‘The at­mos­phere here is more of sus­pi­cion – why has the de­ci­sion not been ac­cepted’

For­mer Ire­land scrumhalf says the tour­na­ment would be ‘mar­vel­lous’ for his adopted na­tion of 36 years

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - RUGBY - Gavin Cum­miskey

“I’m here 36 years,” says the man who still sounds like he’s from Grey­stones. “I’m very much a South African now.”

John Rob­bie lacks the abil­ity to sit on the fence. Capped nine times by Ire­land be­tween 1976 and 1981, the scrumhalf made Bill Beau­mont’s 1980 Lions tour, start­ing the 17-13 vic­tory at Lof­tus Vers­feld.

Re­mark­ably, it was his only Test match win. South Africa – the coun­try, the peo­ple and the air­waves – mush­roomed around him. Transvaal’s record ap­pear­ance holder never trans­lated into full Spring­bok sta­tus, but Rob­bie sailed through a jour­nal­is­tic squall that only re­cently calmed.

“I was on the bench four times for the Spring­boks. Eng­land and South Amer­ica in 1984. I played against the South Sea Bar­bar­ians but they didn’t award caps. I al­ways joke with Brian O’Driscoll’s dad, Frank, who played twice for Ire­land against Ar­gentina, and I played twice for South Africa yet nei­ther of us got a cap. We formed an un­lucky club. “But that’s an­cient his­tory.” A rough week in rugby pol­i­tick­ing ends with an awk­ward blazer lun­cheon at the Aviva sta­dium to­day. Sug­gested top­ics of con­ver­sa­tion in the IRFU box: call­ing bull­shit on ¤3 tick­ets. Ja­cob Zuma’s rape trial. Dur­ban as a hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. South Africa’s cur­rent sovereign credit rat­ing of BB+. “Some­times re­ferred to as ‘junk,’” says Philip Browne.

“You can’t do any more pre­sen­ta­tions,” replies SA Rugby chief ex­ec­u­tive Jurie Roux.

Last time South Africa was car­i­ca­tured in such dev­il­ish fash­ion on a global scale Mel Gib­son was still play­ing Mar­tin Riggs (Lethal Weapon II, “Diplo­matic im­mu­nity,” etc. . .). The won­der is how long this messy tit-for-tat let­ter writ­ing will linger af­ter the World Rugby Coun­cil have their much pro­tected con­clave on Novem­ber 15th. “I know Ire­land would put on a fan­tas­tic World Cup,” says the 61-year-old Rob­bie. “I know Hugo MacNeill and Dick Spring very, very well. I know the work that went into the Ir­ish bid.

Faith

“But you have to have faith in the com­mit­tee of ex­perts that came up with the rec­om­men­da­tion. And it would be mar­vel­lous for South Africa. We all fondly re­mem­ber 1995 and Man­dela giv­ing Pien­aar the cup.

“South Africa is a dif­fer­ent coun­try now. We have shock­ing lead­er­ship. It is quite a neg­a­tive place at the mo­ment as we have a cor­rupt pres­i­dent. The coun­try re­ally needs some­thing to aim at.

“The bid was su­perb, it al­most pro­vided a les­son for the coun­try as ev­ery­one, at all lev­els of so­ci­ety, came to­gether. The sta­di­ums are all there. What goes on at the top ech­e­lons of rugby is a mys­tery to many peo­ple. I do know one thing. Billy Beau­mont is a fine guy. If he’s run­ning rugby the one thing I would guar­an­tee is that it will be done fairly.”

Spring and Bernard La­porte ve­he­mently dis­agree. Not about Beau­mont’s in­tegrity, but the per­ceived nar­row view adopted by this tech­ni­cal re­view group led by chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer of Rugby World Cup Alan Gilpin. “Ei­ther way there will be a lot of tears shed.”

He’s up and away. Habit. Thirty years on Talk Ra­dio wak­ing peo­ple up, fer­ry­ing them to work, ques­tion­ing the es­tab­lish­ment, he knows to an­swer ob­vi­ous ques­tions be­fore they are asked.

Crime sit­u­a­tion

“The con­cern would be the crime sit­u­a­tion, which is se­ri­ous. But dig down into the crime sta­tis­tics. The ma­jor­ity of crime is lo­cal crime, it is fam­ily crime, it is crime where the vic­tim and the per­pe­tra­tor know each other.”

This does not com­pute on Lans­downe Road. The Ir­ish bid scored the same on se­cu­rity as South Africa and France, de­spite a re­cent state of emer­gency, leav­ing Spring, MacNeill and the IRFU pri­vately dis­gusted. La­porte took his opium to the masses, breach­ing the process’s code of con­duct. Bit­ter­ness pre­vails in this part of the rugby world. Rob­bie only sees South Africa’s equal mea­sure of joy and sus­pi­cion. “Re­mem­ber the 2010 soc­cer World Cup? The English tabloids warned of blood in the streets, of kid­nap­pings, yet there wasn’t a sin­gle se­ri­ous in­ci­dent be­cause the coun­try was pre­pared and fans were given in­for­ma­tion of dos and don’ts. In the same ways there are ar­eas of Dublin or Lim­er­ick or wher­ever, as a tourist you wouldn’t wan­der into them in the mid­dle of the night. There are ar­eas in South Africa like that.

“Don’t get me wrong. Crime is a mas­sive is­sue in this coun­try. No ques­tion. Vi­o­lent crime. Drugs. All mas­sive is­sues. But ev­ery­one has bought into bring­ing this World Cup in 2023. Gov­ern­ment, polic­ing, civil so­ci­ety. Look at the track record of host­ing tour­na­ments in South Africa.”

We show him Browne’s leaked let­ter to Brett Gosper.

“I do have two hats on but my feel­ing is a group of ex­perts put to­gether a re­port, surely you have to back those ex­perts. Pre­sum­ably they are not stupid and don’t have ul­te­rior mo­tives. I find it in­cred­i­ble there is a se­cret bal­lot af­ter the ex­perts have re­ported and made their rec­om­men­da­tion. Why not have a vote be­fore­hand say­ing, ‘We will trust the fi­nal de­ci­sion?’

“In South Africa, hav­ing been cheated out of the 2006 soc­cer World Cup when Char­lie Dempsey, this crooked Scot­tish New Zealan­der, ab­stained from the vote which meant Ger­many got it, I think the South Africans are very sus­pi­cious.

Killer bid

“Look, we put in the work, pro­duced a killer bid and now al­most as if the game is over and the re­sult is there, peo­ple are still com­plain­ing. The re­ac­tion in South Africa is that’s just not sport­ing.”

Rob­bie ac­cepts the SA Rugby tick­et­ing strat­egy sounds a lit­tle far-fetched but notes the emo­tional as­pect of their bid. South Africa needs this on a so­cial and sport­ing level more than France or Ire­land. “South Africa is scream­ing out for change. We have to get rid of this cor­rupt gov­ern­ment and I think if things go well and the right peo­ple get in we could get a mini-re­oc­cur­rence of what hap­pened when Man­dela came out of prison in 1990, and this coun­try is go­ing to take a leap for­ward.

“The World Cup would ben­e­fit from that. Be­cause it is hugely im­por­tant to South Africa, which is why peo­ple from all walks of life, in­clud­ing the deputy pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa, who has a won­der­ful record in Ire­land in terms of the de­com­mis­sion­ing of the IRA guns, was part of the del­e­ga­tion that gave guar­an­tees far in ex­cess of the min­i­mum fi­nan­cial guar­an­tees. That is an in­di­ca­tion of how im­por­tant it is at all lev­els. The at­mos­phere over here is more of sus­pi­cion – why has the de­ci­sion not been ac­cepted the way we ac­cepted it when it went against us in the pre­vi­ous three bids?”

Maybe the gov­ern­ing body con­sid­ered the dire need to en­sure a pil­lar of rugby union does not crum­ble be­fore our eyes. Af­ter the All Blacks 57-0 hu­mil­i­a­tion in Al­bany the Spring­boks, as an en­tity, seemed in dan­ger of go­ing the way of the Blue­buck or dearly missed Cape Warthog. Eben Etze­beth and Mal­com Marx fe­ro­ciously in­ter­vened (they still lost 25-24 to New Zealand in Cape Town). “Last year was an un­mit­i­gated dis­as­ter but when you have a coach come in and is not al­lowed pick his own coach­ing staff, lack of prepa­ra­tion, there were rea­sons for what hap­pened.”

Rob­bie as­sures us Rassie Eras­mus – “re­garded as a bit of a loose canon in South Africa” – will have a tougher time at home than his time with Mun­ster. The Rand’s weak­ness lead­ing to a Euro­pean ex­o­dus and quo­tas, that dirty word, are men­tioned.

Quo­tas

“Not to pick on merit or even a sug­ges­tion not to pick on merit is anath­ema to sports fans but look at it this way: as some­body who nearly played for the Spring­boks and has missed out on var­i­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties in other fields I think what you have to do is say for over 100 years there was a much big­ger quota sys­tem in op­er­a­tion. Whether it was the econ­omy, jobs, the vote, rugby – they were given no chance. That has to be said.

“In time we are go­ing to see the sit­u­a­tion nor­malised. This is the key is­sue – you can­not wait an­other 100 years, be it land or busi­ness or rugby, you have to speed it up. Quo­tas are a rather clumsy way of do­ing it. The idea is to trans­form ev­ery­thing in the coun­try but when you put num­bers on it and you have young black play­ers com­ing into the Spring­boks team peo­ple say ‘Ah, he doesn’t de­serve the jersey.’

“Per­ish the thought he doesn’t play well on his de­but. It is a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion. The pow­ers that be say, yes, get a bal­ance to the side but when two play­ers are equal let’s give the black guy a chance.

“When the Spring­boks win there is very lit­tle talk of quo­tas. When they lose . . . The quota sys­tem is try­ing to re­alise the un­be­liev­able po­ten­tial in the coun­try. Look at Ir­ish rugby. I see these big coun­try men who be­fore pro­fes­sion­al­ism would have been Gaelic foot­ballers who might play rugby in the win­ter but now they can earn a liv­ing from rugby and are trans­form­ing the game in Ire­land.” We men­tion Tadhg and Seanie. “I was down in the Eastern Cape re­cently speak­ing at a school, Gayle Col­lege, where the great Spring­bok full­back HR de Vil­liers went, and it used to be all Li­ly­white but is now 90 per cent black, and the stan­dard of rugby was un­be­liev­able. When these guys come through the rest of the world bet­ter watch out. It’s some­thing the coun­try has to go through. Over­all the quota is a pos­i­tive thing, de­spite its prob­lems.”

The in­ter­view ends with talk of a new golf tourism ven­ture and one of his last news­pa­per col­umns: “The day a great num­ber eight saved my life.”

“Wil­lie Dug­gan and I were very dif­fer­ent. I was Le­in­ster cap­tain and very much into ev­ery­one con­form­ing to team spirit while Wil­lie was a loner. We worked out a way. I was ter­ri­bly sad to hear his pass­ing but laughed to hear he was 25 min­utes late for his own funeral! “One day you are the youngest in the dress­in­groom and seem­ingly the next, you are a grand­fa­ther and your team­mates are dy­ing,” Rob­bie signed off. “Smell the roses.”

South Africa is a dif­fer­ent coun­try now. We have shock­ing lead­er­ship. It is quite a neg­a­tive place at the mo­ment as we have a cor­rupt pres­i­dent

PHO­TO­GRAPH: ADRIAN MURRELL/GETTY IM­AGES

July 1980: Ire­land scrumhalf John Rob­bie in ac­tion for the Bri­tish and Ir­ish Lions dur­ing the fourth Test against South Africa at Lof­tus Vers­feld in Pre­to­riam, South Africa.

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