Why the Boks' tour through South America and the UK 20 years ago was one for the ages

14 May 2020 - 10:06 By Liam Del Carme
A file photo of former Springboks coaches Rassie Erasmus (C), has a laugh with fellow former coach Nick Mallett (R) and former flyhalf Naas Botha during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand at Loftus Stadium.
A file photo of former Springboks coaches Rassie Erasmus (C), has a laugh with fellow former coach Nick Mallett (R) and former flyhalf Naas Botha during the Rugby Championship match between South Africa and New Zealand at Loftus Stadium.
Image: Gavin Barker/BackpagePix

In late August 2000‚ the Wallabies’ Stirling Mortlock kicked a high pressure penalty from an acute angle to effectively end Nick Mallett’s reign as Springbok coach.

In November of the same year it was the turn of Harry Viljoen‚ a single minded‚ self-made man who had made his fortune in the financial services sector‚ to take over.

There was nothing old school about Viljoen. In fact‚ he was hellbent on being the man to drag Bok rugby into the 21st century.

His first assignment was to be the Springboks’ last‚ long tour. The Boks‚ loaded with playing personnel numbering 40‚ were scheduled for a five-week odyssey through South America‚ Ireland and the United Kingdom.

There were midweek games too‚ but curiously‚ the dirt trackers didn’t get to watch the Tests on that tour due to logistical reasons.

With so many moving parts Viljoen needed help and apart from having Andre Markgraaff and Ian McIntosh as his Test team assistants‚ he enlisted the help of Allister Coetzee and Frans Ludeke to coach the dirt trackers.

The sprawling‚ always buzzing Buenos Aires contributed to the opening week madness. The dirt trackers set off to the foot hills of the Andres where they had a meeting with Argentina A in a city in which the Boks had history. On the 1993 tour of Argentina the Boks met Tucuman and the match turned out to be an ill-tempered affair with sporadic brawls punctuating play.

Argentina A was less bellicose in their approach and appeared to have the beating of the Bok dirt trackers before forward substitutes Lawrence Sephaka and Victor Matfield‚ in his first appearance for SA‚ helped turn the tide as the visitors recorded a come-from-behind victory.

Matfield along with fellow debutants Delarey du Preez‚ Craig Davidson and Thando Manana were later destined for initiation‚ a Bok ritual the latter famously objected to.

Back in Buenos Aires preparations gathered pace in the build-up to the opening Test. Apart from securing a win‚ the new coach wanted his players to embrace his new ways.

The Viljoen doctrine dictated a change in playing style‚ if not philosophy in which his players would generally feel more comfortable in possession. To that end he armed his players with a ball which they were to carry on their walks through the streets of the Argentine capital.

That the Boks were going to carry the ball was evident in Viljoen’s selection of Percy Montgomery at flyhalf.

To further accentuate his intention to remove the players from their comfort zone‚ Viljoen instructed them not to kick the ball‚ unless absolutely necessary in the Test.

In the concrete monstrosity that is the River Plate‚ the helter-skelter nature of the game initially suited the Boks.

They scored five tries but gradually lost control and almost composure. The Los Pumas forwards‚ who had been cumbersome in the first half‚ developed a spring in their step.

Increasingly‚ the Boks were under pressure and were forced to kick for the first time in the 72nd minute when Montgomery had to hurriedly hoof with Los Pumas defenders barrelling down.

The Boks had to defend stoutly in the closing minutes and held on for a desperate 37-33 win. For those in attendance it was exhilarating and exasperating. How could a team that had enthralled‚ albeit through unconventional ways‚ be so prone to folly in the second half?

It was clear Viljoen was going to need time to bed down his new doctrine. Sure‚ it was wildly exciting‚ but Bok fans weren’t ready for the palpitations that came with it.

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