What on earth is happening in our club rugby these days?
It made me sick to the stomach to read of the eye-gouging, spectator intrusion and even police firing off gun shots into the air to quell disturbances on the field of play in a recent rugby match between two Super League Border club sides.
It got me thinking back over nearly 50 years of reporting club and provincial rugby matches in the Border area. Very rarely did one hear of naked aggression such as this.
Probably the worst I witnessed was when the game was stopped one Saturday afternoon at the then BRU Ground when a long-suffering lock forward of a prominent East London club, thoroughly exasperated by the persistent provocation by an opposing flank, chased him off the field and up the steps of the main grandstand with the singular intention of pounding him senseless.
Fortunately he was restrained and after a few minutes of heated exchanges involving stadium security among others, things cooled down and the match continued.
But deliberate and ongoing eye-gouging? Please, the great Hamilton, Border and Springbok captain Basil Kenyon would be turning in his grave. Like it or not, Border has always been regarded as something akin to platteland rugby. But when platteland rugby is good, South African rugby is good, said Danie Craven about 40 years ago. And it WAS good.
I spent many years in the real platteland – in the Queenstown district actually – and we saw a lot of the great man. He loved the robust rugby and hearty hospitality we offered and often visited places like Burgersdorp where the local stadium was named after him, Aliwal North, Cradock and of course, Queenstown.
Seldom did he leave these places disappointed with the quality of the rugby and without a fat sheep in the boot of his car from a grateful rugby-loving farming community.
The hard, uncompromising game played on rock-hard, frost-bitten fields in the proper spirit really warmed the cockles of the good doctor’s heart and it showed on his beaming countenance at after-match functions.
Club rugby in those far-flung dorpies was vibrant in those days. Teams were drawn from sturdy farming stock where tough-as-teak front row forwards warmly welcomed visiting townie opposition by inviting them to make a close inspection of their rear-ends in the scrums and lock forwards of the bulk and belligerence of a Bakkies Botha went largely unnoticed outside their own remote unions.
For years, the North East Cape XV based in Cradock gave their better endowed Border neighbours a run for their money in rousing, fast-paced matches and I well remember former Daily Dispatch colleague and rugby writer Percy Owen saying to me more than once that had some of these players lived anywhere else in SA, they would have been shoe-ins for the national side.
I think of a player such as Ferdie Cloete, a fullback of pure class, beautifully balanced, twinkled toed, fearless under the high ball who could find touch a mile upfield.
Cloete was a Bok but he was a farmer first and foremost in a secluded part of the Eastern Cape and played rugby for the joy and camaraderie. He and many more like him travelled hundreds of miles every week for a game. A little nearer the mainstream was the Queenstown sub-union side, Swifts, now alas defunct.
Swifts were for more than 125 years an integral part of the Border rugby set-up. Always at the top or near the top of the Border premier league competition, they won the Grand Challenge Cup 11 times. Koppestamp? Inevitable in a contact sport like rugby but eye-gouging?