In­side Kamp Staal­draad

‘Cap­tain in the Caul­dron: The John Smit Story’ is writ­ten by In­de­pen­dent News­pa­pers rugby writer MIKE GREENAWAY and pub­lished by High­bury Safika Me­dia. The fol­low­ing chap­ter deals with the hor­rific ex­pe­ri­ence of the team at the no­to­ri­ous Kamp Staal­draad b

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - LIFE -

USU­ALLY, when a player joins the Bok camp, he’s up­lifted by an in­vig­o­rat­ing en­vi­ron­ment, but this was hardly the case when I joined the Boks in 2003. It was scary. Re­sults had been hor­rific (we had lost 52-16 to the All Blacks in Pre­to­ria) and the vibe among the guys wasn’t “What can I do for the team?” but “What can I do to sur­vive in it be­cause this is a World Cup year?”

The Bok camp was a danger­ous and un­healthy place, there was no en­joy­ment, and the World Cup was al­ways go­ing to be a spec­tac­u­lar fail­ure. There was no mean­ing­ful and constructive talk about what we could do to win it. There was a lot of hot air about sac­ri­fice and fit­ness, but with no real con­vic­tion. In our hearts we knew we were screwed.

I sup­pose, in Ru­dolf Straeuli’s de­fence, with 2002 hav­ing been so bad re­sults-wise, he felt he had to do some­thing dras­tic.

Kamp Staal­draad is a con­tentious is­sue. The first pic­tures of naked, dis­tinctly un­happy Bok play­ers broke in the in­ter­na­tional press on the day of the World Cup fi­nal be­tween Eng­land and Aus­tralia. In terms of pub­lic per­cep­tion, here were our ri­vals strut­ting on the bright­est stage in world rugby while the Ne­an­derthal Boks were bum­bling about like id­iots.

How can I clas­sify Staal­draad? My broth­ers went to the army, and when I told them about Staal­draad they said that kind of stuff had only hap­pened in the more se­vere camps.

The camp was in­cred­i­bly tough, so to get through it gave me a sense of achieve­ment, even though the premise of it was skewed. We didn’t eat or sleep, we did stupid things like carry poles and leop­ard crawl, and got drilled by the in­struc­tors. It was ob­vi­ously sup­posed to be about break­ing us down and then build­ing us up as a team, but it didn’t achieve any of that.

All it did was ex­pose the weak guys who couldn’t take the pres­sure. There were some young guys in our squad, with Der­ick Hougaard and Schalk Burger aged only 20.

We went from be­ing an­nounced as World Cup rock stars to be­ing told to re­port to the bus with a pair of PT shorts, a pair of jocks, a rugby jer­sey, a gum guard, a hat, run­ning shoes, and socks.

Be­fore we set out, I got some ad­vice from a mate of mine who told me we would only get one match, so I should smug­gle in a lighter, which I did, lodged in the in­side of my cap.

Af­ter about two-and-a-half hours in the bus, we were near­ing Warm­baths (now Bela-Bela) when we were told to put on blind­folds. About 20 min­utes later the bus stopped, and we were told to take the blind­folds off and get off the bus. It was pitch black and we were in the mid­dle of nowhere. Then the shout­ing started.

In­struc­tors, dressed in khaki, screamed at us to get into a for­ma­tion, but none of us had been to the army so it was a com­plete mess. Even­tu­ally we got into some kind of for­ma­tion, while th­ese guys laughed their heads off at us. They then told us to get on to a truck that would nor­mally trans­port cat­tle or sheep.

We were told to strip naked in the mid­dle of the bush. The okes hes­i­tated in tak­ing their kit off which re­sulted in such ven­omous ob­scen­i­ties that we re­alised it was no joke.

There we were, 30 okes stand­ing naked and be­ing searched. The in­struc­tors started go­ing through all our clothes, but some­how they missed my lighter.

Af­ter 10 min­utes of march­ing down the road in the dark we were stopped along­side a bunch of poles at the side of the road. What fol­lowed was hor­ri­ble. There were two guys to a pole and off we went down the road. Ev­ery now and again the in­struc­tors would tell us to swap part­ners – “Poles down, swap!”

Vic­tor Mat­field and Bakkies Botha would just find an­other pole, be­cause they are the same height and they wanted to stay to­gether, but the in­struc­tors spot­ted their trick and our pu­n­ish­ment was to leop­ard crawl through the fire brush.

The theme of Staal­draad was if an in­di­vid­ual stuffed up, he would have to watch while the rest were pun­ished with push-ups, sit-ups, or what­ever. “Don’t let your maatjie (mate) down,” they kept on say­ing.

About an hour-and-a-half af­ter that, we en­tered a lit­tle en­clo­sure in the bush. Dawn was break­ing and Ru­dolf was now on the scene (up un­til then we had only been with the in­struc­tors). He sat on a lit­tle ledge and on the ground be­fore us were box­ing head­gear and gloves.

“ Ja, we need to get to know each other. There are a lot of ri­val­ries here, and in the World Cup only cer­tain guys can start. Play­ers will be com­pet­ing for the same po­si­tions. We need to un­der­stand the dy­nam­ics of that, so we must fight,” he said.

First up was Thi­nus Del­port against Werner Gre­eff. Werner, who can be dif­fi­cult at the best of times, had lost his sense of hu­mour. We could see he wasn’t im­pressed with this camp at all and now the first fight was be­tween the full­backs.

Werner wasn’t re­ally in­ter­ested in fight­ing at first but then he took a few shots from Thi­nus and re­alised, “Okay, I’m not re­ally prov­ing any­thing, I’m just get­ting a klap.” He got an­gry and that’s when the fight re­ally started.

The rest of us watched the two of them climb into each other, with the bout last­ing three min­utes. Jaws dropped. Sel­borne Boome, our quiet in­tel­lec­tual, thought he was in a time warp. He went to De Wet Barry and asked: “Is this for real?’

That was the typ­i­cal type of match-up but there were also some strange ones. Af­ter the likes of Dale San­ton against Lawrence Sephaka, Faan Raut­en­bach against Richard Bands, and my­self against Christo Bezuiden­hout, there was the un­called-for bill be­tween Corné Krige, the cap­tain, and Schalk, the 20-year-old.

None of the 15 fights were un­con­tested. In each of them, the guys got stuck in – you had to fight. The first one was ob­vi­ously go­ing to be the most dif­fi­cult be­cause the guys didn’t know what to do. Werner had taken the high ground at first, say­ing, “ Ag, this is pa­thetic,” be­fore an­grily switch­ing to, “If you want a fight, I’ll f*****g give you one.”

Ru­dolf ob­vi­ously knew th­ese were the two guys to put against each other to set the tone. The in­struc­tors were egging every­one on like mad. They were loving it.

The pur­pose of Kamp Staal­draad was for Ru­dolf to see what kind of char­ac­ters we re­ally were. By then he knew what the rugby ca­pa­bil­ity of each guy was, but he wanted to see how tough we were.

That’s why I say I wasn’t trau­ma­tised by Staal­draad, as I learnt a heck of a lot about my­self and about the in­di­vid­u­als around me. None of it helped me or South Africa in the 2003 World Cup, but would I do it over again? Yes, prob­a­bly.

I re­alised that you can go without food for three days – as long as you have wa­ter, which we al­ways had ac­cess to – and that you can func­tion without sleep.

I was 25 and I had done a hun­dred fit­ness ses­sions be­fore, where I thought I was go­ing to die, but Staal­draad made me re­alise that your body and mind can be pushed much fur­ther than you think, and that no mat­ter what a fit­ness trainer does, he can’t kill you. You learn you are more of a ma­chine than you re­alise, your mind is there to hold you back phys­i­cally, and as tired as you are, you can go fur­ther.

For me, Staal­draad was an ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence and I quite en­joyed the chal­lenge.

On the first night, the win­ners of a tug-of-war had been promised food. Our group won and they brought a box, which con­tained two live chick­ens. “There’s your sup­per, there’s the fire, do what­ever you want,” said Ru­dolf.

The Afrikaans guys said: “Lekker, we can sort this out and share the meat.” But Ru­dolf said: “No, no, no! Joe (van Niek­erk), you must kill the first chicken.”

Now, Joe was the type of guy who thought chick­ens came from Nando’s. He had never con­sid­ered how they got there, so he started to panic and hy­per­ven­ti­late.

“No, I can’t kill a chicken!” he said. “Joe, kill the chicken, just wring its f*****g neck,” Ru­dolf replied. “It’s easy.”

Joe had never killed any­thing in his life, and wrenched the poor crea­ture’s neck, without too much con­vic­tion. I can’t ex­plain how hor­rific it was. We all stood there like bloody bar­bar­ians watch­ing poor Joe hy­per­ven­ti­late and re­luc­tantly tor­ture the un­for­tu­nate fowl.

He just didn’t want to do it and didn’t know how.

Even­tu­ally Joost van der Westhuizen had to in­ter­vene by grab­bing the chicken and putting it out of its mis­ery. It had suf­fered so much that when we braaied it later on, it was too tough to eat be­cause of the stress it had been sub­jected to.

The in­struc­tors then took us to a dam and it was off with our kit again. We had to wade in up to our chins. It was the cold­est wa­ter I had ever ex­pe­ri­enced.

We were given a drill where we were each handed a rugby ball that had to be pumped full of wa­ter, and when all the balls were full we could come out. You had to find the ball in the wa­ter that had your num­ber on it – there were no names on this camp, each guy had a num­ber.

I can see the phi­los­o­phy be­hind what they did, but you can’t do ba­sic army train­ing in three days. You can learn things about your­self and your lim­its, but that’s about it.

We were never ever go­ing to pump our balls up with wa­ter. We had bike pumps with lit­tle noz­zles and you had to suck the wa­ter into the pump and then push it into the ball. The noz­zles broke af­ter two min­utes.

‘The pur­pose of Kamp Staal­draad was for Ru­dolf to see what kind of char­ac­ters we were’

“Make a plan!” screamed the in­struc­tors, who ba­si­cally just wanted us in the wa­ter. We had been in for an hour and a half when I saw that Ste­fan Terblanche was turn­ing blue. His jaw was clat­ter­ing away and he looked as if he was about to freeze solid.

While we were freez­ing our bol­locks off, Ru­dolf and the in­struc­tors were hav­ing a braai in front of the dam, mak­ing boere­wors rolls and drink­ing beers.

The guys were re­ally tired – we hadn’t slept for 40 hours – so we didn’t give a fly­ing con­ti­nen­tal about be­ing self-con­scious about whose mem­ber was hang­ing out or shriv­elled up. We also didn’t know we were be­ing filmed be­cause Dale McDer­mott, our tech­ni­cal an­a­lyst, was a part of the team and al­ways had a video cam­era with him, as he did at the camp.

The next morn­ing they told us we had a fun day ahead. They said we were go­ing to go ab­seil­ing and jump out of he­li­copters into the wa­ter, but we had to get to the top of the moun­tain first.

By now we didn’t care about any­thing around us – we were just putting one foot in front of the other. The grand fi­nale saw us all flown out in a big army chop­per and dropped into the wa­ter.

We were then given ma­te­ri­als to make rafts in groups, and told we had to use them to go across the dam and back. We had 20 min­utes to build the raft, which had to be done in the nude in the wa­ter.

When our time was up, they told us to move one group to the right. For ex­am­ple, the last group moved to the first boat, so the boat you built was no longer yours, you had to sail on the boat that an­other team had made. So we sailed and some of the guys made it, while some didn’t. It was a colos­sal mess. The boat my team made was the worst one and came back in about 14 pieces. The one we sailed, won.

Af­ter­wards, an in­struc­tor’s whis­tle went and we were back in for­ma­tion. We marched and did push-ups. We marched again, and soon the wa­ter was be­hind us.

We were think­ing to our­selves, “Holy shit, is this it? Is the camp over?” But then they marched us all the way to the mid­dle of the bush, gave us GPS nav­i­ga­tors, and said: “Here are the co-or­di­nates, you guys get your­selves back to base.”

We had come a long way, been left in the mid­dle of nowhere and it was get­ting dark and cold. We wanted to make a fire but our al­lo­ca­tion of matches had been used up the pre­vi­ous night. I had my Bic and I wanted to pull it out but I knew the in­struc­tors would then won­der how we started the fire.

Neil de Kock de­cided to look for matches. He saw a tree that had a lad­der go­ing up to a plat­form, and he thought maybe they had left the matches up there. So he climbed up the lad­der and as he got his head over the top there was the guy in charge of the camp, Adri­aan Hei­jns, point­ing a 9mm to his fore­head, with Ru­dolf next to him. Neil just froze, then went back down. And as he did, they threw down matches, so my lighter was saved again.

Then the in­struc­tors said: “Okay, you’ve got 30 sec­onds to fall asleep in that tent.”

It was prob­a­bly a 15-man tent so we had to pack in like sar­dines. We were told to sleep, which wasn’t a prob­lem. We slept for about an hour and a half, be­fore the in­struc­tors woke us up with gun­shots.

“Con­grat­u­la­tions,” they said. “It’s all over and there’s a braai on the go for you.” We all tucked into lamb chops and guz­zled beers – it was the best braai I have ever had.

There was an im­mense sense of re­lief. We were alive! Th­ese okes had nearly killed us, they had bro­ken us, and here we were hav­ing beers with them.

The vibe was re­ally good on the bus, the guys had a feel­ing of to­geth­er­ness and felt a sense of achieve­ment. Rugby was the last thing on our minds be­cause we were just so amazed at our­selves and were talk­ing and telling “army” sto­ries.

We still talk and laugh about Staal­draad to this day.

As our bus neared Pre­to­ria, we saw the news­pa­per sign­boards. “Geogate” had bro­ken, big time. When we ar­rived, the me­dia were all over us, re­quest­ing in­ter­views. We said they could talk to ev­ery sin­gle one of us, but we would be there as a whole team, as we had just come through Staal­draad to­gether. They could walk in one at a time and ask who­ever they wanted a ques­tion.

I have never seen jour­nal­ists so scared. None of them could get any dirt be­cause they were too afraid to ask any real ques­tions.

From there we trav­elled straight to the Drak­ens­berg Sun in KwaZu­luNatal to meet our wives and fam­i­lies. We were spoilt and were not shy to lap up the lux­ury.

I went into Staal­draad weigh­ing 118kg and came out at 111kg. I lost 7kg in three days, but I reckon I put it all back on at the Drak Sun buf­fet.


TEST­ING TIMES: Ex­hausted, of­ten naked, the Spring­boks show team spirit in th­ese still frames from a video on Kamp Staal­draad aired on Carte Blanche.

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