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.
Botha knows his sports on both sides of the Atlantic. He was a kicker for the Dallas Cowboys for two seasons, and says the games aren't comparable. "American football is played in bursts of seconds. Rugby lets the game flow," he explains. "You don't stop the game, you try to get the game going. In South Africa, rugby is comparable to baseball. It's like a religion."
And Botha is the beloved patron saint.
The Springboks dressed for battle those two decades ago. After a 45-minute bus ride, they arrived at the Owl Creek Polo Ground in Glenville, New York. A referee was there, a few members of the polo club and a passerby or two. State troopers unobtrusively ringed the field. All told there were maybe 30 spectators. It would be the smallest test of all time.
Selfridge felt it had to be this way. He had promised the boys from South Africa a safe match. This was the only way he could deliver.
Under coach Nelie Smith, the Springboks were fielding perhaps their best team ever just as international opposition to apartheid was reaching a fever pitch. Earlier, in New Zealand, protesters tossed Molotov cocktails and bricks at police. When hotels turned the team away, they sometimes had to sleep in stadiums. Two men had buzzed one field in a Cessna, dropping dozens of flour bombs.
On the eve of the big Houston game, organizers arranged a $70-per-plate dinner to pay tribute to Naas Botha. It doubled as my introduction into the world of rugby, this banquet filled with big men. Everyone is holding a cup of something. Everyone is white. The bulky man handling the guest list has a shaved head. He seems to be missing one hand -- at least it's not evident at the end of his blazer sleeve. Asked the whereabouts of the guest of honor, he gestures toward a blond, rather slight man, perhaps a shade over six feet tall, wearing a checkered sport jacket. "That's Naas," the one-handed man says.
Faced with a stranger's surprise at his relatively small stature, Botha's ice-blue eyes don't blink. "At my position," he says, "if you really look after yourself, you can get by okay. You can't touch anyone who doesn't have the ball in rugby, but there are still a lot of injuries. You can get paralyzed, although that happens rarely. People get kicked a lot. There are a lot of knee, ankle and shoulder injuries. Throughout my career, I always remembered something my father told me: If you're clever enough, you can stay out of trouble. If you look for trouble, it'll find you."
At 43, Botha dodges questions about his greatness as deftly as he slipped tacklers. South African broadcaster Andy Capostagno, though, compared him to Joe Namath. "Every team he played for, he won. He was so good that people who rooted for other teams hated him," Capostagno says. "There is no higher honor in South African sport than to be captain of the Springboks. This guy right here" -- Capostagno motions to a life-size action figure on a nearby poster -- "that's our current captain, Andre Vos. He's not fit to tie Naas's bootlaces."
The only thing that seems to get the slightest rise out of Botha is mention of the first USA-South Africa test, in 1981. "I was just fortunate enough to have an opportunity to play. It all helped me to groom myself as a human being," Botha says. "People made laws in 1948 and in 1961, and we're still being blamed for them in 2001. Has the price been paid? I hope so. It's time to go forward."
As soon as the Springboks hit the United States, they were met with vehement multiracial protests by everyone from Jesse Jackson on down. New York City mayor Ed Koch revoked game permits. The Albany mayor, under pressure from New York governor Hugh Carey, tried to cancel the game there. Selfridge was outraged. How was keeping the South Africans out different from, for example, banning Israelis from Manhattan? An appeal of the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Justice Thurgood Marshall -- the first black on the high court, the man who argued the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation case -- upheld Selfridge's right to freedom of association, regardless of those associates' views on the humanity of black people.
Then the pipe bomb exploded outside the offices of the Eastern Rugby Union only 20 minutes after Selfridge had left. He would take no more chances. Selfridge didn't even reveal the time and location of the match to USA Rugby officials, who had converged from across the country. He knew they would be furious, but he didn't care. All he cared about was the game.
A recent rain had left the Owl Creek Polo Ground muddy. It was sloped and fragrant with horse manure. Players drew the lines on the field. Springbok Thys Berger led the raising of the goal posts. After warming up in a nearby horse paddock, the Boks were ready to play.
The Eagles were headed downhill in the first half. They scored first, driving the field after a Naas clearing kick. Four-zip, Eagles.
At Robertson Stadium, the Eagles are pressuring hard on the kickoff. The partisan South African crowd hushes into silence. The Eagles force the Springboks into a penalty and kick a 50-yard goal for a 3-0 lead.
In the stands, John Dodson sits with his daughter Morgan, nine, and son Bryce, eight. Dodson and Morgan are wearing Longhorn caps. Bryce's sports the Astros logo. "It's pretty good," Dodson says, almost surprised at their first glimpse of rugby. "It's entertaining. They seem to drink a lot of beer, though. Everyone seems to be carrying two beers."
The University of Texas will play Colorado later for the Big 12 Championship. "If that game was on now, we probably wouldn't be here," Dodson says. "I guess rugby is supposed to be like one long football play. I don't know about those shorts, though. They're kind of short. And sometimes they lift the guy up by the crotch to catch the ball. It seems like there's something wrong with that. I'm surprised there's not more fights on the field. In the NFL, with the stuff that's going on down there, there would be fights. I guess that's not the protocol."
Something else puzzles Dodson. "I'm surprised there's not any blacks here. You just know there's got to be some good black rugby players over there. It seems like they could use them on the team. You're telling me there's not some big fast black guys in South Africa?"
The Springboks field one black starter: Lawrence Sephaka, who goes a shade under six feet and a shade over 250 pounds. He's the first black forward ever to play a test for the Springboks. "They have other blacks on the team, but he's the only full-blooded black out there," says Arden Goosen, a South African who has come from his North Carolina home for the test. Arden's café-au-lait skin and semi-straight hair indicate that South Africans would call her "colored," meant to imply that she has some white ancestry. Apparently this remains an important distinction back home.
The Springboks begin to show their experience and their ranking as third in the rugby world. As they start to hammer down the 16th-ranked Eagles, Sephaka remains the only black face on the field for either side. The crowd, too, is almost completely white. Blond hair sprouts like dandelions after rain. Even though South African fans outnumber Americans three to one, there are few black South Africans anywhere in the stands. This is at least outwardly strange, considering that 75 percent of South Africa's 43.5 million citizens are black, another 8.6 percent are "colored," and only 13.6 percent are white.
It also is odd given the previous evening's VIP reception for the South African ambassador to the United States, Sheila Sisulu. Much was made at the reception about the 1995 World Cup, when South Africa won rugby's international championship on its home soil. The game was played less than a year after Nelson Mandela was elected president, officially ending South Africa's murderous apartheid regime. Although the segregated Springboks historically had been seen by blacks as a symbol of white oppression, Mandela embraced the newly integrated team and even wore a Springboks jersey to the final match in Johannesburg. When the home team won, white and black celebrated together for the first time ever.
"There have been reams and reams written about that game, but nothing can capture that moment," Sisulu told the audience. She ranked the event behind only the release of Mandela from jail and his election to the presidency. "When we won," the ambassador said, "it was tremendous for all of South Africa. Sport is the best way of linking our people."
Sisulu is one of four blacks in the room -- including myself -- among the four or five dozen people at the reception. Her husband, Walter, spent many years jailed with Mandela. When the 1981 test was played, Sisulu was working to overthrow the racist government, teaching schoolchildren who rebelled against the apartheid educational system. Now she encourages her countrymen to wave their flags at the game.
"Blacks have embraced rugby," Sisulu says. "They have. It has become the national sport, vying for the No. 1 position with soccer." But it will take a long time for the scars to heal. It will take longer than six years for South Africa's rugby system to shake out all the racism, despite quotas requiring some blacks on the field. Even in American football, blacks have been allowed to play quarterback just in the past few years, and even fewer hold top coaching positions.
Soccer is also much more lucrative. Top South African rugby players might make $300,000 per year playing at home and in Europe. An international soccer star can make $10 million. Why try to go where you're not wanted, when you can get paid far more and be welcomed?
Any sport, for that matter, remains far beyond the scope of most black South Africans. Selfridge recalls touring South Africa with a U.S. team in 1991 and asking a police captain at a match if he played rugby. "This man was very athletic, about six foot two, 210 pounds. He said, 'When you have to work 18 hours a day just to feed yourself, you don't worry about sport.' " Selfridge cautioned against projecting American lifestyles to such countries, where schools don't even have athletics. "People don't have the luxury of time, the luxury of practice," he says. "You're just worried about standing in line for two or three hours to catch a ride from work back home, where you sleep for four hours and then stand in line to go back to work and do it all over again."
Shane Elie, a white friend of Arden Goosen's, notes that rugby remains predominantly white. "It takes time. I'm sure in the next couple of years you'll see more blacks. They're playing good rugby, and I'm sure more will make the team."
"It's like rugby is on the other side of the tracks for a lot of people," says George Ewing of the U.S.-based Rugby magazine. "There has been a little bit of movement, but rugby is still a country club game, like polo. It's like blacks in the United States don't have access to expensive golf clubs."
The American national team has problems of its own. There is a thriving U.S. rugby club circuit, but no pro league. About one-third of the Eagles are pros from overseas, making roughly $50,000 per year. The rest are college students or hold regular jobs. When a test comes up, most of the national team is called up like the National Guard. They have to beg for time off and join the team a day or two before the match. Only recently have they begun to receive transportation expenses and a modest "assembly fee."
The United States is about even with South Africa in black players, albeit for slightly different reasons. Rugby might as well be curling in the minds of most American kids, let alone black ones. "We need guys like Jonah Loma, the winger for New Zealand," Ewing says. "He's six foot six, 265 pounds. He runs 100 meters in 9.2 seconds. We don't have those kind of athletes playing for us."
Ian McDonald dreams of the possibilities: "Can you imagine Emmitt Smith playing rugby?" The South African native played soccer on a scholarship from a Florida college. He, wife Marla and infant son Robbie flew in from their home of Jackson, Mississippi, for the test. Americans, he says, could have a phenomenal team if they got into the game. "The population, the resources, the facilities. They could really be great." What sport is Robbie leaning toward? "Ummm, golf," McDonald says. Marla, for her part, enjoys the match but hopes her son will never play such a violent sport.
The Springboks reveled in the game's physical aspects. In the second half, going downhill, they began to punish the lesser Eagles. Winger Ray Mordt scored three tries. Thys Berger came in for an injured teammate and scored a try. Botha punched through conversions like clockwork. The final score: South Africa 38, USA 7.
The Springboks' 1981 tour was complete. They were free to return home, to the only place on earth where they were wanted. After 20 matches full of fear, terror and hatred, they were able to simply play their game.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"I'm glad this was the last match," coach Nelie said. "It was a good game. A quiet game. It was rugby men playing rugby men, as it should be."
Twenty years later, the final score was South Africa 43, USA 20 -- much closer than many expected. Selfridge was in the stands for the rematch.
"It was a great day," he said. "Whatever lessons have been learned 20 years ago is a hundred years ago." He likens the twin towers terrorism of September 11 to the 1981 bomb explosion outside his office. "The precious freedoms we have need to be protected at all times," he says. "Today, we understand that more than we ever did."
Twenty years can also be like 20 minutes. A lifetime of hatred can take 20 lifetimes to heal. Certainly, America is proof of that. And South Africa is slowly making itself whole. Someday, perhaps, the memory of apartheid can be buried forever. But today, more than ever, we understand how far we've come -- and how far we still have to go.