Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 1s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
Robbie Kempson played 37 Tests for the Springboks and his international career coincided with the Springboks superb 1998 season, in which they hammered Ireland in a home series and won the Tri nations and beat the All Blacks in New Zealand and South Africa.
For me, Kempo’s biggest match came a few years before his Test debut when he confronted the legend of Tommy Laubscher in the 1995 Currie Cup final in Durban. And triumphed!
Kempson was just 21 years-old and Laubscher, the grand dad of tightheads in South African rugby, was expected to monster the young Eastern Cape born and schooled ‘soutie’.
If sheep farmer Laubscher was the archetypal caricature of a tighthead, then Kempson was everything but the perceived image of a South African prop forward.
Kempson, whose mother was a school principal, did dressage and won many a showjumping ribbon. He could also play the piano, loved to drink tequila and orange juice, could scrum, could throw a punch and never complained when taking one.
Kempson was among an elite group of English-speaking South African rugby players who, back in the day, commanded respect from Afrikaans-speaking teammates and provincial opposition. He was also a popular bloke among the international opposition because he played it hard on the field and played it equally hard after the final whistle. Kempson didn’t believe in a ‘them and us’ mentality when it came to Test rugby. He socialized with the opposition if he got along with the bloke. Whether he was a Kiwi, an Aussie or an Englishman, if Kempo digged the guy’s personality, you’d find the two of them out and about after a Test match.
It was a similar situation in Super Rugby and in the Currie Cup.
In 1995, in the build-up to the Currie Cup final between the Sharks and Western Province in Durban I had written of Kempson as an apprentice who would be schooled by Laubscher. I had disregarded the potency of the home team pack against the grizzled Western Province forward unit.
I underestimated the spirit of that Sharks team and the influence of French duo Olivier Roumat and Thierry Lacroix, who would score 20 points in the 25-17 win. But mostly I had yet to have an appreciation for the scrumming ability of Kempson. Ditto, Laubscher, who afterwards applauded a ‘soutpiel who could scrum’.
It rained a lot during the match and the Province forwards afterwards made a point that scrumming had been difficult and their strength had been negated because of the wet underfoot conditions. Both teams had to scrum in the same conditions, so there wasn’t much to the claim. The Sharks simply were better on the day and Kempson was among the standouts.
I offered congratulations to him at the cocktail party afterwards and he seemed unfazed at the pre-match reports that he would take a beating or at the post match report that he had delivered a beating. He smiled and in the most cultured of engagements politely thanked me.
I got to know Kempson when he moved to Cape Town and played for Western Province and the Stormers, and one of the best house warming parties I attended was after the Stormers had beaten the Sharks 34-19 at Newlands in 1999. Kempson had brought a house in Newlands and the majority of the Stormers and Sharks players were in attendance. It went off.
The match had been tough and represented the changing of the guard when it came to national consideration. The Stormers, with their ‘Men in Black’ campaign, were the new kids on the block and the seasoned Sharks veterans were on their final legs. Kempson had enjoyed success with both teams and was as much a Shark as he was a Stormer. It could have been a benefit match for Kempson because his popularity was borne out in how many players from both sides were willing to make the party. More so, because there was no love lost during the game.
It was also at this party that Stormers coach and Springbok assistant coach (at the time) Alan Solomons made an appearance. It was there that Solomons had indicated to Teichmann that Bob Skinstad was the early frontrunner to start the Test season at No 8. Teichmann was still the incumbent Springbok captain.
That didn’t go down well with Teichmann or any of the Sharks players. And the chat surprised many in the Stormers set-up because Teichmann was held in the highest regard, locally and internationally.
Kempson was good mates with Skinstad but he was a faithful disciple of Teichmann’s leadership and standing as the best No 8 in South Africa. The host of the house warming did his best to ensure Solomons’s conversation did not upset the mood of the occasion.
It was one of the rare times I had seen Kempson be the calming influence because, on the rugby field, you could be guaranteed that if there was an altercation Kempson was always in the middle. He gave as good as he took and he gave more than he ever had to take.
There weren’t too many occasions when Kempson wouldn’t have the finest of shiners for his on-field efforts and the man who played it tough, initially seemed at odds with the refined young man who would enjoy any post-match revelry. The night would start in a structured and composed manner, until the tequila hit a spot and Kempson uttered the words ‘I am about to spread my wings’.
Kempson’s Springbok and Stormers teammate, the midfielder Robbie Fleck, would always joke that he knew when the evening would turn was when Kempson would turn to him, ask him to hold his jacket, spread his arms as if they were wings and take off into the crowd.
A serious neck injury curtailed Kempson’s international career and his last Test was against the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2003. I was the Springboks Communications Manager and I had to inform Kempson at the after match cocktail party that he was going to be cited for punching the imposing Wallabies No 8 Toutai Kefu.
The Wallabies management had complained of the state Kefu was in and said that the punch could have been career-ending.
Kempson, as calmly as he did in Durban in 1995, looked at me, thanked me for the news, added that he had thought Kefu was a bit tougher than that and then declared it best that he left the cocktail to find a ‘QC’ to represent him at the pending disciplinary.
Kempson was a delight and I enjoyed interacting with him, writing about his career and also sharing some good times with him when I was with the Springboks.
Ollie le Roux was another of my favourites, even if he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Le Roux was the ultimate supersub, long before supersubs were the vogue in professional rugby.
Le Roux played 54 Tests, but started in just 11. He was incredibly skilled as a player and he was a prop who could have played flyhalf. Le Roux played SA Schools Waterpolo and was an outstanding squash player. He was a loosehead who was as comfortable playing hooker and boy could he eat.
Le Roux could tell a joke and he could also take one. He told the story of playing for the Sharks against the Brumbies in Canberra and dropping the ball a metre from the tryline. The Brumbies players chirped him that if it was a donut he would never have dropped it.
Le Roux agreed with them, although he was more a hamburger than donut guy.
One of Le Roux’s favourite stories was from his early days with Free State. Le Roux, a youngster, was up against the hardened Bester brothers from Griquas. At the first scrum, said Le Roux, Piet Bester welcomed him to ‘hell’, to which Le Roux replied: ‘Meet the devil’.
Le Roux was also a player who didn’t stand back in confrontations and he had a particular dislike for the boys from Western Province and the Stormers.
Former Free State and Western Province’s Toks van der Linde was such a character. Toks only played seven Tests, the first against Italy in Rome in 1995 and the last against France in Paris in 2001, but this was down to a certain Os du Randt being the starting prop. Toks’s best performances were for Province in a career of 133 matches, in which he won three Currie Cup titles. I enjoyed Toks as a player and he was a reporter’s dream interview. He was also just a good oke.
When I think of South Africa’s finest looseheads since 1992, the obvious names are Os du Randt and Tendai Mtawarira, but Kempson, Le Roux, Gurthro Steenkamp and Coenie Oosthuizen all made a big impression.
Du Randt (80 Tests) and Mtawarira (117) would appear to have had the monopoly on the Springboks No 1 jersey since 1994, but there were seasons when Steenkamp (53 Tests), Oosthuizen (30 Tests) and Kempson (37 Tests) proudly did justice to the legacy of that No 1 Bok jersey.
Steenkamp is possibly the one who got the least public acknowledgement and his international retirement was premature, given his excellent form for French club Toulouse. The players always acknowledged the worth of Steenkamp and he was a unanimous choice as South Africa’s 2010 Player of the Year. Steenkamp won three Super Rugby titles with the Bulls, was a member of the 2007 World Cup-winning Springboks and won the Top 14 with Toulouse. He would play 128 matches for Toulouse before finishing his career with Stade Francais.
Oosthuizen’s versatility meant that former Springbok Heyneke Meyer saw a Test future for him as a tighthead, but Oosthuizen never settled in the No 3 jersey, with the scrumming demands and techniques very different. Oosthuizen’s international career would also be hampered with serious injuries.
One of the strongest blokes, according to all those who played him, was former Eastern Province and Western Province’s Garry Pagel. He only played a handful of Tests before accepting a lucrative overseas offer with Northampton Saints.
Pagel was also understated and cool in a very cool Western Province front row quartet that included Keith Andrews, Andrew Paterson (hooker) and Laubscher.
Pagel would play out his career from 1997 to 2001 with Northampton Saints. He played 77 times for them and earned the reputation as one of the best overseas signings.
Pagel played four Tests at the 1995 World Cup, including the winning final, won the Currie Cup with Western Province in 1997 and won the Heineken Cup with Northampton in 2000.
Daan Human is another South African prop whose best years were overseas. Human played just four Tests in 2002, albeit all winning ones, before taking up residence at Toulouse. He would retire after 169 matches for Toulouse, with two Heineken Cup titles as champions of Europe.
Mtawarira’s international career, like that of Du Randt, had a perfect ending. Both giants of the Boks No 1 jersey would finish their Test careers with World Cup winning performances against England.
Du Randt starred for the Boks in the 2007 win against England in Paris, France and Mtawarira was colossal in destroying England’s scrum in the Boks’ stunning 2019 final in Tokyo, Japan. The Boks won 32-12 but the six scrum penalties England conceded, four of them in the first 30 minutes, was even more painful for England supporters than the 20-point defeat.
The Beast, as Mtawarira was affectionately called, consistently set the standards among South African loosehead props in the past decade and his 74 Tests wins is second only to Victor Matfield’s 79 victories.
It would take a special and remarkable talent to keep Mtawarira out of any starting XV and Du Randt is that player who consigns the Beast to the bench. Pity the tighthead who would have to counter the tag team of Du Randt and Mtawarira.
Du Randt was a youngster when he won the 1995 World Cup and he was at a peak during the 1999 World Cup. The image of him giving Australia’s George Gregan the ‘do as you told’ in 1999 is one that typified his career and even when the knees went, nothing could puncture the mental resolve of a player who got to leave Test rugby on his terms.
For this, Du Randt and South African rugby supporters should always thank the 2007 World Cup-winning coach Jake White.
It was White who always believed in the power of Du Randt, both as a player and as a person.
White lured Du Randt from retirement, put him on a conditioning programme that saw the player shed 30 kilograms and expertly managed his workload between 2004 and 2007, so as to ensure that Du Randt would be at the heart of a World Cup-winning Springboks campaign.
Du Randt played so many good Tests, but one that will always stand out for me was his semi-final effort against the Pumas at the 2007 World Cup at the Stade de France in Paris.
Television cameras follow the ball, so a television audience would never quite see the off the ball work rate of Du Randt. In that match, Du Randt scrummed, ran, chased, tackled and then got up to do it all again, minute after minute.
There was one moment when Du Randt, like a pin ball, bounced three Pumas players in succession in tackles. He was an inspiration to the Boks and one of the most influential players in the 2007 World Cup campaign. Watching Du Randt’s second coming and reporting on it made for inspirational storytelling.
Du Randt retired in 2000 but returned in 2004 for the glory of a second World Cup title in 2007. Add the bronze of 1999 and he is the most decorated Springbok in the history of the professional game.
He is also my ‘go to’ guy in the Boks No 1 jersey.
WATCH: DU RANDT ON THE CHARGE
Internationally, Scotland’s Tom Smith was massive against the Springboks when playing for the British & Irish Lions in the 1997 series. Smith’s scrum technique troubled the Boks throughout the series, which the Lions won two-one.
Italy’s Massimo Cuttitta is a name I always followed and he and his twin brother Marcello enjoyed very good Test careers. The duo may have been born within minutes of each other but they were very different players. Massimo was a prop and Marcello scored 25 tries in his 54 Tests as a wing. Massimo played his 69 Tests between 1990 and 2000 at a time when Italy was at its strongest and he won 32 and drew one of those Tests. I played against both brothers in my matric year, when Pinetown Boys High toured the Western Cape and played, among others, Fairmont High.
We weren’t much good and Pinetown weren’t too bad. They comfortably beat us. Massimo scrummed the hell out of our props and Marcello was a giant on the wing against young boys. In 1985 Marcello was playing a schoolboy game in Durbanville and two years later he was playing for Italy in the 1987 World Cup. The twins spent most of their first 18 years in South Africa before returning to their country of birth to play rugby for the national team.
As I wrote in the tightheads chapter, my assessment of props has always been guided by teammate, opposition, coach and referee input. They’re the ones most qualified and they know the value of a good prop.
The loosehead prop names that South African props, coaches and the best referees would single out included New Zealand’s Craig Dowd, Carl Hoeft, Joe Moody and Tony Woodcock, who would score the only try in the 2011 World Cup-winning final and end his career with more than 100 Tests. Australia’s Dan Crowley had a decorated career and England’s Dan Cole, Andy Sheridan, Mako Vunipola, Graham Rowntree and Joe Marler have been and are great Test assets. Similarly’s Ireland’s Cian Healey.
Argentina and France always have strong front rowers, at tighthead and loosehead. The Pumas loosehead Marcos Ayerza played for Leicester for 11 seasons and won four Premiership titles in 200-plus games. He also played 66 Tests. France’s Christian Califano could handle himself on both sides of the scrum, and Olivier Milloud and Sylvain Marconnet enjoyed lengthy international careers.
Italy’s Salvatore Perugini was strong and Fiji’s Joeli Veitayaki had presence. Wales’s Gethin Jenkins played 129 tests and five more for the British & Irish Lions and, for more than a decade, was considered among the best looseheads in the world.
Jenkins, in my best World XV, just misses out to England’s Jason Leonard, who would win the World Cup with England in 2003 and four Grand Slams in 1991, 1992, 1995 and 2003. Leonard, who three times toured with the British & Irish Lions, would retire after 119 Tests and, in 2014, was inducted into World Rugby’s Hall of Fame.
Leonard, like Os du Randt, just didn’t seem to play a bad Test.
WATCH: SNIPPETS OF LEONARD PLAYING AND SPEAKING