Bryan Habana. At his best he was scintillating, and you had to admire the way he just chased everything like it was the last. Mind you, if he’d been an All Black he’d have scored twice as many tries!

Right wing : Ray Mordt. Champion try scorer, champion bloke. By the way I never really saw Carel du Plessis play, and I’m told he was incredible.

Centre : Danie Gerber. I finally got to meet Danie in the Villa Park carpark with Schalk Burger senior during the last World Cup. Phenomenal player.

Centre : Jean de Villiers. Such a great thinker, a great defensive player, and despite the conservative tactics of some of his coaches, capable of some really inventive attacking play. One of the nicest guys ever to lace up a set of rugby boots.

Flyhalf: Joel Stransky. Okay if I was picking a Springbok team to play for my life I’d probably go Henry Honiball, or Naas if it was a day to be won by the kickers, but Joel kicked the most famous dropped goal ever, and was a fantastic broadcast teammate during the 1995 World Cup. One of the best analysts in the game.

Halfback : Joost. RIP.

Number 8 : This is where it gets difficult because Bob Skinstaad was ahead of his time as a player and one of the best guys to have a beer with. Morne du Plessis was a giant of the game. BUT at his relatively short peak, Duane Vermeulen was an absolute colossus, and it’s tragic that his test career has been ruined playing in France.

Flanker : Ruben Kruger. RIP. One of the most modest, humble men off the field but an unstoppable force on it. Many All Blacks I’ve spoken to suspect he DID score in the 1995 final, but then if he did, Joel wouldn’t be so famous would he?

Flanker : Piet Greyling : A ghost from 1970. Fast as lightning. He and Ellis went on a seek and destroy mission. Apologies to Francois Pienaar, the ultimate leader, who almost made the team on account alone of the three “old fashioneds” he shouted at me during a very lively night at RWC 15!

Lock : Victor Matfield. Fantastic athlete with the mind of a scientist. A scheming, crafty scientist. Lord we NZers were happy when he retired!

Lock : Frik du Preez. Sorry to Bakkies Botha and Mark Andrews but Frik is to South Africa what Colin Meads is to NZ and there is no higher praise a Kiwi can offer.

Tighthead : Marius Hurter. For no other reason than it’s a great name for a prop. Okay then, Balie Swart.

Loosehead: Os. Enuff said.

Hooker. Bismarck du Plessis beats out Uli Schmid, but not by much. Malcolm Marx could end up that good too. If you needed to win a war it would be Piston van Wyk!

And an All Black team to take them on : Christian Cullen, Bryan Williams, Jonah Lomu, Bruce Robertson, Bill Osborne, Dan Carter, Dave Loveridge, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Richie McCaw, Brodie Retallick, Colin Meads, Olo Brown, Sean Fitzpatrick, Ken Gray.

That would be quite a game.

So that’s it then.

Times change, and my time with SuperSport comes to an end.

I’m very grateful to Garry and Johan for having me for so long.

Thanks to you all for the engagement, the feedback, and the excellent spirited discussion.

It’s been an honour and a great pleasure.

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