In an extract from former Bok hooker James Dalton’s autobiography, Bulletproof, he reflects on an iconic battle with the All Blacks.
There was a moment when I wondered if I would ever get to play the All Blacks. I had warmed the bench on the Springboks’ tour to New Zealand in 1994, with coach Ian McIntosh preferring Natal’s John Allan. In 1995 I was suspended when the Springboks won the World Cup final against them and in August of 1996, I again found myself on the bench in Durban for the first of the three-Test series against our greatest rivals.
Andre Markgraaff, appointed to the Bok job in 1996, was the third Springbok coach I’d play under in three years and, even though I went through the pre-match ritual and the high of finally fronting the men in black, I did not engage in a scrum, let alone a tackle.
John Allan was Mac’s boy in 1994 and Markgraaff initially entrusted him to start in the Tri-Nations, but it didn’t yield different results as Allan didn’t win against the All Blacks in three attempts during 1994, or two more in 1996.
Markgraaff favoured bigger hookers who he felt would give the scrum greater presence and strength. Throughout my career, however, I’d proved that a hooker doesn’t have to weigh 110kg to be effective. In the first 35 Test matches I played, we lost just three.
One of those defeats came in the second Test of the 1996 series in South Africa, when the All Blacks beat us 33-26 in the most dramatic of matches. I replaced Henry Tromp with 15 minutes to go and was convinced we could at least draw the match when we attacked ferociously in the final few minutes. The All Blacks had never won a Test series in South Africa and victory at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria would be history-making for them.
Those final 15 minutes were frantic in that it was all-out South African attack. The crowd noise was incredible and it was as if 50 000 spectators, plus the 15 Boks on the field, were pushing for a final converted try that could keep the series alive.
The third and final Test was to be played at Ellis Park and, up until that point, the All Blacks had rarely won there in the history of this rivalry. They knew the significance of a ground that had a reputation for spooking them and the manner in which they defended their line at Loftus in those final minutes of the second Test was as much about making history in Pretoria as it was about knowing they’d be incapable of winning the series in Johannesburg.
They hung on, history was made and my 15 minutes against the All Blacks was not one of fame, but pain. It hurt to lose and it felt even worse because we had come so close. I wanted to be part of history against the All Blacks but this was the wrong kind of history. Fortunately, a few years later I would get to experience the right kind of history-making against them.
Playing off the bench at Loftus was my first time fronting All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick and I loved testing myself against the player, who for the best part of a decade, had been regarded as the best hooker in Test rugby. He was also the All Blacks captain and individually it didn’t get bigger for me than playing against him, with Ireland’s Keith Wood the only hooker in my era who would rival Fitzpatrick’s all-round game.
We lost but I had finally done enough to convince Markgraaff that a hooker with skills, doggedness, mongrel and attitude could do the job, even if he weighed less than 100kg. My 1995 Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks would come 14 months after the official one when I lined up to face the haka in the third Test of the series at Ellis Park.
The All Blacks picked their strongest side, despite having won the series, but I got a sense they were mentally already on a plane home. They were still tough but they lacked the desperation I had experienced from them in Pretoria and we had all the desperation after four successive defeats to them in 1996.
The highlight of my international career was always playing the All Blacks. They came with a reputation and with a presence that commands attention. They were like these black knights in armour and the power of the colour was almost invariably matched with the power of their performance. The haka was also thrilling to watch because I saw it as a challenge and an invite to go to battle. Some may view the haka as pre-match entertainment but I saw it as the start to the match. If you weren’t switched on facing that haka, you’d never get the chance to switch on during the game. You’d take a beating.I was proud to be a Springbok standing there and understanding the significance of the cultural war dance. You weren’t just playing an opponent, you were playing legacy, history, culture and then the player.
Fitzpatrick will always be among the most iconic of All Blacks and it gives me great satisfaction when I think of the success that I had against him and the highs we had as a team against the All Blacks, starting with a dominant performance at Ellis Park in 1996.
We won 32-22 after leading 32-8 with only a few minutes to go and I started and finished the game.
The wait had been worth every one of those 465 minutes I warmed the bench against them and Fitzpatrick was as gracious in defeat as he was in your face on the field.
What I enjoyed about him the most as a player was that he could give it and he could take it, whether it was a chirp, a punch or being cleaned out in a ruck. He was intelligent but he was also hard and in the times that I played him, we never held back when having a go at each other.
He was also so clever in getting an advantage at the scrum engage. For example, in 1996 and 1997 there was no distance in the scrum engage and it was first come, first set and first go. If you and your pack were ready, you went and the opposition ordinarily had to follow. If you set first it was a decided advantage, but what he would do so often is allow the opposition to set, then retreat and, as you hesitated, he’d move forward with his crotch over your head to mock a mistimed engagement which then forced the referee to pull up the opposing hooker. It was in that moment, as I was being pulled up by the referee, when he would then engage in tandem with his tighthead prop, who would be slightly in front of him. The two would then hit me at an angle, into the ribs and both would drive me upwards and milk a penalty, or at least plead to the referee for a penalty. None of it would be legal today but I am sure Fitzpatrick would have found a way to manipulate the scrum and referee if he was still playing.
Fitzpatrick was a great competitor and he knew how to work the referee. I used to call him a proper alley cat because he always seemed to get away with his shenanigans.
I confess to landing the odd big blow on him. Springboks and Sharks lock Mark Andrews reckons in the Durban Test match in 1998 he actually saw Fitzpatrick’s lights go out from one of my punches but I wouldn’t know because he just kept on playing, scrumming and getting from one set phase to another. His lights may have been out but his motor was still running. He was that kind of player.
I genuinely liked playing against him because he may have manipulated referees and pissed off the opposition, but he was never one to bitch and moan about getting hit. Fitzpatrick, like me, accepted that the cuts and bruises came packaged with the position. Both of us were masters of creating just enough of a gap when we engaged for our locks to land an uppercut on the impact of the engage. It really was old-school stuff but with today’s cameras and television match official replays you don’t find the dark arts being practised too much. The game really has been cleaned up and when I watch some of the clips from the Springboks battling the All Blacks in the 1990s, many of those Tests in today’s climate would have started 15-a-side and ended 7-a-side.
Fitzpatrick was as technical as he was hard. He was good at engaging late and at an angle, so that he could butt you on the top of your eyelid and cut you quickly.
He was generous in his praise after we beat the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1996 and he was from the old school whose rugby students believed that what happened on the field, stayed on the field.
*James Dalton was born on 16 August, 1972 in Johannesburg. He played in 43 Test matches with 35 on the winning side and eight on the losing side – an impressive 81% win ratio. Only Adrian Garvey (86%) and Morne du Plessis (82%) have a better ratio of all Springboks who played in 20 or more Tests.
He made 10 appearances in the Tri Nations, scoring two tries, and played in two Tests at the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
He is the fourth-most capped Springbok hooker behind John Smit (111), Bismarck du Plessis (79) and Adriaan Strauss (66).
He is fourth on the list of tries scored by a hooker (5) with Bismarck du Plessis (11), John Smit (8) and Adriaan Strauss (6) the top try-scorers for South Africa.
In his eight years of International rugby, he played against 11 countries and against the British & Irish Lions.
*This extract initially appeared in the November issue of SA Rugby magazine. Get the latest issue now.
Photo: David Rogers/Allsport