Mark Keohane, in his post 1992 Springboks and World XV #DreamTeam, selects the respective South African and international No 7s who made the biggest impression on him during his rugby writing career.
South Africa’s ability to turn out loose-forwards is the equal of New Zealand’s wing-factory production. There has never been a shortage of world-class players wearing the respective Springbok number seven and six jersey.
Two of South Africa’s three World Cup-winning captains wore a number six jersey in Francois Pienaar (1995) and Siya Kolisi (2019). The visual of both men hoisting the trophy are engrained in the memory bank and it is an image that will forever be there to encourage and inspire future generations of Springbok players.
For purposes of clarification, when assessing my flankers, both Springbok and among the opposition, the one technicality that makes it impossible to do a straight comparison or match-up is that Springbok coaches, by and large, have always adopted a left and right flank way of playing, instead of a specialist open and closed side flanker role, as has always been the norm in New Zealand and Australia.
The All Blacks, for the most, have specialized flankers. You either play openside or you play blindside and only a handful of exceptional players have managed to alternate between the two positions, alternatively adjusted from openside to blindside as their careers evolved.
South Africa’s centres also traditionally played left and right in attack and defence, whereas New Zealand’s midfield comprised a second five eight (specialist inside centre) and centre (specialized outside centre). Very few players were comfortable or proficient in either role because the game strategy demanded a very different skill set.
Equally, South Africa’s approach to the role of flankers has always been very different because there has been an emphasis on height, so as to ensure the additional lineout and kick-off receive option.
If you take players like Schalk Burger, Juan Smith and Rassie Erasmus, three of the finest to wear the Springboks jersey since 1992, they comfortably played in tandem as a combination but all three would primarily have been viewed as big and tough blindside options had they been playing for the All Blacks. Burger and Erasmus were exceptions to the rule in that their skill set allowed them to be as much a threat over the ball and on the ground as they were when carrying the ball into contact.
The openside specialist flankers in teams like New Zealand, Australia and England, for example, have worn the number seven on their backs. In the South African context, the number seven was worn by the right flanker and number six by the left flanker, although players as skilled as Smith and Burger could and would alternate, depending on the opposition or the nature of the match.
Players like New Zealand’s Richie McCaw, Australia’s George Smith, England’s Neil Back, Ireland’s David Wallace and France’s Laurent Cabannes would exclusively play to the ball and their field position would always be on the open side, so as to give them the best opportunity of getting to the breakdown first; equally the first scavenger over the ball once the collision into 10 or 12 had been made.
Springbok captain at the 2003 World Cup Corne Krige was a player who was ideally suited to the traditional New Zealand openside description. Krige, when he captained the Stormers and led South Africa, would be on a hiding to nothing when it came to post-match comparisons with the likes of McCaw and Smith.
What chance did Krige have to get to the ball before these two when he was scrumming on the blind side, for example, but the ball was going to the openside of play and McCaw and Smith’s point of departure was from the openside? They would always have a metre on Krige.
There were instances when the Stormers employed Krige strictly as an openside to play a fetcher type role, but the psyche of South African flankers was one of left and right. It is how they were schooled and few coaches veered from this because they did not see the necessity to change what was also an effective loose-forward style of play. What the Springboks or South African Super Rugby teams may have sacrificed at the breakdown, they made up for with superior height lineout options.
Krige and Heinrich Brussow were ideal openside flankers, with Brussow particularly effective because of his upper body strength and relative lack of height, when compared to the likes of Smith, Erasmus and Burger.
The most I have ever seen the All Blacks consistently struggle against the Springboks was in 2009, when Brussow played in all three Tests (two in South Africa and one in New Zealand) and the All Blacks were confronted with a genuine openside flanker. Brussow was a terror at the breakdown, slowed ball down, disrupted ball and as history in the modern game has time and again showed that if you can slow down the speed at which the All Blacks recycle the ball, then you slow down the potency of the All Blacks. It is easier said than done, but in 2009, the Boks were all over the All Blacks like a bad rash and Brussow was primary to this irritation.
The Springboks won all three matches and Brussow played his finest Test against the All Blacks in a 28-19 win in Bloemfontein. He was named man of the match and individually triumphed in his battle against McCaw. It was a rare defeat for the All Blacks captain.
A week later, in Cape Town, Brussow would also inspire the Springboks to a 28-17 win against the Wallabies, and he would also get the better of another of the world’s best open side specialists in George Smith.
Brussow, the month before his southern hemisphere dominance, had also excelled for the Cheetahs against the British & Irish Lions and he was instrumental in the Springboks series win against the Lions.
Brussow, in a seven-year international career that started in 2008 and finished in 2015, played just 23 Tests, but his impact against the All Blacks was colossal. He won four of five Tests against the men in black!
Brussow, if he had been a Kiwi or Aussie, would have played in excess of 50 Tests, but in the South African environment his value was greatly underappreciated. Some would describe him as the ‘nearly man’ of international rugby but if you speak to the likes of McCaw and Smith, they’ll tell you that there was nothing nearly about the way Brussow played to the ball and his strength over the ball. He was an outstanding amateur wrestler and perfectly suited to playing as an opensider.
Brussow reminded me of the late Ruben Kruger, who won the World Cup in 1995. Kruger commanded respect from his teammates and opposition. He didn’t say much because there wasn’t time to speak. He did his talking with action.
Kruger was immense as a player and I still maintain he scored a try against the All Blacks in the 1995 final, even if there was controversy about the one awarded to him the semi-final victory against France a week earlier.
Kruger’s last of 36 Tests was in the World Cup play-off win against the All Blacks in Cardiff in 1999. A year later he blacked out in a provincial match and was diagnosed with cancer at just 29 years of age. He fought the disease for a decade before his death at 39 years-old.
He was known as the Silent Assassin and one of the original Rainbow Warriors who conquered the world’s best in 1995. He had a very understated sense of humour and a few years after his enforced retirement I saw him at a post-match cocktail function at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria. He joked that as a player he would always be at odds with the media because of what they wrote about his teammates and about the match, but conceded now that he watched from the stands, it all made sense: while he was burying for gold in the form of winning the ball, it was only now that he saw how the backs so easily gave it away.
He said the game he played was a game in a game because his head was always under a mass of bodies fighting for the ball. He joked that as a supporter the game he viewed was very different to the one he had always played.
(Francois) Pienaar and 2019 World Cup-winning captain Siya Kolisi are two players who could be options as open or blind side flankers, if you were picking a World XV. Pienaar’s natural instincts would lean towards the role of blindside/closed flanker while Kolisi, originally very much a big ball carrying option, has successfully transitioned to a player comfortable in playing to the ball as he is in carrying the ball.
Pienaar’s international career was cut short because the 1996 Springbok coach Andre Markgraaff wouldn’t and couldn’t accommodate Pienaar’s 1995 World Cup success or his strength of character. Markgraaff wanted to be the boss and he felt threatened by Pienaar more than Pienaar was ever overawed by Markgraaff. The 1995 World Cup-winning coach Kitch Christie was a man who shunned the media glare and Pienaar embraced it. Markgraaff wanted this media attention as much as he publicly may have denied this to be the case. The two couldn’t survive in the same environment and Pienaar would play out his career for Saracens in England.
Kolisi, exceptional in 2018 and 2019, hopefully will lead the Springboks to the 2023 World Cup in France. He has won a World Cup at 28 years-old and is on the cusp of producing his best international years.
I keep on boasting about the quality of Springbok flankers. From the young Ruben Kruger of 1993 to Brussow, to Marcel Coetzee, whose career has been ravaged by injury, to the lionhearted Krige, to the Kalahari Kid Tiaan Strauss, to Erasmus and Smith and the many I will discuss specific to the blindside role, Springbok coaches have been spoilt for choice.
But the one player has always stood that bit taller in everything he did, was 2004 World Player of the Year Schalk Burger.
When I think of the All Blacks and flankers, I think Richie McCaw and when I think Springbok flanker, the first image is of Burger destroying Ireland in a two-Test series in 2004. Irish coach Eddie O’Sullivan, in defeat, said he had seldom experienced a Test series when one player beat 15. It was the case with Burger, who played in the No 6, No 7 and No 8 jersey with equal effectiveness.
Burger was skilled but, hell, he was tough. Former All Blacks captain Sean Fitzaptrick, after another of those brutal and bruising Springboks versus All Blacks Tests, said to me that watching Burger and All Blacks hardman Jerry Collins seek each other out for a collision was worth the ticket price.
Those two would smash each other like heavyweight boxers and when Burger wasn’t in battle with Collins, he was trying to beat McCaw to the ball.
Burger, in 2015, was awarded the Laureus World Sports Comeback of the Year, having battled bacterial meningitis.
‘I was seriously ill and 18 months ago fighting for my life,’ Burger said in 2015. ‘On my third day in intensive care my wife phoned my family and closest friends and told them to come and say goodbye because I was on my way out.
‘I was conscious of it, but I was literally just fighting from heartbeat to heartbeat. And every heartbeat felt like a knife stabbing in my brain. At times I felt like just stopping, but I could literally feel myself then slipping and would have to fight again.
‘I was newly married and my eldest son was just six months old and I saw it as a fight that I had to win.’
Burger lost 30 kilograms in six months, but refused to concede his rugby career was over at 29. He vowed to recover not only his health but his place in the Springboks. He did both and made the 2015 World Cup squad.
Burger, in 2006, had recovered from a serious neck injury, but nothing would compare with his victory in playing Test rugby less than two years after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
He would play 86 Tests, 77 times for Saracens, having played 160 matches for the Stormers and Western Province and 17 for Suntory in Japan. He also played for the Barbarians and the Southern Hemisphere XV in a career of more than 350 professional matches.
Burger, who made 20 appearances in four World Cup tournaments, wears my No 7 jersey and I have picked the 2004 version who plays to the ball to counter All Blacks captain McCaw.
WATCH: BURGER’S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
When it comes to overseas openside flankers I never saw All Black Michael Jones live in his prime. I saw plenty video footage of him at the 1987 World Cup and pre an awful knee injury. I got to report on Jones’s performances in the early 1990s for the All Blacks and Auckland Blues, but by then Jones playing more as a blindside than an openside. The pace wasn’t the same but he still was one of the world’s best. New Zealand’s Josh Kronfeld was the openside king between 1995 and 1999 and he was comfortably the world’s best in that period.
Individually, France’s Serge Betsen, Lauren Cabannes and Olivier Magne sizzled and England’s Lewis Moody, Ireland’s Sean O’Brien, Argentina’s Pablo Matero, Rolando Martin and Italy’s Mauro Bergamasco, left a lasting impression. England had (Neil) Back, in tandem with Richard Hill (blindside flanker) and Lawrence Dallaglio (No 8) and Australians David Wilson, George Smith and David Pocock were magnificent. If you are a Kiwi, you think McCaw and if you are an Aussie, you think Smith when it comes to the best open side flankers of the past two decades. Pocock, as with Kolisi and Burger, could play 6, 7 and 8 and you wouldn’t lose anything.
I could write a chapter on Smith and Pocock because they were that good. I have always been impressed with Wallabies captain Michael Hooper, who has unfortunately led Australia during a decade where there has been more woe than delight.
Nothing, though, can challenge the mighty McCaw for me and I don’t subscribe to the theory that he simply led a team of extraordinary players.
McCaw played 22 matches in four World Cups and won two gold medals and a bronze.
McCaw’s record speaks for itself but what the record books don’t show are the battle scars or the mentality of a player who refused to ever be second, yet always acknowledged the victor who occasionally beat him into second.
I know from my time with the Boks that every player would target McCaw for off the ball treatment. He just never hit back. He would focus on winning the next ball. Players described him as bloody tough and bloody good, no matter how much they felt he got away with everything and anything. Referees I spoke to said he played on the edge, understood the rules and interpretation of each referee so well, and pushed the limits as much as a referee would allow.
McCaw, like All Blacks hooker Sean Fitzpatrick, was a player the South African public didn’t enjoy because he was just so good but, like Fitzpatrick, McCaw absolutely loved playing in South Africa and against the Springboks.
McCaw lost six times in 26 Tests against the Springboks, but was as humble in those rare defeats as he was in the 20 victories.
In 2007, in Durban, McCaw inspired an All Blacks fight back from 21-12 down after 65 minutes to 26-21 victors. His face afterwards resembled that of a boxer who had gone 15 rounds but triumphed. He spoke at the after-match cocktail, thanked the Springboks for the match and then turned to his players and spoke of the history of All Blacks and Springbok Tests.
He said there was a generation of New Zealander who didn’t understand or appreciate the rivalry because of South Africa’s sporting isolation and then he added that ‘if you wanted to know how good you were as an All Blacks, then you had to go to the Republic and beat the Springboks in South Africa.’
‘Take a look at my face,’ he said to his teammates. ‘When you look like this, then you know you have played the Springboks.’
McCaw’s success as a player at every level is unmatched. Equally, as a captain, be it for the All Blacks, the Crusaders or Canterbury.
As a player, McCaw lost just 15 in 148 Tests, and seven of those losses were by three or less points. As a captain he lost 10 from 110 Tests. As a captain, he led the All Blacks to 10 Bledisloe Cups, four Tri Nations, three Rugby Championships, completed three unbeaten Grand Slam tours of the United Kingdom and Ireland and won two successive World Cups.
McCaw played 87 of his 148 Test matches outside of New Zealand. He lost two of 61 Tests played in New Zealand and 13 in 87 overseas. He played the Wallabies and Springboks 63 times (Australia 37 and South Africa 26) and won 51 times. His six defeats against the Springboks in 26 Tests (77%) was his worst international return against the 18 respective opponents. The only two teams he did not play internationally were the United States and Uruguay.
McCaw made his debut in 2001 against Ireland and by the time he finished with a second World Cup title win in 2015, 132 All Blacks had made their debut.
McCaw, in a 15-year period, only missed 28 Tests and the most revealing statistic is that in those 28 Tests, the All Blacks winning percentage was 68. McCaw’s winning percentage over 15 years with the All Blacks, the majority of them as captain, was 88.5 percent. Former Springboks coach Heyneke Meyer wasn’t wrong when he said McCaw, as a player and captain, was worth 10-15 points a match.
Graham Henry, who coached the All Blacks to the 2011 World Cup title and Steve Hansen, who assisted in 2011 and was head coach in the 2015 World Cup triumph, described McCaw as the greatest player in New Zealand rugby history and without comparison the greatest captain.
Both coaches said they’d never experienced a player with his mental resolve, an ability to lead from the front and one who could sustain excellence in a 148 Test career played out in 15 successive years. Both marveled at McCaw’s physical resolve and described him as the hardest rugby player they’d ever coached.
The world’s leading referee Nigel Owens concurred, saying it was incredible what McCaw achieved, given the attritional nature of his position.
The USA coach and former Springbok assistant Gary Gold detailed that McCaw’s career analysis showed he made 70 contributions a match, which was close to two a minute with the ball in play for 40 minutes. These contributions were positive 92 percent of the time.
‘It is unmatched by some distance,’ said Gold.
McCaw’s successor Kieran Read, in his autobiography ‘Straight Eight’, wrote: ‘His (McCaw’s) mindset, the way he could push himself to place no one could follow, was one of the most extraordinary things I witnessed. I am naturally a hard worker, at least I like to think so, but to see what he could do was absolutely inspirational. I sometimes turned up for our training sessions more nervous than I would be for a game.’
Former Springbok and Italy coach Nick Mallett rates McCaw the best openside flank in history and added that it was his captaincy that set him apart during the All Blacks most dominant period from 2011 to 2015 when they lost three times in 46 Tests and won back to back World Cups.
‘He was tireless, courageous and understated. He led from the front, always set the example, and was the perfect New Zealand captain.’
I was at Eden Park at the 2011 World Cup Pool Stage win against France when McCaw played his 100th Test. He was asked what he remembered most about the 100 and his response was the 12 the All Blacks had lost.
He was also asked why he never touched the Webb Ellis World Cup trophy during the promotional tour in host country New Zealand and he said to touch it a player had to have earned the right and that right came with winning it.
McCaw had known World Cup heartbreak in 2003 and 2007 but on one leg he captained the All Blacks to the 2011 World Cup title and four years later would play his final Test in a winning World Cup final against Australia at Twickenham.
If asked what he remembered most about the 48 that followed his first 100, he’d be able to balance the three defeats with two World Cup titles.
McCaw is the greatest rugby player and Test captain in the professional era and arguably in the history of the game.
And for the anti-McCaw brigade, try and objectively consider the following numbers:
- 88.5 percent: The All Blacks winning percentage with McCaw in the team. Pele’s Brazil had a winning percentage of 72.5 and Shane Warne’s Australia won 63.45 percent in Tests.
- 68 percent: The All Blacks winning percentage when McCaw did not play during his 15 year-international career.
- McCaw received three yellow cards in his 15-year international career.
- McCaw captained New Zealand u21 in 2000, led Canterbury to the first of three titles as captain in 2004 and captained the Crusaders to four Super Rugby titles in 145 matches.
- McCaw played 328 first class matches.
- McCaw won more Tests against the Springboks in South Africa than the Springboks have won in their history against the All Blacks in New Zealand.
WATCH: McCAW TRIBUTE