One would struggle to find a South African rugby club with as rich a tradition and long a history of success as Pirates. The Johannesburg giants trace their roots back to the Northern Cape mining town of Kimberley, which is where George Danford established the club in 1884.

Four years later, the miners were cutting through gaps and dishing out massive hits on the muddy terrain of Kruger’s Park in Johannesburg, and the club later moved to its present site in Greenside. Pirates dominated the club scene in the early years and established the Pirates Grand Challenge, which today is still the senior club competition for the Gauteng region. The club has won the competition 10 times – their first triumph was in 1890 – and has been runner-up on numerous occasions.

A host of provincial players has been produced as well as 35 Test players, including 1995 World Cup winners Kobus Wiese,
Chester Williams, James Small and Gavin Johnson. However, that heritage of success was threatened in 1995 when, after 15
losses from 16 matches, the 1st XV finished at the bottom of the league table. It is testament to the level of professionalism at the club that, guided by a strategic plan for the short, medium and long term, the team rallied to finish top of the log in 1996.

The years 1997 and 1998 were even more profitable, yielding back-to-back Grand Challenge triumphs as well as a spate of success for the other senior and junior teams. Pirates were unbeaten in the National Club Championships in 2000 and were crowned champions of the premier club tournament a year later, becoming the first open club to do so. Despite that, the prestigious trophy has eluded them since. The closest they’ve come to recapturing it was in 2002 when the University of Pretoria (Tukkies) knocked them out in the semi-finals.

Pirates have recently failed to scale the heights they have become accustomed to in the league, but at the time of writing they were involved in an almighty scrap with Raiders to get into the Grand Challenge semi-finals. Whether that materialises will largely define their season, says first-team assistant coach Martin Scheepers.

‘At the start of the season, we always set ourselves the target of making the National Club Champs and making a clean sweep of all the competitions we’re involved in, such is the ambition and calibre of players we have at Pirates,’ Scheepers says. ‘We’ve been unlucky this season in that we’ve let leads slip or made defensive errors at crucial times that have cost us matches.

‘But there have certainly been more positives than negatives, and the spirit in the club is still superb. Some of the rugby we’ve played this year has been magic, and I’m sure we’ll build on that in the future.’

Scheeper’s prediction is strengthened by the fact that Pirates have a flood of quality players streaming from the junior system into the senior ranks. They field two U21 and U19 sides, who compete against Gauteng’s premier teams, as well as teams in the U9, U11, U13, U15 and U17 age groups.

‘We’ve always prided ourselves on our junior system, and there are some really exciting youngsters currently in the mini rugby system [U8 to U17],’ he says. ‘The real fruits are starting to show in the U19 and U21 system where a few of those talented players have made the step up to the first and second teams. We’ve now got fantastic depth in all positions and a healthy competition for places. That bodes really well for the club’s future.’

It’s not only the young bucks who are making an impression at Pirates. The club’s Old Boys are holding back the years by turning out for the ‘Madalas’, as the over-40s are called. Not content with merely rocking up and getting the game over in anticipation of the post-match thirst quenching at the Pigeon House, the renowned clubhouse, the oldies have also excelled.

Scheepers, himself one of the legendary middle-agers, is unashamedly proud of their achievements. ‘We recently lost our first game in three years against Hamiltons of Cape Town,’ he says. ‘Last year, we toured Uruguay and were unbeaten there before travelling to Argentina for the World Golden Oldies Championship, which we won.

‘The Old Boys are the heart and soul of this club and a big part of the reason we’ve got the sort of spirit that differentiates us from many other clubs.’ Pirates are one of the leaders on the club scene in granting players from previously disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to play a high standard of club rugby.

A house rented by the club provides free accommodation for six black players, three of whom play in the first team.
‘I’ve been involved at this club since 1989, and every year we’ve just kept growing and improving,’ Scheepers says. ‘It’s our all-consuming passion to be the best club in South Africa. I’m optimistic that in the years to come we’ll be an even
greater force.’