International Rugby

Selecting the Greatest All-Time South Africa XV

Danny CoyleFeatured ColumnistJuly 29, 2014

Selecting the Greatest All-Time South Africa XV

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    BERNARD PAPON/Associated Press

    South African rugby has a rich history full of wonderful players. The current crop may be some distance off world No. 1 New Zealand, but it has not always been the case.

    In truth, the rugby landscape may well look markedly different if the Springboks had not been cast into sporting purgatory during the Apartheid years that saw many of their great players collect so few caps.

    There was no South African side present at the first two World Cups won by New Zealand and Australia, and they have won two since gaining readmission.

    This 15 looks down the decades at players who were regarded as true greats despite the paucity of caps won, as well as some from the modern era who have earned their place in the pantheon of all-time greats.

    With players from the mid 1990s onwards, evidence of their greatness is in abundance, with the 1995 World Cup propelling many of them to stardom and the age of the internet providing a treasure trove of video footage of the modern era's achievements.

    The men who came before them were the generation who missed out on such exposure as the cameras turned away from their efforts before they were welcomed back into the fold.

    But their quality goes unquestioned, and though they may not have won world cups, those who saw them can testify to their greatness, and it is on that evidence those men make this side.

     

    All statistics owe thanks to ESPNScrum.com

15. Andre Joubert

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    Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    Joubert was often described as the Rolls Royce of full-backs. The tall, rangy runner was accomplished in every area of full-back play.

    He had speed, strength, composure under the high ball and was a shuddering tackler. Ten tries in 34 Tests underlines his ability to cruise into the attacking line and shred defences.

    But he could do the rough stuff as well. His finest hour probably came in amongst the muck and bullets of the 1995 World Cup semi-final against France. Kings Park in Durban was hit by a biblical monsoon, and Joubert took the field in a hand brace having broken his hand in the quarter-final.

    Despite the injury and atrocious conditions in which to deal with the French aerial bombardment, Joubert was his usual assured self, and he went on to form part of that famous defensive effort that repelled Jonah Lomu and the All Blacks in the final.

14. Carel Du Plessis

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    Du Plessis scored four tries in his 12 caps and was a victim of the sporting boycott imposed on South Africa.

    Despite that, he earned the nickname of the Prince of Wings in his career and became well known in the northern hemisphere, as the Independent’s Chris Hewett recorded:

    Thanks to isolation, Du Plessis played only 10 Tests - two against England in '84, four against South American select sides and another four against the ill-fated New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986 - but, happily for those north of the equator who had missed out on his skills, he branded himself on the British psyche with a truly extraordinary try for the Southern Hemisphere at Twickenham that same year.

13. Danie Gerber

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    Another player who missed out on higher notoriety due to the Apartheid-fuelled boycott of South African sport.

    Huw Baines of ESPNScrum described him as “a centre with the rare mix of speed, size and agility, Gerber was a devastating attacker and a rock solid presence in defence.”

    Confirmation of his status as one of the great players of the apartheid era came with a hat-trick against England.

    Baines concluded:

    Gerber's legacy will always be one of disappointment for many rugby fans, as South Africa's politics deprived the international game of one of its brightest stars. No centre had combined the athleticism and power that Gerber possessed before, and while the spectre of the quick, powerful centre now looms large over world rugby he has yet to be bettered.

12. John Gainsford

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    Gainsford scored eight tries in 33 Tests for the Springboks, earning legendary status with a brace against the All Blacks to help them to a 19-16 win in Christchurch in 1965.

    Gainsford had tremendous pace with which to beat players on the outside, a rare trait in modern day centres who more often than not look for contact rather than space.

11. Bryan Habana

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    Habana possesses the one quality every coach wants in a wing: raw, unadulterated pace.

    He finished the 2007 World Cup as top try scorer in the tournament and has continued to pile up crucial points for the Springboks well into his advancing years.

    Fifty-five tries in 97 Tests saw him sail past the South African record. The 2007 IRB Player of the Year is set to play in his third World Cup in 2015.

10. Naas Botha

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    Twenty-eight caps seems a scant return from a man regarded as one of the greatest South African players in history.

    The low number of appearances can be explained by Botha’s misfortune to come along at a time during the Springboks’ exile in the international sporting wilderness.

    And yet his sublime kicking game sees him remembered as a legend. Botha scored 312 points in his international career, but he was also part of a hugely successful Northern Transvaal outfit who won nine Currie Cups with the No. 10 in the side.

9. Joost Van Der Westhuizen

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    South Africa’s 1995 World Cup winning side was full of household names, but the spark was always provided by the man in the No. 9 jersey with the sparkling blue eyes and razor sharp reflexes.

    Van der Westhuizen was on another level to every other scrum-half in world rugby.

    He was bigger than every other No. 9 of his era and used that size and strength to often play as a fourth back row forward with his powerful salvos from the base of the breakdown. His pass was assured and decision making second to none.

    Eighty-nine caps yielded a massive 38 tries, which was a Springbok record until Bryan Habana surpassed it.

    For a man who was one of the greatest of all time on the field, life after rugby ran into far choppier waters.

    A sex and drugs scandal led to the breakdown of his marriage, and in 2009 he suffered a suspected heart attack before being sadly diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011.

8. Gary Teichmann

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    Teichmann skippered South Africa to 26 wins in his 36 games as captain. An angular, leggy No. 8, he was a potent attacker off the base of the scrum and a fine captain.

    After a shock series defeat to the British and Irish Lions in 1997, Teichmann led the Boks to 17 consecutive victories and a clean sweep in the 1998 Tri-Nations.

    His removal by incoming coach Nick Mallett in 1999 stirred up much controversy in South Africa, as ESPNScrum recalled:

    In 1999 the new South African coach Nick Mallett sacked Teichmann as captain due to his loss of form, which was a decision Mallett later admitted he got wrong. Teichmann's last game was in a 28-0 defeat to New Zealand in Dunedin and it meant he would never represent his country at a World Cup.

7. Ruben Kruger

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    Kruger was the bruising, uncompromising blindside flanker who did so much to haul the Springboks to World Cup glory in 1995.

    Tom Barclay of the Telegraph recalled his role in the famous semi-final win over France, in particular: “Not only did he score a controversial try but his try-saving tackle on [Abdel] Benazzi ensured the Springboks’ safe passage to the final, edging it 19-15.”

    Kruger was named player of the year in 1995, and he went on to play in the Boks’ next World Cup campaign that ended in semi-final defeat to eventual winners Australia.

    Tragically, he died aged 39 after a 10–year fight with cancer.

6. Andre Venter

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    ANAT GIVON/Associated Press

    Venter won 66 caps and scored nine tries for South Africa, but what the numbers do not portray, is the reputation that smoldered inside that green jersey, as one of the hardest, fittest men ever to pull it on.

    He was part of the 1999 World Cup side in a career that spanned five years and was regarded by team-mates and opponents as one of the best flankers in the business.

    In a curious twist of ill fate, Venter, like former team-mate Joost van der Westhuizen, has also been struck down with a form of motor neurone disease that has left him confined to a wheelchair.

5. Victor Matfield

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    A massive 113 caps in a 13-year career and counting, Matfield is one of the greatest second rows ever to have played the game.

    He retired after the 2011 World Cup, but he came back ahead of the 2014 Super Rugby season and was captain of the Springboks in their June Tests.

    His performances have not dipped below the level he attained in his first career, as former South Africa coach Morne du Plessis told ESPNScrum: "He has turned the history of comebacks on its head. Most end in tears but Victor has been the exception to the rule. He doesn't look like he skipped a beat."

    A 2007 World Cup winner, there now seems every chance Matfield will be back for another go in 2015.

4. Mark Andrews

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    Phil Cole/Getty Images

    Andrews had only made his international debut a year before South Africa won their first World Cup.

    The towering second row was a mainstay of that pack in the engine room but proved his versatility when switched to No. 8 for the semi-final against France. Andrews won 77 caps in all.

    Andrews lifted Currie Cups with Natal in 1995 and 1996 and also enjoyed a short stint in the English Premiership with Newcastle Falcons.

3. Hannes Marais

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    Marais captained the Boks on their unbeaten tour of Australia in 1971, winning every game. The prop was moulded by the legendary coach Dr Danie Craven who converted him from a back row forward and led the side at a time when all anyone wanted to talk about was the political situation back home, not the rugby.

    Marais, according to this report from The Age during the 1971 tour, was adept at ensuring he and his players did not get caught in the crossfire between protesters who followed the side everywhere and the politicians back home. The report stated:

    "Hannes Marais is a friendly sort of bloke. But, like all the Springboks, he knows precisely what he must not talk about. He must not talk about Apartheid. He just continually reminds people he is in Australia to play rugby."

2. Uli Schmidt

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    Schmidt played for the Boks between 1986 and 1994, during which time he earned a reputation as a fearsome front row forward who never took a backward step.

    He won 10 of his 17 matches and was regarded the world over as one of the hardest men of his era.

    Schmidt later became the team doctor under the Rudolph Straeuli regime.

1. Os Du Randt

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    In 2007 du Randt achieved the improbable when he lifted a second Webb Ellis Cup, some 12 years after winning his first.

    "The Ox" is a legend in South Africa. The giant loose head won 80 caps and formed the cornerstone of two World Cup–winning packs.

    In his earlier incarnation, du Randt could be as destructive a runner as he was a scrummager. He retired with injury in 2000. But, impressively, he proved himself able to cut it in the front row after curtailing his retirement in 2003 and was back in the Springbok fold the following year.

    In 2007 he was named man of the match in the World Cup semi-final against Argentina and played the full 80 minutes of the final.

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