Today’s pick is at outside centre, as Mark Keohane, in a new series, selects his best Springboks since 1992 and the World XV he would pick to front this green machine in his dream Test match.
Time tends to forget the heroics of those players who aren’t in the immediate consciousness. I have been so blessed to witness first hand the brilliance of so many quality Springbok and international midfielders since reporting on my first Test match in 1992.
I’ve seen some brilliant Springbok teams, most notably the 1995 World Cup-winning Springboks, Gary Teichmann’s 1997 and 1998 Springboks who won 17 Tests in succession, the 2007 World Cup winning Boks, the core of whom beat the British & Irish Lions and the All Blacks three times in succession in 2009. The 2019 World Cup-winning Springboks were outstanding in winning the title, but the jury is still out on the all-round standing of this team, when compared to their predecessors, given they lost to the All Blacks in the Pool Stages. If this team kicks on in the next year, then they can challenge for an all-time great placing.
The Boks in this time have also encountered the mighty All Blacks through their most dominant decade in the history of rugby, battled the imposing Martin Johnson-led England between 2000 and 2003 and also come up against the Wallabies at their strongest between 1991 and 2003.
Wales and Ireland in recent vintage have also produced some world-class teams.
The midfield, as with loose-forwards, has been my toughest selection. There have been so many wonderfully talented players since 1992. There have also been among the most celebrated midfield combinations in the same period. Every international coach will tell you that when selecting the midfield, it is about the combination, and there wouldn’t be an argument from my side. However, for purposes of this series, I have looked at the individual who has made the most impact on me in the midfield, at No 13 and No 12, and many of these players were equally comfortable playing 13 and 12, and excelled with either number on their back during their international career.
When I think of the Bok midfield combinations, the most recent and obvious one is Jean de Villiers (12) and Jaque Fourie (13). Frans Steyn (12) and Fourie (13) were the 2007 World Cup-winning combination because of injury to De Villiers, but as a combination the only international duo to challenge the presence of De Villiers and Fourie in the mid-2000s would be the All Blacks midfield of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, both in terms of success and longevity. Other class acts were: Ireland’s Gordon D’arcy and Brian O’Driscoll, New Zealand’s Walter Little and Frank Bunce, England’s Mike Tindall and Will Greenwood, Scott Gibbs and Jeremy Guscott for the 1997 three-Test British & Irish Lions series against the Springboks and the Wallabies duo of Tim Horan and Jason Little. The two played for the Wallabies as 18 year-olds and Horan, individually, would make the most impact over a decade, but more of him when discussing my No 12 selections.
France’s Yannick Jauzion and Aurelien Rougerie always caught the eye and Wesley Fofana was an exceptional talent. Injuries played havoc with his international career. So too England’s powerful Manu Tuilagi, who could slot into most teams at No 12 or 13.
Geez, there are so many options and it seems almost criminal to narrow it down to one Bok and one World XV choice.
My filter to get to this choice is who made the greatest impact on me since I started writing professionally about international rugby in 1992. Were there specific moments in Test matches and also would I pay more than the asking price to go watch them play?
Danie Gerber started at No 13 in South Africa’s first Test back in international rugby in 1992, but the incomparable Gerber was in his final year of rugby. He would play on in 1993 at provincial level as a winger but the world, through isolation, was denied Gerber in his prime. There was one small consolation when Gerber lined up for a Southern Hemisphere World XV at Twickenham to play the Nothern Hemisphere in the 1980s. The starting backline in a match comfortably won by the south was Australia’s Roger Gould (fullback), John Kirwan (NZ) and Carel du Plessis (SA) on the wings, Gerber and (NZ’s) Warrick Taylor in the midfield and Naas Botha (SA) and Dave Loveridge (NZ) at halfback. It was a pretty special set of starting backs.
Gerber did score two tries against the All Blacks at Ellis Park in the historic 1992 one-off Test and I at least got to write about that.
Jaque Fourie was exceptional and I got to see him playing fullback for the Lions as a 19 year-old. You knew from those first few matches that he would transition to Test rugby easily and quickly and he made his World Cup debut in 2003 as a 20 year-old.
Fourie’s best years for the Springboks were 2004 to 2011 and he consistently ranked as the best No 13 in South Africa and among the best in the world for a decade.
Fourie’s try, in the series winning-second Test against the Lions in 2009, typified all his strength as an attacking force. He scored it playing on the wing, but outside centre was where he made his mark and some of his most enthralling battles were against All Blacks captain Tana Umaga and fellow New Zealander Conrad Smith. Just look at the pedigree of those names! WOW
The 2019 World Cup winner Lukhanyo Am is destined for bigger things, but his Test career is still in its infancy. He already has his name up in lights but for me he still needs a few more years of international dominance to challenge for the No 1 spot.
Marius Joubert, three tries against the All Blacks at Ellis Park and a spectacular solo try against the Wallabies at the Gabba in Brisbane, Andre Snyman with the sensational score against England at Twickenham and Robbie Fleck’s double against the All Blacks at Ellis Park were No 13s who all enjoyed Test match highs and all three will make it into a highlights package of Bok midfielders since 1992.
Fourie, when I look at supporters and fans’ picks on social media forums, has been the most obvious choice for best South African No 13 since 1992, but again I question whether those so single minded in their selections, remember the 1990s and the quality of midfielders in South Africa and abroad?
I wrote about them all and, although he only played in 34 Tests, Japie Mulder made such an impact on me. Mulder was nicknamed ‘Varkie’ for his no nonsense approach on defence and his toughness as a rugby player.
In 2000 I had the good fortune of spending a night out with All Blacks legend Frank Bunce after the All Blacks had beaten the Springboks in Christchurch. I had been a guest on a rugby show with Bunce and former All Blacks prop Mark ‘Bull’ Allen. I ended up partying with the Bunce, Allen, the television crew and the core of the All Blacks squad that night. Bunce told some wonderful stories of his career and I asked him who he rated his toughest international opponent?
His response, summarized, was that Wallaby Tim Horan was a great player but that when it came to knowing he was in a contest, it was Japie Mulder.
Bunce told me that he would play against Horan and Little and be on the losing side and wonder if he had been in a game because of their technical, tactical and smart approach. It was like he couldn’t get to them. They were such an intelligent combination, but when it came to an out and out war, battle and confrontation, it was Mulder, said Bunce.
‘He played hard and then we’d have a beer afterwards,’ Bunce told me. ‘I’d see him at the bottom of a ruck and I would hit him and he’d grunt. Then I’d be at the bottom of a ruck looking up and bam he’d hit me. I’d grunt. And then we’d play on. Afterwards we’d have a beer and laugh about it.
Mulder, in 1996, played against France in France. The French outside centre was Stephane Glas. He was a beautiful player, with a skill set similar to England’s Jeremy Guscott. He glided past defences more than he crashed into them, but when he played the Springboks he just didn’t have an answer to Mulder’s physicality. The Boks, in 1996, beat the French in the two-Test series, and the French rugby media described Mulder’s bossing of Glas as such: ‘Glas versus Mulder was the equivalent of inviting Mozart to a heavy metal concert.’
Mulder, when he was summoned to New Zealand to make his Test debut in the second Test against the All Blacks in 1994, made an immediate mark on the tour. The Kiwi journalists asked me: ‘Where the hell has this guy been?’ They were stunned the young Mulder wasn’t in the original tour group and while Joost van der Westhuizen’s tackle on Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup final is the most talked about, the most brutal tackle on Lomu came from Mulder in the first few minutes. It set the Boks’ defensive effort for the next 95 minutes.
Another Mulder story I will never forget, when it came to his brutality on defence, was when he played for the Springboks against Wales A in 2001. Bok coach Harry Viljoen had picked Mulder in the midweek team as a fitness test for the Saturday showdown with Wales. Mulder proceeded to cut flyhalf Stephen Jones in two every time he touched the ball, some of it legal, some of it late and illegal.
A few years later in an interview I had with Jones, he recalled that match in relation to a question about the Boks and their reputation for physicality. He told me: ‘I once played for the A side against the Springboks and there was this bloke Japie Mulder. I don’t know what I did to him because I had never spoken to him or seen him before, but from the first kick-off he just hammered me. It was brutal.’
Jones, in the interview, laughed about the craziness of the match.
I didn’t have the heart to tell Jones, but it was a topic of conversation back then in the changeroom. When Mulder was asked why he singled out Jones for such defensive attention, Mulder, without blinking or changing his expression, simply replied that there was something about Jones’s face that had irritated him.
Mulder was an outside centre I’d go to war with. He played many Tests at No 12 and No 13, but in my (post 1992) Dream Bok team, Mulder is my pick at No 13.
WATCH: MULDER IN ACTION
Internationally, the options are numerous and so many of the players are considered rugby greats. The most obvious choice is Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll, an out and out No 13, who played 133 Tests for Ireland and eight for the British & Irish Lions. O’Driscoll is one of the finest midfielders ever to play the game. His career was one constant wave of consistency and excellence. England’s Jeremy Guscott, who also played both 12 and 13, had a similar attacking genius when playing 13, and New Zealand’s Conrad Smith rarely had an off day in 94 Tests, during which time he won back to back World Cup titles with the All Blacks in 2011 and 2015.
England captain Will Carling would get his fair share of votes in any World XV and former All Blacks captain Tana Umaga’s record, initially as a winger and then in the midfield, would be a fan favourite at 14, 13 and 12, but the pick at No 13 in my World XV dream team is Welshman Scott Gibbs.
I first saw Gibbs play in 1991 for Wales and for the British & Irish Lions against the All Blacks in New Zealand. Gibbs played in the No 13 jersey early in his career and in 1991 played outside Guscott against the All Blacks. The two would reunite against the Boks in 1997, but it would be Gibbs in the No 12 jersey and Guscott in the No 13 jersey. The duo, with their contrasting range of skills, were magnificent in the series and Gibbs was named player of the series.
Gibbs left rugby union for rugby league in 1993 to play for St Helens. He was a superstar in both codes and on his return to union in 1996 was bigger, stronger and even better than when he first announced himself in 1991.
His physicality was a trademark of his game, but he also had subtle touches and very good hands and he was a superb leader. He is a player, who in recent years, has spent a lot of time working and living in South Africa and he is particularly fond of Cape Town. I will always remember him for bouncing the strong man of Bok rugby Os du Randt in that 1997 series and the only other player I ever saw bounce Os was French-based Samoan No 8 Henry Tuilagi, at the 2007 World Cup.
Gibbs tells the story that half an hour after the final whistle the bulldozers were already starting to break down the stadium, which caused him to remark to the English at the aftermatch function: ‘I know you are disappointed at losing in the final minute but don’t you think breaking down the stadium is a bit of an overreaction.’
Gibbs would have made my team at No 12 or No 13, but for purposes of my Dream Team, he wears No 13, while O’Driscoll will be my midfield cover in the match-day 23.
WATCH: SCOTT GIBBS BUMPS OFF OS DURANDT
WATCH: GIBBS ON HIS WAY TO THE TRYLINE AGAINST SOUTH AFRICA (PLAYING AT 12)