I know it is RWC time and I have written before (read here) about the fairy tale Curry Cup win of Griqualand West against the mighty Blue Bulls in 1970. This week I received this wonderfully written account by Michael Kokkinn about that historic match. Micheal’s father was not only one of the selectors of the Griquas team but also a sort of mentor to coach Ian Kirkpatrick. Michael actually attended the match in 1970 and here is his first hand personal recollection of the match.
My personal thanks to Michael for this personal first hand and historical recollection of that match. You can feel the passion for the game as you read his story. This is heartland South African rugby and it is people like him that make South African rugby what it is.
THE BLUE BULL AND THE PEACOCK
By Michael Kokkinn
The Griquas were a tribe of warrior-like people that originated from a mixture of Hottentot and Dutch blood. They were good horsemen and they handled their rifles as well any boer. At a time when South Africa was in a territorial flux they formed a small nation.
Sadly, the angry little tribe split in two and later was dispossessed by an artful British Government. Though those proud yellow-skinned clans have long since disappeared, one can still find territories called East and West Griqualand in South Africa today.
The major reason for Britain’s annexation of Griqualand West was the discovery of diamonds there, first in Vaal River gravels and later at New Rush, now called Kimberley after the British Colonial Secretary of the time.
The sparkling wealth that came out of Kimberley’s blue-ground funded the grand colonial projects of the British Empire and, today, priceless South African diamonds still adorn the ceremonial jewellery of its queen.
For a while Kimberley was the commercial hub of South Africa. All roads led there, carrying supplies of every kind. The town attracted an endless string of fortune-seekers: miners, engineers, merchants, performers, publicans and prostitutes. It was an era when it was said that one could spit from one pub to the next in the town centre where over a hundred such establishments had sprung up.
The diamond bonanza in West Griqualand, later monopolized by the Machiavellian Cecil Rhodes, was used to bring forth an even greater bonanza to the north in the Transvaal: the gold mines of Johannesburg! And then, over the ensuing decades, the vitality of Kimberley slowly drained northwards, leaving only historical echoes of the ephemeral opulence which had once flared there. The ever-waning Kimberley became a conservative little town perched in the Great Karroo with little claim to fame.
By the time that I was born there in 1947, Kimberley was little more than a ‘hick’ town with some historical interest. Despite this, it was all I knew and I loved the place and its surrounds as subliminally as does a pigeon love its home loft. I still do, despite the further obliteration of its character by a new order of bureaucrat.
One of Kimberley’s peculiar claims to fame was a pub called The Halfway House. It and its sister, The Killarney Hotel, were unique in South Africa in that one could be served alcoholic drinks while parked in a car, just like at the roadhouses in America. For us under-age drinkers, this was a great boon.
Sporting teams from Kimberley and the territory to the north west fell under the banner of Griqualand West, affectionately known as “Griquas”. These teams usually had one major feature in common: they were weak! At every tournament, be it cricket, hockey, netball, swimming or rugby, one could be sure that Griquas would bring home the wooden spoon. Griquas was the sporting punch-bag of South Africa.
Occasionally there would be a small conflagration of talent and a team would score a second or a third in a national competition, but these achievements seemed to underline the mediocrity rather than point to the potential. A miraculous exception to all of this was a tiny thirteen year old girl called Karen Muir who one day in Britain broke a world swimming record!
Griqua rugby had had its golden years way back near the turn of the century when their star player was a man named, Dobbin. Under his leadership and coaching, Griquas had been supreme. But those days were long forgotten by the subjugated rugby followers of my day. It was hardly enough for us to look at the old team photos of those invincible Griquas in their long shorts and faded jumpers, their handlebar moustaches adding to the impression of antiquity.
My link with Griqua Rugby was through my Father. He is a very shrewd judge of rugby talent and he had a way of seeing the game which was unique in its cool perception and apparent simplicity. In the Sixties he was one of the Board of Selectors for the senior Griqua Provincial rugby team.
Over a period of years, he contributed to a resurgence in Griqua rugby. They built a team around a retired Springbok centre named, Mannetjies Roux, who had become infamous for his tackle on Brian Sharp, a touring British Lion. In an early game of the tour, Mannetjies had crash-tackled Sharp, breaking his cheek bone and ending his international career! In my father’s view, THAT Mannetjies Roux was despicable.
But when the ageing bombshell of a man joined Griquas, they discovered that he was a true sporting genius. He could side-step past opponents and turn on a burst of speed that would leave them anchored helplessly in another dimension. This flaring rocket, having worked his mercurial magic, would pass the ball to a team mate, stop, turn and stroll, thick-legged and breathing, back to his half of the field and await the next opportunity to unleash this miracle.
Dominant, brutal and much-feared in South African rugby were the “Blue Bulls”: Northern Transvaal. Year after year they won the Currie Cup. Their pride and aggression derived from a hard-bitten Afrikaner background. Some say that the Transvaal Afrikaners are the toughest, having descended from those Voortrekkers who fought their way northwards through great adversity to be free from British rule.
In 1969 the Griqualand West rugby team fared well in the Currie Cup competition, coming in near the top of the log. The people of the territory were proud of their team’s performance and pleased that, at last, they had players like Piet Visagie and Jannie van Deventer, who had been chosen to play for the Springboks.
Once more, in 1970, Griquas fared well in the competition and their supporters, so used to defeat, were pleased not to be the last again. They were surprised, however, to find that by good play and the luck-of-the-draw Griquas were in the Currie Cup final against Northern Transvaal, The Blue Bulls (or even more sinister when you say it in Afrikaans, “Die Blou Bulle!”). Not only were they in the final, but it was to be played in Kimberley at the De Beers stadium.
When it was first built, heaven knows when, the De Beers Stadium must have been the envy of the whole country with its brick grandstand sheltered by corrugated iron, its cinder athletics track, its concrete velodrome, its massive scoreboard and its even, grassy playing surface. However, time, wear and tear and habitual neglect had not been kind to Kimberley’s premier sporting venue. It was dog-eared and just plain ugly. Of the scoreboard, the renowned cricket commentator, Charles Fortune, was once heard to say, “Do you know, the De Beers Stadium here in Kimberley must have the largest scoreboard in the country: with the least amount of information on it!”
And now the scene was set for the 18th of September and the Currie Cup final at the De Beers stadium.
For weeks before the final, our house had been abuzz with the background stories. My father was always on the phone to Ian Kirkpatrick, the coach, acting as a sounding board, a mentor and advisor. We heard the details of the team selection: Buddy Swartz, my schoolmate, was in; Hugh Calligan, the veteran Hooker was fit to play.
On that crisp winter Saturday, my lifelong friend, Ed Chantler, my brother Bruce and I walked across to the open stand and took up our seats on the top row.
During the schoolboy curtain-raiser, as we sat there, the OUTSPAN peaks shading our eyes from the winter sun, the grandstand opposite filled up. Our open stand filled up. And then the standing room areas began to bulge. The final whistle sounded for the schoolboys and the opposing teams strayed away to the dressing rooms shaking hands with one another.
Whatever happened, Griquas would give the Blue Bulls a go. It would be entertaining: a spectacle to remember. The result wouldn’t matter; the fact that the final was there was already an achievement.
Without warning the Northern Transvaal team burst out of the shade under the grandstand and ran into the sun looking formidable in their cornflower-blue jerseys and navy shorts. I was awestruck by the sight of the champion Frik Du Preez thundering onto the field with massive team mates such as Mof Myburg and Johann Spies. Amongst them too was the boxer, Gys Pitzer, who had downed a massive French lock forward with a single punch.
They exuded power and disdain as they took up their positions and shook their limbs to loosen up.
After a staged pause, the crowd gave a defiant partisan roar and Griquas streaked into the sunlight in their peacock blue jerseys hooped in narrow white bands. They were smaller, less imposing, but there was a look of indomitable willingness about them.
The referee held his hand up and gave a blast on his whistle, the ball flew high and the bodies clashed.
After ten minutes it was obvious that this was going to be a very tight game. The power of the Blue Bulls showed ominously as they were first to score from a penalty kick by Luther:
Northerns 3 – Griquas 0
And then, after some Mannetjies Roux magic, Buddy Swartz went over for a try on the wing. Piet Visagie, the Springbok flyhalf, converted and the crowd was cheering wildly!
Northerns 3 – Griquas 5
Ed, Bruce and I had come for the occasion. We yelled with the rest of them as the excitement began to grip. Griquas were ahead!
It was then that I saw a deliberate and nasty incident. Gys Pitzer, the mawling Northerns hooker, landed a vicious punch on the young Griqua lock, Jannie van Aswegen, knocking him out cold! The crowd was abusive with indignation. I have seldom seen a more blatant ploy to intimidate and disable a plucky opposition. Van Aswegen was taken from the ground with apparent concussion and Griquas were a man short.
To hold such might with only fourteen men was not possible and before the half-time whistle sounded Frik du Preez had burst over for an unconverted try. Their strategy had worked!
Northerns 6 – Griquas 5
After half-time, we were surprised to see Van Aswegen run out to rejoin his team. The urging from the crowd was deafening as the whistle sounded for the start of the second half. The game see-sawed back and forth, neither side seeming to dominate.
Halfway through the second half, the real drama began. A lineout formed up right in front of our stand. The ball was thrown in, the players went up and Lazarus, Jannie van Aswegen, felled the biggest of the Blues, the lock Spies, with a vengeful blow to the chin. As he lay there being revived by the St Johns first-aiders, the crowd in our stand celebrated the revenge with delighted taunts and jeers.
I had come for the spectacle, expecting good entertainment, but now I was becoming a part of it, losing my inhibitions, engaging in the battle. I was batling them too!
Spies was up again and the clash resumed. Whether the punch was the cause cannot be said, but Buddy Swartz went over in the corner for a second Griqua try and we were all on our feet, hands in the air.
Northerns 6 – Griquas 8
Griquas were in the lead. The punchbag was going to win. The myth of David and Goliath was to be relived in the middle of nowhere at the De Beers stadium. Now I was shouting, giving vent to uninhibited parochialism, taunting the monsters. Only fifteen minutes remained. If the peacock blues could just hang on, there would be delirium!
Five minutes passed and not an inch was given willingly.
What we feared most was the knowledge that the fittest must inevitably survive. It was then that a Griqua player infringed and the shrillness of the referee’s whistle signalled a penalty against them! Luther stepped forward, placed the ball on its mound. The crowd was silent. We uncrossed our legs. I imagined my mother, somewhere up in the VIP seats, drawing snakes to bring them bad luck! He ran up and struck the ball with his massive boot. It flew and flew, followed by thousands of anguished eyes, between the goalposts!
Northerns 9 – Griquas 8
So that was the way it would end. Griquas, the also-rans, would do it again. They would live up to their reputation of years: coming second. I pictured us wandering home, not dissatisfied; the Griquas had made a game of it. Five minutes to go and Griquas were trying their best to penetrate the Northern’s defences, but the tiring Bulls were holding onto their small lead grimly. We were without hope when there was a piercing whistle and the referee awarded a penalty to Griquas in their own half. It was too far from the posts, too far to be kicked over!
There was a hush; what would the Griquas do?
After a pause, Mannetjies called the flanker, Peet Smith, and gave him the ball. Peet made the mound and placed the ball like a missile with its nose pointing at the posts. Then he paced back: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight! There was a pause. He seemed to scrutinize the distant cross-bar as though he’d not seen one before. Then he focused down at the ball! As he launched into his deliberate run-up there was absolute silence.
The Northern Transvaal players stood dotted about their half of the field, hands on hips, tired, untidy, derisive. In the crowd, some closed their eyes, some held their thumbs, some turned their heads, most stared at the scene not allowing themselves to hope. Such fairy tales no longer happened in Kimberley, the city drained of vitality by this very opponent: Transvaal. The Griquas, those proud by-gone “Bastards”, no longer held sway in the Great Karroo. The De Beers stadium was old and not the place for a peacock to slay a bull!
I clenched my teeth and held my breath as Peet Smit struck the ball with all his might. It sailed and sailed, head over heels through the Karroo air for fifty five yards and just, cleared the cross-bar!
Northerns 9 – Griquas 11
There was an explosion of shouting and cheering from the stadium that sent flights of pigeons into the air from the adjoining fields. They swirled overhead. It was euphoria. It was the joy of the underdog! I had let go of myself completely; the twenty two thousand Griquas had fused into one triumphant soul, filled with primeval insanity, shouting and shouting for joy, taunting and deriding the broken blue opponents.
Our champions on the field had won the day for us!
I lost my voice that day, but I gained my tribe!
And that night, the Halfway House ran out of beer!