Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 6s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
South Africa produces so many good loose-forwards but in my rugby-writing career I have found the public’s memory is short. Out of sight is out of mind and whenever the debate of ‘best ever’ teams starts, mostly players from a current and successful Springbok team get the nod.
In detailing my individual choices of the 100s of players I have written about since South Africa’s international readmission in 1992, the social media response has predictably trashed those selections of players who prospered for the Boks, pre the 2019 World Cup success.
There have been some magnificent Springbok teams since 1992. Some have dominated for just a season and there have been those who have managed to extend their international winning a big longer.
The challenge for the 2019 Springboks in the next few years is to be bigger than a World Cup-winning side and it must be a desire to be remembered as one of the all-time great teams. It is possible for Siya Kolisi’s 2019 victors to produce a winning habit we saw with Richie McCaw’s All Blacks between the start of the 2011 World Cup and the end of the 2015 World Cup.
When assessing the 2019 Springboks’ potential to kick-on, then 80-percent of the squad is young and good enough to play in – and win – the 2023 World Cup in France.
Primary to the Boks’ challenge will be flankers Kolisi and 2019 South African and World Player of the Year Pieter-Stef du Toit. Both were immense in Japan in 2019 and both, if the body holds up for the next four years, will be even better in France.
Kolisi’s versatility allows for a role playing to the ball or carrying the ball and Du Toit’s range of natural skills and physique makes him as imposing as a ball-carrying blindside flank, as it does a No 5 lock. No other player currently in world rugby can transition as easily from the second row to the back row and vice-versa.
There were no arguments internationally when Du Toit was named the planet’s best player in 2019 and he would make every World XV of current players, either at lock or at flank.
The 2007 Springboks World Cup-winning coach Jake White, in the one year he was in charge at the Sharks, described Du Toit as the most talented rugby player he had ever coached when it came to forwards. White always raved about Frans Steyn as the backline player who had it all and Du Toit was the back five forward who was as remarkable, given his attributes mentally and physically.
The 2019 World Cup-winning coach Rassie Erasmus saw the raw potential in Du Toit, but wasn’t as convinced the player had produced performances to match the hype of his potential.
Erasmus didn’t initially select Du Toit in his starting XV for the 2018 England series against England. He made Du Toit captain of what was essentially a second-string team to play Wales in Washington DC. Du Toit excelled, travelled back to South Africa and a few days later played a leading role as a second half substitute in South Africa’s stunning 41-38 win against England at Ellis Park. The Boks had trailed 24-3 after as many minutes.
Du Toit would produce a superhuman effort in the Springboks’ 36-34 win against the All Blacks in Wellington, New Zealand in 2018 and he just got better with each performance. Erasmus wanted to see if Du Toit could go to dark places in a match and emerge as a leader of men. Within two months the player had given his coach the answer.
Du Toit, whose 2019 World Cup final start against England was his 55th Test since 2013, has played through the darkest times in recent Bok vintage, which explains an overall win percentage of just 57 percent. But he has also experienced the brightest moment in Tokyo, Japan.
It simply doesn’t get bigger than winning the World Cup and currently there isn’t a bigger presence among loose-forwards in international rugby than Du Toit. He will always be in my Springbok ‘Best of’ match-day 23.
Springbok coaches, since 1992, have loved selecting some bruisers as blindside flank options, but mostly they have picked big men who were as skilled as they were tough. Willem Alberts spoke to Heyneke Meyer’s mindset that big was always better and he certainly crunched his fare amount of opposition bones playing for the Springboks.
Alberts, when in prime condition, was destructive in making a tackle or busting a tackle, but his peaks lacked consistency. It would be a fair point that the attritional nature of the position meant that it needed as much luck as it did quality in performance to play season in and season out at the highest level.
Alberts certainly had his moments in the Springbok jersey, especially on the November Northern Hemisphere tours.
Juan Smith and Joe van Niekerk, from 2003 to 2015, were gifted loose-forwards who would play 6, 7 and 8 for their Super Rugby franchises, overseas clubs and the Springboks. Smith was also played at lock on occasions. Smith and Van Niekerk were wonderful rugby players and equally good athletes.
Smith’s Test career was the more settled and he enjoyed more game time position-specific than Van Niekerk. The latter alternated between No 8, No 7, No 6 and an impact role. I always felt his best position was playing as a skilled and strong ball-carrying blindside flanker. On the few occasions he played this role, he thrived and he was particularly good against the Wallabies at Ellis Park in 2002. His interplay with No 8 Bob Skinstad hinted at what could have been, just like Skinstad and Pierre Spies did in 2007, when the two combined to torture England at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria.
AJ Venter, like Warren Brosnihan, made a brief international impact and for a two-season period in their respective careers, they were always in the Bok mix. Wikus van Heerden and Pedrie Wannenburg showed potential but their Super Rugby careers were more celebrated and impactful.
Danie Rossouw was another one of my favourite players. He was also one of the best I have seen play.
Former Springbok coach Harry Viljoen, in 2000, first selected Rossouw for the end of the year tour but he got injured before the tour started and it would take another three years for him to get another international call-up.
Rossouw, like Van Niekerk, was used as a 6,7, 8 and lock, but it was as lock and blindside flank where he was most effective. I previously wrote, when discussing the No 8s, that Rossouw, in the modern game, was the ultimate match day squad player because he could play 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.
Rossouw’s trophy cabinet is matched only by New Zealand’s Brad Thorn, with both players having won everything there is to win in distinguished careers playing in both hemispheres.
Rossouw won the Currie Cup with the Bulls in 2004 and 2009, Super Rugby titles in 2007, 2009 and 2010, the World Cup in 2007, the Tri Nations in 2009, a series win against the British & Irish Lions in 2009, the Japanese Top League with Suntory in 2011/2012 and 2012/2013, the All Japan Championship in 2012, the Heineken Cup (European Champions ) with Toulon in 2013 and 2014 and also the Top 14 French League in 2014.
He played 63 Tests and 211 times for the Bulls in a professional career of more than 300 matches.
I don’t believe Rossouw ever got the acknowledgement in South Africa. Everyone remembers his crucial 2007 World Cup final push tackle on England wing Marc Cueto to deny England a try, but Rossouw’s career is so much more.
Rossouw, in many ways, played in the shadow of Bulls lock duo Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha, while individually the likes of Van Niekerk, Corne Krige, Smith and Skinstad tended to get more press among the Springbok loose-forward options.
Du Toit, Smith and Rossouw would not be out of place in any ‘best of’ selections, but no player epitomized the Springbok blindside flanker more than 66-Test veteran Andre Venter.
Rugby’s most famous voice, the late Scottish commentator Bill McLaren, produced a gem when describing Venter destroying Scotland at Murrayfield.
‘He’s no oil painting, but look at him working the blind side like a pop-up toaster,’ enthused McLaren.
I was in the Springboks change room in Houston, the United States, after Venter’s final Test. It was a dire Test, with half the Boks in America to play and several left behind in Wales to play for the Barbarians against Australia.
It was a Test few of the players wanted after defeat against France and England, but for Venter there wasn’t a greater privilege than to wear the Springbok jersey.
No one knew then that it would Venter’s last Test, having played 66 Tests between 1996 and 2001. Venter, having made his debut against the All Blacks in 1996, was the most consistent selection among Springbok coaches Andre Markgraaff, Carel du Plessis, Nick Mallett and Harry Viljoen.
Venter, in 1997, 1998, 1999 and 2000 played 12 Tests a season. In his final year, in 2001, he played 10 Tests.
He was an athletic beast and his teammates were awed by his athleticism and conditioning. He just couldn’t and wouldn’t stop training. Coaches had to instruct him to take a day off from training but he never did.
Joost van der Westhuizen had natural athleticism and a hardened mental edge that can’t be coached, but not even he compared to Venter.
Back in 2001, in Houston, Venter’s nose had been broken in a freak accident. A Bok player had made a tackle on a United States player and slung him in the tackle. Venter, who was getting up from a contact situation, got hit by the swinging legs of the opposition player.
Venter’s face was smashed and his nose afterwards sat on his cheek. The team doctor had to try an initial ‘in the change room’ crunch and adjust before any operation would be possible.
It was stomach-turning watching the team doctor work on Venter’s face, but Venter was only grimacing because of the indifference in quality of an ugly 42-20 Bok win. The pain of the injury, Venter always said, would pass but a player couldn’t get back a performance.
Some players talk a great game; Venter was of that class who played great games.
And I am not talking about the razzle dazzle flash moments. His greatness was in the consistent quality of every minute he played in a Bok jersey.
Venter was known to his Bok teammates as the IronMan; an indestructible force.
He didn’t say a hell of a lot because he didn’t have to.
Sharks and Stormers loosehead prop Robbie Kempson, who played in the 1997/1998 record equaling Springbok team, was about the only player brave enough to go to gym and train weights and cardio with Venter.
Kempson, tough as they come in props, used to relish the sessions with Venter.
Kempson and Venter also roomed together and Kempson tells of an early example of Venter’s approach and discipline to being a Springbok.
‘We had enjoyed a team dinner and the beers were flowing and it was time for a tequila. Andre took the tequila out of my hand and said beer was okay but no hard tack, not if I wanted to play for the Springboks.’
No hardtack and a bible reading every night at 21.00 were two givens for Kempson when he roomed with Venter. Another given was that Venter would never take a step back on the rugby field and always give the Boks a step forward.
Here was a player, six foot five in height and over 100 kilograms, who could run 40 metres in 5.29 seconds and do the three kilometres run in 10 and a half minutes. Here was a player whose athleticism was matched by his physicality.
Hell, Andre Venter was tough.
South African players called him a ‘Meneer’, which translates as the boss because of the expectation he had of his own performance and that of his teammates.
He was also such a likeable oke.
In Auckland in 2001, prior to playing the All Blacks, I ended up doing a training session with Venter and Kempson. I had gone to the Less Mills gymnasium and the Bok duo were there putting in an additional shift.
Venter, within five minutes of my arrival, had put together a 45-minute session specific to me. I think it took me three days to be able to lift my arms, but he taught me the biggest of lessons when it came to my own mental strength.
Every initial exercise was three sets of 10, but Venter would somehow ask for a bit more until I had got to six sets of 10 and in some instances 12.
I couldn’t quite believe what I had done in those 45 minutes, but it didn’t surprise Venter.
tHe didn’t give me a minute to indulge or feel self-congratulatory.
He basically told me it only showed how ‘kak lazy’ I was and how little I had been pushing myself.
Point made. Point taken.
My response was to ensure my gym visits didn’t coincide with Venter and Kempson’s.
Venter, in those five years, set the standard as a blindside flank option.
If you are from an era that didn’t watch Andre Venter play, check out some of his YouTube clips, read articles on him and try and find out more. He was and is a Springbok treasure who today fights paralysis after being struck down with transverse myelitis, which is a disease of the spinal cord that involves the breakdown of the myelin sheath, which is the insulation layer around the spinal cord and other parts of the nervous system.
The onset is sudden and dramatic and Venter, within a few weeks in July, 2006, went from the embodiment of health to a wheelchair, from which there would be no escape for the rest of his life.
He was just 36 years-old.
Erasmus, on taking charge of the Springboks in 2018, immediately invited Venter to present the Springbok Test jerseys to players.
Erasmus had been the beneficiary of playing alongside Venter and it was just one way of him saying thank you to his old team mate. It was also Erasmus reminding the 2018 Bok players about legacy, courage, fight and about Venter’s qualities as a player and human being.
Venter, because of the right and left flank system in South Africa wore a No 7 jersey but using the more accepted global blindside flank jersey as being a No 6, Venter is my pick as my blindside flank option to complete a loose-trio with Schalk Burger (openside) and Gary Teichmann (No 8).
WATCH: HIGHLIGHTS OF VENTER’S CAREER
Internationally, between 1992 and 2020, I could pick 10 fantastic blindside flankerS and there wouldn’t be an argument. New Zealand’s Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino commanded respect from every opposition. Wales had Colin Charvis in the early 2000s and Sam Warburton a decade and a half later.
I was at Eden Park, Auckland when Warburton experienced the low of being red-carded in the first quarter of Wales’s 2011 World Cup semi-final against France.
Warburton’s career deserved something more significant and he got it in 2017 when he led the British & Irish Lions to a drawn three-Test series against the All Blacks. It was fitting that Warburton’s finest moment would come at the very same Eden Park when the third Test ended in a 15-all draw and the series was shared.
World Cup 2003 winner, England’s Richard Hill, is among the elite ‘best of’ ball-carrying flankers, Ireland had Eric Miller and the Argentinean duo of Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe and Juan Manuel Leguizamon would complement any side.
Australia’s Simon Poidevin, Rocky Elsom and Owen Finegan were the standout ball-carrying Wallabies flankers I got to see play and whether he played on the flank or at No 8 the opposition knew they’d played against Willie Ofahengaue.
France’s Adelatif Benazzi was a massive presence for France for over a decade in the 1990s and South African supporters won’t easily forget his charge for the line in the final moments of the dramatic 1995 World Cup semi-final in Durban.
I know I will never forget that sinking feel watching from the press box because, live and without super slow repeats, it looked like momentum had taken Benazzi over for what would have been the match-winning try. Benazzi has always claimed he scored, but every South African player, supporter and the referee saw it differently.
How different would the South African rugby landscape have been had Benazzi’s try been awarded? It was possibly the most important six inches in the history of the Springboks because the officials declared the big flanker was ‘six inches’ short.
History will forever record he didn’t score.
Benazzi’s exploits over a decade of international rugby are renowned but the player who gets to wear my World XV No 6 jersey is another Frenchman, Thierry Dusautoir, who was named player of the match in the 2011 World Cup final, despite France losing to the All Blacks.
Dusautoir’s most memorable individual performance was against the All Blacks in the 2007 World Cup quarterfinal in Cardiff. He made 38 tackles as France turned a 13-3 halftime deficit into a stunning 20-18 victory.
Dusautoir would only win twice in 12 Tests against the All Blacks, but the 2007 quarter-final and 2011 World Cup final performances were extraordinary.
Dusautoir captained France 56 times in 80 Tests, won three Six Nations titles, including a Grand Slam in 2010, and also won three French Championships with Toulouse, two with Biarritz and also won the European Cup.
His 188 tackles are the most made by a French player in Rugby World Cup history.
Dusautoir played the Springboks four times, winning his first two Tests and losing his last two. His most significant performance was at Newlands, Cape Town, in 2006 when he combined in a back row featuring Serge Betsen and Imanol Harinordoquy to shock the Springboks 36-26 and inflict a first international home defeat on Jake White’s Springboks since White had taken charge in 2004.
WATCH: A TRIBUTE TO THEIRRY DUSATOIR