A Test of the Times

Nelie came in the door with a strange look on his face. "Get your things," he said. "We're playing the test today."

The boys were shocked. The match against the Yanks was scheduled for tomorrow afternoon. Tomorrow afternoon, or the day after never -- who knew if this game would even be played, what with the bombing and all. The Springboks, South Africa's national rugby team, were international outcasts due to their government's racist tyranny. The antiapartheid movement was using protests, threats and the occasional terrorist act to keep the Springboks from competing on American soil. So some secrecy was to be expected.

Naas Botha was in on it. Naas the superstar. He had to know the secret, in order to keep it from his brother and teammate. But as Naas's brother, a reserve, left their hotel room wearing the green and gold Springbok colors, he had no idea that he would miss that day's test against the Eagles of the United States.

The reserves exited the hotel's front door as if headed for practice. The waiting media horde stirred to life and followed. The real team, wearing street clothes, left through the back door. Minibuses delivered them to the home of Tom Selfridge, the organizer of the Springboks' U.S. tour. Electric garage doors closed behind the team. Naas and his teammates slipped into the cellar to change into their game gear.

It was Friday, September 25, 1981. A bright, crisp, perfect day. A long time ago, but not so long at all.

Saturday, December 1, 2001. A bright, crisp, perfect day. Naas Botha is in the broadcast booth atop the University of Houston's Robertson Stadium. Nearly 20,000 people, most of them South African, frolic below as the Springboks face off against the Eagles. An enormous Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey logo sits midfield, prime placement for millions of fans watching on TV around the world. Dozens of South African flags flutter in the breeze. Castle Lager flows like water. It is the first rugby match between South Africa and the United States since 1981.

This time, the mood is ebullient. For local organizers, politicians and sports enthusiasts, the test poses an opportunity to prove Houston's worth as an Olympic host. For the area's South African expatriates, it's a rare chance to demonstrate national pride and identity. For the Eagles players and the USA Rugby organization, it's a way to raise the American profile of their sport and measure themselves against the best in the world. And for everyone involved, it's a chance to quaff as much alcohol as their bladders can hold.

Beer is as much a part of rugby as scrums, mucks and hookers. Rugby came to life around England and Ireland, where a drink or three is never too far away. Legend has it that one William Webb Ellis picked up a soccer ball and ran with it at his school in the town of Rugby, thus inventing the game. But others had already picked up the ball as far back as the 12th century, when English villages had waged "foote ball" wars against each other that spread over miles and lasted days at a time. "Football playing," wrote Philip Stubbs in his 1583 Anatomy of Abuses, "may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play for recreation, a bloody and murthering practice than a felowly sport."

Half a millennium later, rugby remains quite bloody. A barbarian sport played by gentlemen who tear each other to pieces on the field and later drink to each others' health. As for the rules, which are many and confusing, think American football with no forward passes, no stops between plays -- and no pads.

There are 15 players to a side. They score a "try," worth five points, by running across the goal line. After a try, the "conversion" kick through the uprights is worth two points. Kicking the ball through the uprights during play is three points. The infamous "scrum" starts when both sides line up, lower their heads, lock themselves into a circle that resembles a giant writhing crab, and try to direct the ball to a teammate. Much of rugby resembles a never-ending option offense in football: Players run until they are about to be tackled, then pitch the ball laterally to a teammate, and the cycle repeats itself.

Playing for your country is the pinnacle for rugby players everywhere, an honor complete with special statistics. A game between two national teams is called a "test" rather than a mere match. Those who play a test are awarded a "cap."

Several South Africans have collected more than Naas Botha's 28 caps. But none of them comes close to his achievements on the field. He's scored more points in those tests than any other Springbok ever. By a wide margin, Botha holds the record for most points scored in Springbok matches: 485 in 40 games. As a flyoff -- roughly equivalent to a football quarterback -- he became a legend in his homeland: winner of nine championships, 12-year Springbok star and prolific scorer.

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Jesse Washington