Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 2s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
I recently finished writing James Dalton’s life story, ‘Bullet proof’, and it is only appropriate that I start this chapter with Dalton, as he is one of the best to have played hooker for the Springboks since 1992.
Dalton played in 43 Test matches and tasted success 35 times. His 81% success rate is second only to Adrian Garvey (86%) and Morne du Plessis (82%) for Springboks who have played 20 or more Tests.
Dalton’s initial Bok career was remarkable in that he lost just three times in his first 34 Tests between 1995 and 1998. Dalton would make an international comeback in 2002 and play in a Bok team that lost five of nine Tests.
As Dalton told me he experienced the very best of being a Springbok and the very worst.
The highs certainly outweighed the lows and Dalton’s highs included great success against the All Blacks in 1996 and 1998, when the Boks won the Tri Nations Championship.
Dalton and I, as player and rugby reporter, had a love/hate relationship. He’d love to hate me, as he did most rugby writers. By his own admission, he didn’t take kindly to anyone who dared give an opinion on what goes on in the front row if that person wasn’t in the front row.
Dalton, again by his own admission, didn’t relate to any other hookers, be it in the opposition or within his own team.
He held the view that every player in a No 2 jersey other than himself translated into an opponent or, as he would put it, ‘the enemy’.
Many an observer remember Dalton for his red card sending off against Canada in the 1995 World Cup, but there was so much more to his international career and, as a person, his life story made for a writing experience and for fascinating reading.
Dalton lived a life like no other professional rugby player.
Allow me to share the opening of ‘Bulletproof’ with you because it will give you greater insight into the different worlds that Dalton inhabited, and why playing for the Springboks was as much an escape as it was a paid sporting profession.
It reads: ‘As we opened the car door to leave the Gecko Lounge just before 1am I heard a gunshot. What followed was the most haunting of cries: all he could muster was a pained and defeated “Aaaah!”
‘I swung around to see the gunmen, leaning out of the moving BMW, put more bullets into his slumped body. It all lasted no more than 10 seconds but it felt like an eternity from the moment I heard the gunshot, till getting him into the back of the car to rush him to the hospital. He didn’t say anything. He couldn’t say anything. I was powerless to do anything as I watched the colour drain from his face. I can’t remember what I said or was saying. I just wanted him to fight but the bullets had done all the fighting. He was dying while I was watching and by the time that I carried him into the emergency operating theatre his body was lifeless.
‘One of my best friends was dead. He had been assassinated.
‘Carlo Binne was just 26 when he died in my arms in April 2001. It was the second friend I had lost to an assassination after Julio Buscelli was killed in October, 1999.
‘Both were the victims of an orchestrated hit. They often spoke about the possibility of their lives ending in bloodshed. Six months before Carlo’s death, he had been seriously wounded in an assassination attempt outside the Bourbon Street nightclub in Randburg.
‘It was the world both of my friends inhabited. It wasn’t my world but I had enough insight into it to know these things could happen. I just never imagined Carlo being shot in the back within an arm’s length of me.
‘It will forever numb me. Nothing can prepare you to hold a friend as he takes his final breaths.
‘It doesn’t matter the day, the month or the year, it plays out in my mind, over and over. The recall, like the shooting, comes without warning and every time it is as brutal as the moment it happened. And every time I think about it all I can see is the pained and perplexed expression on Carlo’s face.
‘I still mourn Carlo and Julio’s deaths. The emotion will never subside. To me, they were good okes. They were loyal men in a brotherhood of men. They were fearless in the way they lived but they were equally gentle in what they gave to our friendship.
‘I wanted to tell my life story, in part to take ownership of my decisions, and also to set the record straight on the many perceptions about me that are presented as fact.’
Dalton was also fearless in the way he played and his career, in many respects, mirrored his life. There are so many perceptions that don’t equate to the reality of Dalton’s time as a Springbok.
He certainly was a guy you took to war and you could take him into any alley. He’d have a teammate’s back and he’d take it as a given, the teammate would have his back.
Dalton, as a player and person, had – and has – fire in the belly and an intellect that has often been betrayed by moments of madness. He has a wicked sense of humour and over the years he has also warmed to rugby writers like myself and those who wore the No 2 jersey.
There’s a wonderful story of when the Springboks beat Wales 96-13 at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria in 1998. Dalton started and was subbed with 10 minutes to go. With just a few minutes left, the entire Boks’ substitutes’ bench had been cleared and all but one Welsh player had made it onto the field.
A bemused Dalton turned to the solitary Welsh player still sitting on the bench, glanced at a scoreboard that was close to 90 points and said: ‘How kak must you be that you are still sitting here’.
Dalton’s barbs weren’t exclusive to the opposition. He would mock Bok teammate Naka Drotske that he wore number two because when it came to the Bok hooker pecking order, Drotske would always be number two.
Dalton also told me of him and fellow Transvaal hooker Chris Rossouw’s ongoing battles at practise. It got to the point, said Dalton, that the coach ordered the two of them to take a walk and sort it out. The walk, said Dalton, involved him telling Rossouw that he needed to accept there was only one starting hooker and it wasn’t Rossouw.
Dalton says time has mellowed both players and the two actually had a civilised chat at James Small’s funeral.
‘I reckon we have both grown up,’ said Dalton.
I enjoy Dalton as a character and I loved the way he played rugby and the passion he had for the Bok jersey.
Dalton, in a chapter from ‘Bulletproof’, described his first experience of actually playing the All Blacks in 1996 and he also discussed some of the best hookers he played against internationally.
‘There was a moment when I wondered if I would ever get to play the All Blacks. I had warmed the bench on the Springboks tour to New Zealand in 1994, with coach Ian McIntosh preferring Natal’s John Allan. In 1995 I was suspended when the Springboks won the World Cup final against the All Blacks and in August of 1996, I again found myself on the bench in Durban for the first of the three-Test series against the All Blacks.’
‘Andre Markgraaff, appointed to the Bok job in 1996, was the third Springbok coach I’d play under in three years and, even though I’d gone went through the pre-match ritual and the high of finally fronting the men in black, I’d still not engaged in a scrum, let alone a tackle.’
‘John Allan was Mac’s boy in 1994 and Markgraaff in 1996 initially entrusted John to start in the Tri Nations, but it didn’t yield any different results as the Springboks (with Allan) didn’t win against the All Blacks in three attempts during 1994, or two more in 1996.’
‘Markgraaff favoured bigger hookers who he felt would give the scrum greater presence and strength, but throughout my career I’d prove that a hooker doesn’t have to weigh 110 kilograms to be effective.’
‘I only lost three of my first 37 Tests. One of those three defeats came in the second Test of the 1996 series in South Africa, when the All Blacks beat us 33-26 in the most dramatic of matches. I replaced Henry Tromp with 15 minutes to go and was convinced we could at least draw the match when we attacked ferociously in the final few minutes. The All Blacks had never won a Test series in South Africa and victory at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria would be history-making for them.’
‘Those final 15 minutes were frantic in that it was all out South African attack. The crowd noise was incredible and it was as if 50 000 spectators, plus the 15 Boks on the field, were pushing for a final converted try that could keep the series alive.’
‘The third and final Test was to be played at Ellis Park and, up until that point historically, the All Blacks had rarely won at Ellis Park. They knew the significance of a ground that had a reputation for spooking them and the manner in which they defended their line at Loftus in those final minutes in of the second Test was as much about making history in Pretoria, as it was about knowing they’d be incapable of winning the series in Johannesburg.’
‘They hung on, history was made and my 15 minutes against the All Blacks was not one of fame, but pain. It hurt to lose and it felt even worse because we had come so close. I wanted to be part of history against the All Blacks, but this was the wrong kind of history. Fortunately, a few years later I would get to experience the right kind of history-making against them.’
‘Playing off the bench at Loftus was my first time fronting All Blacks captain Sean Fitzpatrick and I loved testing myself against the player, who for the best part of a decade, had been regarded as the best hooker in Test rugby. He was also the All Blacks captain and individually it didn’t get bigger for me than playing against Fitzpatrick, with Ireland’s Keith Wood the only hooker in my era who would rival Fitzpatrick’s all-round game.’
‘We lost but I had finally done enough to convince Markgraaff that a hooker with skills, doggedness, mongrel and attitude could do the job, even if he weighed less than 100 kilograms. My 1995 Rugby World Cup final against the All Blacks would come 14 months after the official one when I lined up to face the haka in the third Test of the series at Ellis Park at the end of August, 1996.’
‘The All Blacks picked their strongest side, despite having won the series, but I got a sense they mentally were already on a plane home. They were still tough but they lacked the desperation I had experienced from them in Pretoria, and we had all the desperation after four successive defeats to them in 1996.’
‘The highlight of my international career was always playing the All Blacks. They came with such a reputation and they came with a presence that commands attention. They were like these black knights in armour and the power of the colour was almost invariably matched with the power of their performance. The haka was also thrilling to watch because I saw it as a challenge and an invite to go to battle. Some may view the haka as pre-match entertainment, but I saw it as the start to the match. If you weren’t switched on facing that haka, you’d never get the chance to switch on during the game. You’d take a beating.’
‘I was very proud to be a Springbok standing there and understanding the significance of the cultural war dance. You weren’t just playing an opponent, you were playing legacy, history, culture and then the player.’
‘Fitzpatrick will always be among the most iconic of All Blacks and it gives me great satisfaction when I think of the success that I had against him and the highs we had as a team against the All Blacks, starting with a dominant performance at Ellis Park in 1996.’
‘We won 32-22 after leading 32-8 with only a few minutes to go and I started and finished the game.’
‘The wait had been worth every one of those 465 minutes I warmed the bench against them and Fitzpatrick was as gracious in defeat as he was in your face on the field.’
‘What I enjoyed about him the most as a player was that he could give it and he could take it, whether it was a chirp, a punch or being cleaned out in a ruck. He was intelligent but he was also hard and in the times that I played him we never held back when having a go at each other.’
‘He was also so clever in getting an advantage at the scrum engage. For example, in 1996 and 1997 there was no distance in the scrum engage and it was first come, first set and first go. If you and your pack were ready, you went and the opposition ordinarily had to follow. If you set first it was a decided advantage, but what he would do so often is allow the opposition to set, then retreat and, as you hesitated, he’d move forward with his crotch over your head to mock a mistimed engagement which then forced the referee to pull up the opposing hooker. It was in that moment, as I was being pulled up by the referee, that when he would then engage in tandem with his tighthead prop, who would be slightly in front of him. The two would then hit me at an angle, into the ribs and both would drive me upwards and milk a penalty, or at least plead to the referee for a penalty. None of it would be legal today, but I am sure Fitzpatrick would have found a way to manipulate the scrum and referee it if he was still playing.’
‘Fitzpatrick was a great competitor and he knew how to work the referee. I used to call him a proper alley cat because he always seemed to get away with his shenanigans.’
‘I confess to landing the odd big blow on him and Springboks and Sharks lock Mark Andrews reckons in the Durban Test match in 1998 that he actually saw Fitzpatrick’s lights go out from one of my punches, but I wouldn’t know because he just kept on playing, scrumming and getting from one set phase to another. His lights may have been out but his motor was still running. He was that kind of player.’
‘I genuinely liked playing against him because he may have manipulated referees and pissed off the opposition, but he was never one to bitch and moan about getting hit. Fitzpatrick, like me, accepted that the cuts and bruises came packaged with the position. Both of us were also masters of creating just enough of a gap when we engaged for our locks to land an uppercut on the impact of the engage. It really was old school stuff, but with today’s cameras and television match official replays you don’t find the dark arts being practiced too much. The game really has been cleaned up and when I watch some of the clips from the Springboks battling the All Blacks in the 1990s, many of those Tests in today’s climate would have started with 15 players -a-side and finished ended with 7-a-side.’
‘Fitzpatrick was as technical as he was hard. He was good at engaging late and at an angle, so that he could butt you on the top of your eyelid and cut you quickly, but as I said he was as good at taking it, as he was in giving you one.’
‘He was generous in his praise after we beat the All Blacks at Ellis Park in 1996 and he was from the old school whose rugby students believed that what happened on the field, stayed on the field.
‘Markgraaff was elated after we won and I can’t say he was humble in victory. He boasted that the Springboks should have won the series three-nil, which was taking it a stretch. I think the two teams were very evenly matched and the three-Test series was as close as the World Cup final and the first Tri-Nations Test in Christchurch in 1996. We won by three points in 1995, they won by four points in Christchurch, then by four points in Durban and a converted try in Pretoria. Our 10-point win seemed massive in the context of those results.’
‘I savoured the win, even if the critics tried to down play the significance of the result on the basis of the series having already been decided. As a player, there is no dead-rubber against the All Blacks and also no meaningless victory. It felt good to win against the All Blacks in front of a capacity crowd of 63 000 at Ellis Park crowd and t. The fortress had once again proven a graveyard for the All Blacks.’
Dalton’s off the field demons didn’t allow for a 100-Test career and his best rugby years in 1999, 2000 and 2001 were spent chasing a distorted dream with the Hell’s Angels. He returned to rugby in 2002 and made a stunning return to Test rugby. His individual performances outclassed the team collective and one of his bravest hours was the first 60 minutes in his final Test, against England at Twickenham, in 2002. Dalton fought a lone battle against one of the greatest England packs, but the loneliness of it all prompted another freefall for Dalton.
He would walk away from rugby for good a few months later. He was just 30 years old.
Uli Schmidt preceded Dalton’s Springbok career. Schmidt was a mentor to Dalton and he was a master to anyone who played against him in the 1980s and early 1990s. Schmidt, in his prime, was one of the world’s best in his position and had no equal in South African rugby when it came to an all-round assessment.
He played in an era that included John Allan and Andrew Paterson, who were two very good scrummaging hookers. Paterson will go down as one of the unluckiest players not to have played for the Springboks, even though he was called up to the Bok squad. Paterson, nicknamed the Rhino for his desire to scrum, started his provincial career at Eastern Province and finished it as one of the most capped players for Western Province.
My early years as a rugby writer was spent with Western Province in Cape Town around the likes of Paterson, Keith Andrews, Garry Pagel and Tommy Laubscher. You could have made a movie out of this front row quartet and added Canadian and Springbok centre Christian Stewart to this foursome as the ringmaster of observation, comedy and narration.
Those early 1990 years were gold as a rugby reporter because the game was still amateur and in many respects the players still seemed so real and normal. It was the best of times, to borrow from that oldest of descriptions.
Schmidt, who retired in 1994 because of neck injury, would have made it big in any era. He was sensational and I also got to know him when I was the Springboks Communications Manager and he was the Team Doctor in 2002 and 2003. He was a very clever man and he didn’t suffer fools.
Schmidt, Dalton, Chris Rossouw (who replaced Dalton in the 1995 World Cup squad and started in the winning final against the All Blacks) and Drotske were the primary Bok hookers in the 1990s and, in the first decade of the 2000s, the Boks were blessed with the most talented trio of John Smit, Schalk Brits and Bismarck du Plessis.
Adriaan Strauss would play 66 Tests and captain the Springboks in his last few years, but I always felt his best displays came in Super Rugby. His was an uninspiring Springbok captain and I wouldn’t rate him in the top five starting Bok hookers of his generation. He could add impetus from the bench but better hookers played less Tests for South Africa, one of them being Sharks and former Western Province hooker Mornay Visser. He got just the one Test in 1995 before the Rugby World Cup squad and his pedigree was good enough for several more.
Players like Charl Marais and Danie Coetzee had brief and good spells, but if I think of the early to mid-2000s, then I think only of Smit, who finished with a 2007 Rugby World Cup winners medal and 111 Test caps, Du Plessis and Brits, who could write a rugby romance novel on how his international career finished with a belated World Cup gold in 2019.
Brits, had he not played for South Africa, would have played for England, and he would have played a lot of Tests in a white jersey. He spent a decade playing for Saracens, in which he contributed to the most successful Saracens team in Premiership history and also one of the most successful to dominate in European competitions.
Brits, who retired in 2018, was lured out of retirement by Rassie Erasmus to play a mentoring role for the Springboks in 2019. Brits would be as much a coach as he would be a player to the more inexperienced players in the Bok squad and he proved the ultimate team man at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where he also captained the Springboks.
Mbongeni (Bongi) Mbonambi and Malcolm Marx would be the starting hookers for the Springboks’ 2019 World Cup play-off matches and both rank in the top five of the world’s best in 2020. The duo, if fitness allows, are expected to be the two hookers at the 2023 Springboks’ defence of the World Cup in France. Their best years as Springboks are still ahead of them.
Smit divided opinion in South Africa more than he ever did among the opposition coaches and players. There were provincial coaches in South Africa who told me they wouldn’t have picked Smit to start Super Rugby and there was Jake White who insisted Smit would always be the first name on his Springboks team sheet.
White and Smit were akin to Kitch Christie and Francois Pienaar, when it came to their contribution to Springbok rugby and Springbok World Cup history. Both duos are Hall of Famers for me in this regard. Their Springbok rugby results can never be erased and neither should the quality of their respective efforts ever be relegated to a secondary thought.
They command respect for what they did with the Springboks.
The Springboks hooker position, since 1992, has produced some of the game’s biggest global names and the very best of them have always been considered among the very best of their respective generations.
So, who starts at hooker in my #DreamTeam?
I just can’t look beyond Bismarck Du Plessis. When I first saw Du Plessis play, it was like watching a young George Foreman in the boxing ring. He was just so imposing, so big and so dominant. His international career did suffer because it dovetailed with John Smit, whose captaincy rightly wasn’t ignored by Springbok coach White and his successor Peter de Villiers.
Du Plessis didn’t have the captaincy skill set of Smit, but no hooker in the Du Plessis’ era had the all-round make-up of Du Plessis. He was a hooker who doubled as a loose-forward and he was devastating in turning over opposition ball. Bismarck had everything and could do everything.
There were reports from within his provincial and national squads that he could be divisive as a personality, but all I am looking at is his rugby-playing quality. For me, he set the standard and he starts at No 2 in my Springboks #DreamTeam.
WATCH: DU PLESSIS’ 2013 SPRINGBOK SEASON
Rugby, since 1992, has featured brilliant hookers in South Africa and abroad.
I got to see all of these men play against the Springboks and the following always won favour in my match reports because of their performances: France’s Raphael Ibanez, Marc dal Maso and Guilhem Guirado; England’s Brian Moore, Steve Thompson and Dylan Hartley; Ireland’s Keith Wood and Rory Best; Wales’s Ken Owen and Garin Jenkins; Australia’s Phil Kearns, Michael Foley, Jeremy Paul and Stephen Moore; Argentina’s Federico Mendez, Mario Ledesma and Agustin Creevy; Samoa’s Mo Schwalger and New Zealand’s Sean Fitzpatrick, Anton Oliver, Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles. Moore, whose career was nearing the end when I started my rugby-writing career, was the symbol of the British Bulldog and the guts of many a dominant England packs in his 64 Tests. Moore started 63 of his 64 England Tests and started in all five his British & Irish Lions Tests.
There are some mighty men in that list and you wouldn’t lose much, no matter who started for you at No 2.
Fitzpatrick, as Dalton described, was exceptional. He also played for the All Blacks and was consistently surrounded with some of the best players the game has ever seen, which is why I have opted for Ireland’s (Keith) Wood as my #DreamTeam World XV hooker.
Wood played for an Ireland team that couldn’t compare to the best All Blacks, Springboks and Wallabies teams of his generation. It was always felt to me like it was Wood versus eight forwards and he carried so many Irish packs who wanted nothing in bravery but lacked everything in brilliance.
Dalton, when I asked him to rank the best he played against, felt Fitzpatrick edged Wood because of his leadership and captaincy, but said there was very little to separate their qualities as players. He did say Wood could dish it out but didn’t always take it as well, whereas Fitzpatrick took it with the enthusiasm he handed it out.
Dalton said Wood could whine a bit too much, when hit off the ball, but I’ll excuse him the odd tantrum and entrust him to fire up my World XV in typical Irish fashion … shoulder to shoulder!
WATCH: KEITH WOOD TRIBUTE