Durban — Who better to tackle the history of Springbok rugby than someone who has had a ringside seat to the green and gold juggernaut’s dazzling and destructive best for more than 25 years?
Mike Greenaway, a respected and long-serving Independent Media rugby writer, has weaved a quintessential collection of Springbok happenings and heroics that date back to the 1890s in his latest book, The Fireside Springbok: The untold stories that make the Boks great.
While Greenaway’s coffee table book was released in October, before the ‘Boks achieved their latest World Cup success, there was already enough compelling evidence between the covers that reaffirmed the Springboks’ revered status in world rugby.
Greenaway, 56, has long been smitten with the team and it is evident in how he was able to point to the anecdotes, action and altercations that distinguished the Boks’ brand.
His efforts in the self-published book scored him a perfect 10 rating from Andy Capostagno, the well-known rugby journalist and commentator who has been calling games for sports broadcaster Supersport since the early 1990s.
Capostagno’s Cover to Cover feature on the pay channel, which is dedicated to reviews of books with a sports flavour, handed top marks to Greenaway’s effort.
It moved Greenaway. “I recall vividly a moment when I considered throwing in the towel, but my girlfriend, Peta (Carrick), said, ‘Just visualise Andy Capostagno, one day, holding up The Fireside Springbok at the end of his book review show and giving it a good rating’.”
“Imagine how surreal it was when that exact moment transpired many months later. I watched the show with tears in my eyes and goosebumps galore,” said Greenaway.
Given the infinite amount of Springbok memories created over the years, Greenaway has plans for a sequel.
He tracks back to the early days of the Springboks and some of the players that entrenched the team’s “nasty but nice” reputation.
Upfront, the focus fell on Barry “Fairy” Heatlie who played in the Springboks’ first Test in the country against the British team.
The nickname “Fairy” was given tongue-in-cheek to Heatlie who stood 1.9m tall and weighed 100kg.
The Boks were still newbies at the game and lost all three matches, but began to show improvement in the next series (1896) and won one of the four matches against the same opponents.
Heatlie was named captain ahead of the winning encounter. As captain he got to choose the kit and he went for the colour green, signifying hope.
That win under Heatlie sparked a long streak of home wins to 1958.
Billy Millar was another in a long line of gutsy Springbok captains who epitomised the well-known phrase, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.
As a youngster Millar overcame typhoid that claimed many lives early in the 20th century. At age 18, he did duty in the Anglo Boer War and was shot in his left shoulder during a skirmish.
Doctors managed to save his arm from amputation and recommended exercise for rehabilitation.
He eventually got to lead the Springboks on their European tour in 1912/13 and beat all their hosts to land a “Grand Slam” of wins (Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England).
Millar was badly injured in World War I, but bounced back to referee at Test level.
Another daring Bok from the past, also deeply involved in farming, was Andy Macdonald.
Having lost livestock to a lion on the prowl, Macdonald went on the hunt with a worker. He initially shot the animal, which later turned on him. The worker fled. Macdonald eventually won after a bloody barehanded battle.
Another Springbok, blessed with hands like hub-caps and with firm family roots in farming is Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Since the 1820’s there have been eight generations of Pieter-Stephs making export quality wine in the Boland. Their family tradition to name every eldest son Pieter-Stephanus du Toit continues. In April 2019, his son took his name.
Pieter-Stephs’ grandfather, Piet “Spiere” (muscles), a former Springbok tighthead prop from the 1950s, had a reputation of having immense strength. Lifting a tractor was no sweat for him. Pieter-Steph’s father, Pieter, has also played a significant role in his rugby successes.
Six months before the Springboks’ World Cup triumph in Japan, Pieter-Steph suffered another career-threatening knee ligament injury. His father had the idea to donate a piece of his hamstring to work as a tendon in his son’s knee. It worked.
Pieter-Steph was the player of the tournament in Japan (2019), and the World Player of the Year that year. He also proved outstanding for the Springboks in France (2023).
Some of the other modern-day players who get a sizeable mention include James Small, Henry Honiball, Deon Kayser, Joost van der Westhuizen, Andre Venter, Breyton Paulse, Solly Tyibilika and Siya Kolisi.
Kolisi, in an interview, credited Tyibilika for his emergence from the Eastern Cape’s backwaters to rugby glory. Tyibilika was tragically shot dead in 2011.
Greenaway said the book was on his mind before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
“I had reached the milestone of 25 years of covering Bok rugby the year before. When it did and lockdown turned the screws, I could no longer procrastinate.”
His rugby romance began when in 1974, his father took him to watch a match between Natal and The British Lions at Kings Park.
Little did Greenaway know that one day he would become a famous rugby writer covering the fortunes of the Sharks and Springboks, home and away.
The book is available at all major book stores.
Independent on Saturday