Wollongong and Rudolf Straeuli and John Smit

I doubt there is a Springbok supporter that recalls the day Rudulf Straeuli was appointed Springbok coach in 2002, although there are probably a good deal who wish it had never come to pass, but there is a small group of South Africans who will never forget the time and place.

It is ingrained, etched if you like, into the memories of the 30-man Sharks squad (plus one intrepid reporter) who came blinking out of the bunkers at the Wollongong Hotel to greet a visitor that had broken through enemy lines and come to give us news of the outside world.

It was a South African Rugby Union representative called Mark Keohane, who had been sent to officially congratulate Straueli on succeeding Harry Viljoen.

Bunkers? Enemy lines? For the Sharks on that bizarre tour, it really felt like that. Wollongong, a mining town that is almost literally the pits of the earth, and a place where 31 Durbanites lived for just over three weeks. We should have been given medals.

Super Rugby turns 21 next year, and with it comes expansion and exotic new tour destinations such as Tokyo and Buenos Aries, which will be up there with the best on the circuit, but at the other end of the scale nobody can deny the Sharks of 2002 set the marker for the “tour from hell.”

Straeuli was/is an utter rugby man, and he knows the animal that is a rugby player best than most, which is why he often has these odd ideas that he reckons will shock the player out of normalcy and into improved performance.

Kamp Staaldraad is the infamous and unparalled example, but the signs of madness were there long before.

Wollongong. A remote mining town in New South Wales. Miles from nowhere. Not a bright light in sight. No Super Rugby team had visited there before, and I put the rent money on it that none will disturb the tormented ghosts of Sharks long gone.

Rudolf often had these misguided ideas to keep the players away from distractions but they always backfired and had the opposite effect on team morale. Instead of the players bonding in grim circumstances, they felt they were in a prisoner-of-war camp at best, being punished at worst, and more than anything they counted the days until they could get the hell out of there.

That year, the Sharks had three games in Australia, so Rudolf threw a dart at the outback on the Aussie map and hey presto … three miserable weeks that had the players feeling like inmates in “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest”.

They lost very game, hopelessly. After one of the losses, and after return to Stalag Wollongong that night, an increasingly troubled Rudolf took things a step further … early the next Sunday morning the players were roused out of their slumber and drilled down to the local park, on the double.

Straeuli was awaiting with a whistle, and what ensued had never been seen in those parts before, and surely will never be seen again.

It was an army-style “opvok”. There were the locals, out walking their dogs, pointing with open-mouths, as the South Africans sprinted, dropped, to the ground at the whistle, jumped up and sprinted again until the whistle, and so on. You get the picture. Lots of press ups etc.

After about an hour the crowd had multiplied. This was as close to the Colosseum of Ancient Rome as you could get. Kids delighted in pointing out the puking. “Dad, look there is another one…”

I kid you not. Eventually Straeuli called captain John Smit over when the players were having a rare break. Smit later told me that the coach had whispered: “I have done my thing, but I think it is a good idea if you go back to the guys and tell them that ‘while the coach is satisfied (that they had learned their lesson and been sufficiently punished), the players should show their spirit by doing an “extra” five minutes on their own for good measure, to show their appreciation to the coach. But don’t tell them I told you …!”

But players aren’t stupid, and my abiding memory of Wollongong Oval was hearing the anguished disapproval of AJ Venter who, having put two and two together as Smit walked back to the players, let out this plaintive wail: “No John. For Fuck’s sake Don’t be a hero ….”

And this little Aussie kid, standing near me on the touchline said importantly to his Dad: “We don’t know where they come from or why they are here but they can swear like normal people!!!”

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