By Royce van der Swan
LAST week I was part of an event, the memory of which I will cherish forever. It was the kind of uplifting spectacle that only seems possible in South Africa. You see, there are two things that run through my blood: my love of the game of rugby, and my passion for a positive South Africa. Never have these two things come together with such power as they did on that night.
I was fortunate enough to attend the semi-final of the predator league, the premier division of the Gauteng Lions club rugby competition. The venue was the UJ stadium in Jhb, and the teams involved could not have been more different.
Potchefstroom University Club (Pukke) were contesting their 4th semi-final in succession. Their team included many provincially capped players, hand-picked from the upper echelons of schools rugby. They train 5 days a week and have every possible advantage available to them. The club is sponsored and well supported, and they are drilled, super-fit, talented and a pleasure to watch. Raiders on the other hand are a team of part-timers, driven by pure love of the game and passion of representing their community. Raiders are based in Industria and the bulk of their players are drawn from the area. Not enjoying any sponsorship, they are entirely funded by private benefactors. None of their players currently enjoy current provincial representation and they have never beaten Pukke.
My first sense of what was to unfold came from observing the teams prepared for the match. Pukke ran through their pre-match drills on the field, then lined up from numbers 1 to 15 and ran out in precise military order. Raiders walked from the change room in no particular order, and then charged onto the field like madmen. The one was like a well-trained army, the other was like a band of bloodthirsty barbarians.
And so the game unfolded. Raiders struck first with a surging charge through the heart of the Pukke pack that ended in a thunderous try. Momentarily our hopes were raised that the Raiders spirit would overcome the Pukke professionalism. However, watching Pukke react to the setback was amazing. They went through the phases, building pressure without panicking, and delivered a simple, clinical 7-pointer. Raiders came back strongly to score once more, but Pukke were playing like a military machine: powerful, precise and irresistible, and they responded to the pressure in kind. Half time score was Pukke 16, Raiders 10.
The second half was a rugby spectacle I’d have never believed possible. The lead changed hands 4 times and both teams played to the limit of their ability. At one point Pukke opened up a 10 point lead and had stepped up 2 gears. With 20 mins to go they looked to have taken control completely. But the Raiders spirit had not yet shown itself. An old saying goes “when a man stands on the edge of the abyss, it is then that he discovers his true character, and it is this that keeps him out of the abyss”. It was as if this was Raiders motto for this match. Their response to the abyss was ferocious. There was no subtly, no strategy and no guile. They simply tore into the Pukke team one play at a time, meeting precision with passion, and pedigree with aggression. Pukke seemed to hesitate, as if Raiders reaction to falling behind did not fit the script. As the Pukke air of self-assuredness stuttered, so did Raiders audacious confidence grow. However the drama was far from over. With full time approaching the scores were locked at 33-all, and despite close calls on both sides that was how it stayed.
So, full time came with the deadlock unbroken. Once again, the teams behaviour was indicative. Pukke, while not exhausted, looked dazed. Raiders, almost out on their feet, seemed emboldened. Their body language was that of a fighter after 8 rounds: tired, dishevelled, yet angry. Not done yet.
Raiders have a saying that goes “all our games are home games”, meaning that their support drowns out all others. While this is 100% true it does not do justice. The Raiders supporters are magnificent: a mixture of all racial and language groups with the common purpose of making as much noise as possible in Raiders defence. There is dancing, chanting, drumming and singing throughout the game, and the energy they produce is inspiring. What I loved most was that they would not have been out of place at a Soweto Derby at Orlando Stadium, such was their uninhibited multiracial passion.
The first half of extra time was trench warfare. As Pukke sought to dominate through skill, Raiders countered with pure mongrel aggression. Little play ventured into either 22m area, and Raiders went into the second half of extra time ahead 36-33.
Pukke, such a finely tuned and high-quality machine, had no more to give. The second half of extra time was one-way traffic. Raiders continued like pit-bull terriers and were rewarded for a period of sustained pressure with a well-earned try. Raiders 41-Pukke 33 with 5 mins to play. Despite a last-gasp try from Pukke it was all over. Final score: Mogrels 41-Throoughbreds 38.
The celebrations were immediate and joyous. It was not the celebration of a team winning it was that of a community achieving recognition. In the end I was left watching the scenes of jubilation with my five-year old son in my arms, both of us elated. I had brought him out for his first experience of club rugby, and I’m so grateful it was this match. He could not have had a better introduction to the Great Game.
Fast-forward 2 hours and I’m at home. My son is asleep and I’m reflecting on what I’ve just seen. My overriding thought was not of the rugby, as brilliant as that was, it was of the joy of South Africa in 2011. The passion of the Raiders fans crossing the full demographic and racial spectrum, and the
victory of their team was a microcosm of what I hope for in our country, where huge obstacles can be overcome by shared endeavour and honest commitment.
Whatever happens in the final, I’m grateful for the one lesson I have learned from watching this wonderful game: that strength in diversity, combined with a mongrel spirit can overcome anything. I only hope I am able to teach my son to understand this as well as Raiders have taught it to me.