Mark Keohane, writing for IOL Sport, in a series reflecting on the 1995 Rugby World Cup
Any visit to Boet Erasmus in Port Elizabeth was a battle. And I am not even referring to what was to follow on the infamous night of June 3, 1995 when the Springboks beat Canada 20-0 but through Rugby World Cup tournament suspensions lost the services of hooker James Dalton and left wing Pieter Hendriks.
Boet Erasmus, on its most glorious day, was ugly. The hectic wind and heavy playing surface could turn any dream into a nightmare for visiting teams. I’d seen many very good Western Province, Transvaal or Northern Transvaal teams go to Port Elizabeth to play Eastern Province and really struggle.
There always seemed to be something in the air when it came to being at ‘The Boet’. The crowd was different. They’d call themselves charismatic. I’d describe them as angry. They were small-town and they liked nothing more than to give the boys from the bigger cities a hiding.
If that beating somehow didn’t translate onto the field, then there was a very good chance a player or five from the visiting team would take a pasting somewhere in Port Elizabeth in the early hours of Sunday morning.
I’d always associated a visit to the Boet Erasmus with afternoon rugby, ample time to file copy and then a hostile night out on the town.
On this particular 1995 World Cup June 3 Saturday night, the kick-off was an evening one. Everything about the experience was going to be different, except for the aggressiveness in the crowd. Only this time, I was in town reporting on the Springboks and not Western Province or Transvaal. I was part of the home team crowd.
There was one singular voice and it was backing only green and gold. Unfortunately, this cauldron of hatred spoke directly to the hardened instincts of the Canadian players. They were tough buggers and, in a rugby context, they’d graduated from the ‘School of Underdogs’.
They were consistently written off as an afterthought when playing the big teams, but in the amateur era they never took a step back against anyone and they were very vocal in the match build-up that they were going to give the Springboks a physical war.
Whenever the Springboks play, physicality is always the talking point. You hear it from the All Blacks, English, Irish, Welsh, French and even the Argentineans. They all speak in awe of the size of the Springboks and of the brutality of the contest. Not so the Canadians. They spoke of their own brutality and physical presence.
Back in the day they had some very good players in lock turned No 8 Al Charron, centre Christian Stewart, flyhalf Gareth Rees and prop Rod Snow, who would play 200 matches for Welsh club Newport.
Springbok coach Kitch Christie rarely made mistakes in his one-year tenure. He wasn’t a ‘soundbite’ coach and his press conferences were usually considered. But, perhaps unintentionally, Christie fueled the fires of the Canadians long before kick-off when he announced a mix and match Springboks starting XV and said he’d settle on the ‘A’ team when ‘the tournament got serious’.
Christie was referring to the quarter-finals but the Canadians felt disrespected and they were equally vocal that they would leave Port Elizabeth with the respect that playing Canada was a serious match.
I had visited (Christian) Stewart on the Friday before the match for a catch-up. Stewart was born in Canada but schooled and raised in South Africa. He had been a Western Province regular and could easily have been wearing green and gold the following day. I knew him well from reporting on Western Province and from living in Cape Town. Stewart’s roommate was (Rod) Snow.
Rugby was amateur. It was still in the days when you pitched up at the hotel and the player told you to come to the room for a chat and, if required, an on the record interview. Snow was in full voice and gave me some great quotes about what was waiting for the Boks. I knew then that Saturday night wasn’t going to be pretty.
And it wasn’t.
Nothing was pretty about that night.
The crowd was hostile and old school. The South African apartheid-era flag was prominent on the way into the ground. Arriving at the ground was like being transported back in time. I’d never experienced ‘The Boet’ with 31 000 packed in and the atmosphere was eerily uneasy; the kind you get when tensions start running high in a crowded venue and a fight is one look away.
Something was going to blow, but I didn’t think it would be the stadium lights, just a few minutes before kick-off. The crowd got frustrated and the brandy and coke brigade got belligerent. They wanted rugby, they wanted a fight and they wanted a big Springboks win.
It would take 45 minutes before they got their rugby and they got the biggest fight of the World Cup, which saw Snow, Rees and Dalton sent off after a free-for-all. They also got a 20-points Boks win, which in the context of the match, was a big victory.
The chaos that followed was unprecedented in my then brief rugby writing career. Pity my colleagues who had Sunday publication print deadlines. They could still sneak in the match report copy and news of Dalton’s red card, but for us daily beat reporters the story would be what followed.
We waited in the dungeons of ‘The Boet’ for the post-match press conference to follow, which was concluded at midnight. In another room, Dalton had already been trialed and just before 1am, we’d been told that he was suspended for 30 days and out of the World Cup.
We were also told that Hendriks had been cited but that his hearing would take place in Johannesburg on the Monday.
Christie and captain Francois Pienaar were angry, aggrieved at Dalton’s red card and fuming. They believed the Canadians had only come for an off-the-ball fight knowing they had nothing to lose but a game of rugby.
The Boks knew they would win the rugby, but in those early hours of the morning, in a deserted and dark Boet Erasmus, where it felt as if we worked under candlelight, you would have thought that the Boks had won nothing and the Canadians everything.
Given that we arrived back at the hotel at 3am, there wasn’t even time to test that theory with a post-match night on the town.