Past Springbok matches against the British & Irish Lions serve as reminders of the series-defining role often played by the man in the No 10 jersey, writes Clinton van der Berg.
As the 2021 edition of the Lions tour swings into the home straight, it’s fair to wonder if South Africa’s No 10 will be just as influential as those who came before.
If the British & Irish Lions taught South African rugby anything during the past five decades, it is the value of a formidable flyhalf.
One of the remarkable threads that runs through their tours to South Africa is how the form of the home flyhalves has set the tone. The Springboks’ periods of dominance have coincided with them having match-winners in the No 10 jersey but equally, when they have wobbled, it’s most often because the flyhalf has not taken charge.
The tour of 1974 is a good place to start, chiefly because this was a monumental watershed for the South African game. The horrors experienced by the team shook up local rugby.
‘The price of a Springbok skin … who wants a goat’s head above his mantlepiece?’ asked L’Equipe in the wake of the Springboks’ capitulation. The scars remained for years afterwards.
Dawie Snyman was selected at flyhalf for the first Test in 1974, but wasn’t up to scratch as the Boks lost in the mud of Newlands. His drop goal was the Boks’ solitary response to the Lions, whose own flyhalf, Phil Bennett, was outstanding.
In came Gerald Bosch, who was paired with his Transvaal teammate Paul Bayvel; one of eight changes made by Butch Lochner and his co-selectors for the second Test.
It was a bruising debut for Bosch, a slightly built flyhalf who spent the afternoon in Pretoria chasing shadows as his forwards took a pounding. The Lions scored five tries in a 28-9 triumph, the worst result in Springbok history.
Jackie Snyman had played outside centre that day, where he probably should have stayed but for the selectors’ growing sense of panic. This was never better illustrated than on the eve of the third Test at Boet Erasmus when Gert Schutte, Roy McCallum and Gerrie Sonnekus were all tried out at scrumhalf. Sonnekus was a No 8, but in he went to partner Snyman as scrumhalf. It was bewildering and akin to handing Duane Vermeulen the No 9 jersey.
Willie John McBride and his troops would surely have celebrated this good fortune with the mish-mash selection boosting their ambitions. With 11 changes, there was little fluidity and the Boks lost a fiery match with Snyman’s three kicks all to show for their efforts.
Danie Craven, the venerable president of SA rugby, begged the selectors to stop making changes – 33 players were used across the four Tests, 21 of them debutants – because they had run out of material for Bok blazers.
Interestingly, just before the third Test, the Lions played the Quaggas, whose flyhalf that day was Peter Kirsten. He scored 12 points in his team’s 20-16 defeat. But for subsequent injury playing for Western Province, who can tell how things might have turned out for the international cricketer.
Another promising flyhalf on the tour, who by all accounts should have been a Springbok, was Gavin Cowley, who showed up well when the Lions played Eastern Province. A fine attacking player, he possessed the flair and sense of adventure that was sorely lacking among the Boks in 1974.
Jackie Snyman was part of the team that salvaged a draw in the final Test, but his goose had been cooked. He would never play for the Springboks again.
The aftershocks of the tour would be felt for many years, but when the Springbok team was announced for the visit of Bill Beaumont’s Lions in 1980, expectation hung in the air. The Lions lacked the geniuses of the previous era and in men like Ray Mordt, Rob Louw and Morne du Plessis the Springboks had players of undoubted world class.
Plus they had Naas Botha. The Blue Bulls prodigy had made his Bok debut earlier that year, against the South American Jaguars, and was just 22 when he was tasked with steering the show against the Lions.
Despite South Africa’s stereotype for dour, forward-oriented play, they produced flair and invention with Botha’s long, accurate kicks and fast hands burnishing his reputation as a supreme match-winner.
He did, however, profit from the impeccable service of Divan Serfontein, whose offerings from scrumhalf were inch-perfect. The series was won 3-1. Botha was here to stay.
The British press soon nicknamed him ‘Nasty Booter’, a label he was happy to wear.
By the time the 1997 series rolled around, Henry Honiball was the man in possession. As exciting as he was, he was a temperamental kicker.
The Lions arrived unburdened by expectation, but Matt Dawson’s outrageous dummy (and try) helped see off the Boks in the opening Test in Cape Town. The normally dependable Honiball had kicked badly from hand – and at goal – but it wasn’t an aberration.
He lacked his usual sense of authority in the second Test in Durban as he and stand-in kickers Percy Montgomery and Andre Joubert missed a combined six kicks at goal. It was a ruinous outcome – the Boks scored three tries to nil, but the errant kicking proved deadly.
Jannie de Beer made his debut in the final Test at Ellis Park and kicked beautifully, his three penalties and two conversions contributing to the 35-16 win.
Honiball was held up as one of the scapegoats for the series loss, but he was just as much a victim of the muddled thinking by coach Carel du Plessis, a point underscored when Nick Mallett brought him back with much success.
He had superb qualities as a flyhalf. He was hard, straight-running and big, but little of this was evident as the Boks played as if in straitjackets.
Revenge was in the air 12 years later. Ruan Pienaar had ascended to the flyhalf berth and was in the form of his life when the Lions came to town. (Gysie, his father, had been one of the standouts from 1980, a fleet-footed fullback who loved to attack from deep).
Little were we to know that another 24-year-old flyhalf, on the bench that day, would be thrust into public consciousness one week later. Morne Steyn made his debut off the bench in the 26-21 win in Durban.
The next Test, in Pretoria, was epic in nature and Pienaar, unfussed and accurate, did a fine job. But when a late penalty was awarded to the Boks with the scores locked at 25-25, it was Steyn who took charge. He had just come on, and Loftus Versfeld was like his back garden. He knew what to do.
The series was won and ice-cool Steyn was lauded as a hero. He displayed enormous cojones in keeping his head in the heat of battle and was rewarded by being selected to start in his next Test, a position he would barely relinquish for seven years and 66 Test matches.
What’s remarkable is that he remains in the frame, albeit a short distance behind Handre Pollard and Elton Jantjies, the World Cup heroes who continue to do the job for South Africa.
If the series is to be won, it will require the sort of excellence, calmness and leadership demonstrated by his winning forebears.
The greatest performances by SA flyhalves
Jannie de Beer
‘Who needs champagne when you’ve got De Beer?’ trumpeted one newspaper after witnessing the single greatest performance by a South African flyhalf — Jannie de Beer’s five drop goals against England in the 1999 World Cup. It would not have happened but for Henry Honiball’s hamstring injury. Coach Nick Mallett was a Honiball man, but turned to De Beer for the crucial tie. Fellow Free Stater Brendan Venter had spotted a chink in England’s defensive style and suggested to his teammate that a drop goal or two might be in order.
There is good reason why Naas Botha is considered the greatest match-winner in SA rugby history. He consistently bossed games with his tactical kicking, but could be a shrewd attacking player, too. “I don’t look upon him as a kicker, I look at him as a genius,” said Danie Craven. Botha played 28 times for South Africa and was never better than in the second Test against the All Blacks in Wellington in 1981 where he scored 20 points to steer the Boks to a famous 24-12 victory to tie the series.
Joel Stransky scored the three most important points South Africa ever earned when he kicked the winning drop goal in the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. Many forget that he scored two drop goals that day, yet in his 22 Tests he scored just three in total. Ever the man for the moment, he saved the sweetest for Ellis Park.
Bennie Osler captained the Springboks on their 1931-32 tour to the Home Nations. Favouring kicking over running with the ball, this led to the Boks playing a forward-based game to much success. Osler’s Boks duly became the second South African team to win a Grand Slam.