From Chester Williams to Siya Kolisi, SA Rugby magazine has come a long way, writes SIMON BORCHARDT.
I’ll never forget the day I saw the first issue of SA Rugby magazine. After school, I walked down to the local café to get something to eat before rugby practice and there was Chester Williams – beaming at me from the magazine display stand. It was April 1995, the World Cup in South Africa was a month away, and Chester was the face of SAA’s marketing campaign for the tournament. Now he was also on the cover of SA’s new rugby magazine appropriately wearing a jersey in the colours of the new SA flag.
I bought it – for R8.50! – and read it from cover to cover when I got home that evening. From then on, I collected every issue, riding to the shops on my bike when I knew it would be on sale.
In 2001, I was studying journalism at Wits University and working part-time at Rugby Week newspaper when I heard the publishers of SA Rugby magazine were closing shop. At the end of the year, I sadly bought what seemed to be the last issue.
However, in early 2002 I got a call from rugby writer Dion Viljoen. He told me that Monarch Communications (now Highbury Media) had bought SA Rugby and he’d been tasked with relaunching the magazine (I would later discover that CEO Kevin Ferguson had won a secret auction, outbidding Touchline Media, the publishers of SA Sports Illustrated).
As a student with dreams of becoming a rugby journalist, I had emailed rugby writer Mark Keohane to ask him for advice, and we’d stayed in touch. When Dion told Keo that he was looking for a youngster to join the new SA Rugby team, Keo mentioned my name, and in doing so changed my life.
Dion, though, hadn’t realised I lived in Gauteng and told me they were looking for someone based in Cape Town. I said I would fly myself down for an interview if required, and would happily move to the Mother City if I got the job.
A few days later, after helping get Rugby Week to print in the early hours of the morning, I grabbed a couple hours sleep before downing a Red Bull and flying to Cape Town. The interview with publishing director Tony Walker (now MD) went well and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than the day he called me to say I’d got the job.
Dion did a great job relaunching SA Rugby magazine. It was edgy and exciting again, and didn’t shy away from controversy. After a couple of issues, he handed things over to me and I continued having a blast. We had body-painted women for our Super 12 preview issues, which wouldn’t be very PC today. We turned Corné Krige into Superman, Jean de Villiers into the Terminator (the make-up took hours) and Joost van der Westhuizen into a knight (‘Arise, Sir Joost’). When Bok centre Robbie Fleck was getting flak for his performances, we did a ‘crucified’ cover shoot on Noordhoek Beach.
Keo joined the company in 2004 (initially as group sports editor and then publisher) and with excellent editorial, design and sales teams, the magazine went from strength to strength. Our 2007 World Cup preview issue was a ‘coffee-table crusher’ at 236 pages, the biggest in SA Rugby history, and we broke that record four years later (260 pages).
For me, the most special SA Rugby cover featured Nelson Mandela in a Springbok blazer along with Jake White and John Smit to celebrate 100 years of the Bok emblem in 2006 (read Keo’s take on that in the 300th issue, on sale now). Madiba was on the cover again in late 2013, shortly before his death, with his image made up of hundreds of rugby photos. Inside, former and current Boks explained what he had meant to them.
It was in 2013 that SARugbymag.co.za was launched and it’s been a real thrill for me to see the brand dominate the digital rugby space. Under current editor Zelím Nel, the website recently hit four-million monthly page views and SA Rugby’s Facebook page has more than 460,000 followers (I remember when it had just one – me!).
However, the print magazine remains popular, with a loyal readership and big subscriber base. It got through lockdown when many other titles were forced to close and can now celebrate an amazing milestone in its 27-year history.
I always say it was a case of love at first sight when I saw Issue 1 of SA Rugby in 1995, and that my love for the magazine has grown with each issue. To be part of the 300th is incredibly special, and I hope there are many more to come.
– The 300th issue of SA Rugby magazine is on sale now! Get the digital edition.