In the author’s note from The Chosen 23, Mark Keohane explains how the idea was born.
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My son Oliver asked me which players I rated the best during my time writing rugby. I asked him to qualify what he meant by ‘best’ as I had reported on so many good South African and international players since 1992.
‘Which players made the biggest impact on you?’ he asked. I said there were so many. He challenged me again and asked me if I had to pick a Springbok match-day 23 and a World 23 from every player I had seen live since 1992, how would it look?
And so, The Chosen 23, was born during lockdown. I started writing as a 15 year-old for my local ‘knock and drop’ and reported on my first Springbok Test on South Africa’s return from international sporting isolation in 1992.
The All Blacks beat the Springboks 27-24 at Ellis Park and a week later, in the most atrocious of conditions at Newlands, the then World Champion Wallabies thrashed the Boks 26-3.
It was a chastening fortnight for South Africans, who during isolation, believed every Currie Cup team would knock over Australia and New Zealand. I experienced a better afternoon at Newlands when I was part of the Springboks management a decade later. The Boks beat Australia, who were again world champions.
This time the Boks had the 26 in a 26-22 win. The sun shone magnificently that Saturday and it coincided with the 100th Springboks Test match that I’d attend, either as a rugby writer or as the Springboks Communications Manager.
Since then, there have been many more incredible Test match moments, but my Chosen 23 isn’t about the Test matches but rather the players who made those matches so memorable.
The criterion was that I considered players from 1992 to 2020. As with anything, this is an opinion and there is no right or wrong, which is why I have included the opinions of many followers on www. keo.co.za and www.sarugbymag.co.za when it comes to who they would choose in every position.
The most enjoyable aspect of going back in time and refreshing my memory was appreciating just how many talented individuals I have seen play and reported on.
The Chosen 23 focuses on international players but four of the most talented schoolboys I ever saw play were the Bishops duo of Herschelle Gibbs (flyhalf) and Nick Koster (No 8), Bosmansdam High and SA Schools wing and SA sprint champion Andre Hickson and my best friend and Fairmont Ist XV No 8 and captain Craig Cloete.
Gibbs chose cricket as a career and flourished for the Proteas. Koster played for the Barbarians against Australia as an 18 year-old, suffered a hectic knee injury two seasons into his professional career with the Stormers and he would play out his career in England, with the knee never the same.
Cloete was the schoolboy equivalent of All Blacks No 8 Zinzan Brooke and he also ended his matric year as the Ist XV’s record points holder. He was a No 8 who kicked conversions, penalties, drop goals and scored plenty tries. His rugby career was also ended because of a knee injury before his 20th birthday.
Hickson played 20-odd matches for Western Province before his lower back and hamstrings ended what should have been a Test career. He was also just 23 years-old. Whenever I am asked about players who made an impact on me, I mention that quartet.
Internationally, I have been blessed to watch some of the greatest to ever play the game and particular individual highlights will always be Jonah Lomu’s dismantling of England at Newlands in the 1995 World Cup semi-final and Joel Stransky’s winning drop goal in the 1995 World Cup final at Ellis Park.
I have been privileged to watch Test rugby in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Argentina, USA, England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Italy, France, Australia and New Zealand and I have travelled the world to report on rugby. My Chosen 23 is a selection of those players whose performances I won’t ever forget and, in each position, I discuss the merits of the very many outstanding players in that position.
In some instances, the selection was easy but in most it was extremely difficult to settle on just the one name. I have picked a starting XV and a substitutes’ bench. My thinking with the bench was that it had to represent the type of bench I’d select as a coach and not necessarily the second-best player in each position.
I have also picked a Springbok and international coach who I rate as the top two respectively since 1992, a South African and international referee and also my favourite international rugby ground and the one I most enjoyed visiting in South Africa.
– Mark Keohane