Annelee Murray was in the Springboks change room for 43 Test matches over the past 20 years against the All Blacks. In her book, the First Lady of Springbok Rugby, she details just how much respect there is between the two groups of players and coaches, writes Mark Keohane.
I was privileged to tell Annelee Murray’s story as the First Lady of Springbok Rugby. It is the most inspiring celebration of the Springboks and a window to the world of the Springboks.
Murray’s observations are also the most potent expression of the respect there is between the Springboks and All Blacks, who on Saturday played each other for the 100th time in 100 years and next Saturday will start afresh in the first of another 100 battles.
Murray, who former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers described as being as important to the Springboks as the head coach, visited New Zealand 28 times in 20 years in the name of Springboks rugby.
There isn’t anyone in modern Springbok Test history who can give a more informed view of what bonds the Springboks and the All Blacks and why this match-up remains the greatest rivalry in Test rugby.
Here’s an extract on the All Blacks, from her 20-year journey with the Springboks, as told to me.
‘When I think of my worst Test match days in 20 years, the Brisbane 49-0 defeat against Australia is there for the result – and for how shattered Smitty and Jake were straight after the match – but it was also a Saturday evening where I saw every leadership quality in the Bok coach and captain as they looked to rebuild players and management who felt like they had been hit by a train.
‘I didn’t think it could ever get worse for a Springbok team or that I would ever feel as low as I did that night in Brisbane in 2006, but it happened again in 2017 against the All Blacks at the North Harbour Stadium in Albany, just outside of Auckland. The All Blacks won 57-0 and it seemed like I was watching a re-run of that night at Suncorp Stadium. I just couldn’t believe it and I spent the match going between the change room and the side of the field, and each time I looked up the score was getting worse. It was the most desperate I had felt after a Test match and I found myself in the change room a few minutes before the end whistle, alone in a corner in tears. I don’t cry at rugby matches but these were tears of pain and desperation. I had seen what Jake, Smitty and the squad had endured in 2006 as they fought their way back and, while it was admirable, I didn’t wish that type of pressure on anyone.
‘Coach Allister Coetzee and the captain, Eben Etzebeth, were numb. The players were stunned and the change room was silent. No one said anything. There was to be no inspirational moment in the change room that night. The North Harbour Stadium change rooms are directly opposite each other and only three metres apart and we could hear the All Blacks singing and celebrating a record win against South Africa.
‘The tradition that developed between international teams over the years is that the host team invites the visitors over to their change room for a beer and a chat and this became commonplace because of the phasing out of post-match functions, which was mainly down to the late kick-offs.
‘I remember our players not wanting to go across, and why would they? I didn’t want to be in the All Blacks change room and I didn’t think the All Blacks players would want to be having a chat with our guys, given what had just happened.
‘There is such a respect between the two groups of players and, no matter the result, there has always been a graciousness and humility from both sides. The Springboks rivalry with the All Blacks is on another level to any other team that we play. There is always an extra edge in the camp before an All Blacks Test, and that goes up a level when it is in New Zealand, which made this night just so horrible.
‘When we finally summoned the energy as a group to step into the All Blacks change room to congratulate them and share a drink, their response overwhelmed me. They quietened down their celebrations for those few minutes, put on hold the euphoria they were feeling, and players from both sides – who over the years had come to know each other well from playing in Super Rugby –had a drink together. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who I had known from the days when he coached the New Zealand U20 squad in South Africa, was the first to greet me. He came over with a beer in his hand, gave me a hug and said: ‘It will get better, you are too good a side for it not to.’
‘Steve would remind me of that moment at the 2019 World Rugby Awards evening, which happened the night after we won the World Cup. I caught his eye when we arrived and he immediately came over and congratulated me. ‘I told you it would get better,’ he said. ‘You guys really deserved it.’
‘The relationship between the Springboks and All Blacks is something special and it is the one opposition jersey the players covet and the one Test match they want to play in, especially in New Zealand.
‘As you can imagine, I have collected a lot of memorabilia over the years, but the only opposition jersey that I have framed is an All Blacks jersey I received in 2005 from Shandy (Darren Shand), the long-standing team manager.
‘The players want to face the haka and experience it in front of the New Zealand home crowd and every player will tell you it is a career highlight. For me, it was always memorable and in my 28 visits to New Zealand, I never got bored with the pre-match ritual and the occasion of the Springboks playing the All Blacks.
‘I was also very blessed to be part of a Springbok team that beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in successive years and those victories remain right up there with the 2007 and 2019 World Cup triumphs.’
*Springbok rugby public relations manager Annelee Murray was with the team for 244 matches, in which time she worked with seven national coaches, 248 players and 21 captains.
2007 RWC winning captain John Smit: ‘I can’t imagine the Springboks without Annelee there. She was always there to assist me in my role in the team and be a sounding board. Not only is she an incredible colleague to work with and someone I respected, but she became a trusted confidant to me and my family.’
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) September 25, 2021
2019 RWC winning captain Siya Kolisi: ‘Annelee, you are a true hero and legend to me. I salute you for everything you have done with the Springboks. I hope that when people talk about women in sport, especially a male-dominated sport, they will be singing your name over and over again.’