Some famous faces dusted off the boots in Lisbon for a tour that went down a storm with the locals, writes Francisco Isaac
History was made last weekend as the Springboks faced the Lobos in Portugal. It wasn’t the squad with Lambie, Vermeulen and De Jager but a Springboks Legends team containing greats like John Smit, Percy Montgomery and Danie Gerber who were invited to Lisbon.
It was clear at the opening press conference in Cascais, when Smit and coach Ian McIntosh addressed rapt local media, how significant this visit was for the hosts. For Portuguese rugby the coming of the Boks was more than a dream, it was surreal.
However, this wasn’t only important for Portuguese fans and players, it mattered hugely for the Springbok Legends as well. This represented much more than a simple tour, it was recognition that their rugby has left a mark on the worldwide culture of the sport.
Gathering again, seeing old faces and being a team again (but without the pressure of winning) can help the transition from professional to retiree. As a side note, the rugby world has had cases of depression following retirement from the playing fields. To look for a new career, to fit in society as a ‘normal’ person and to change routines are some of the issues that players face.
Helping to ensure that professional players can retire with peace and ease is a problem that World Rugby has to address for the future. A global campaign to help players find out about other subjects they can apply their skills to would be invaluable. World Rugby could work with professional clubs to arrange time and space for athletes to study – David Pocock, who’s taking a degree in Ecological Agricultural Systems, has been weighing up whether to take a sabbatical to study in England.
Brent Russell is one player who found the transition from pro player to ex-player challenging. “The beginning of my retirement was hard but with time it went smoother,” he said. “I have a family that helped my through. To be a coach is hard because you can have a job one year and be out of it the next. There’s no labour stability in South Africa rugby.”
The 23-cap utility back now works in insurance and investments in Durban and added: “It’s good to be back, to play in the green and yellow jersey. I’ve missed the camaraderie and the stories that come from the team environment. I haven’t missed the training, just playing.”
The Springbok Legends squad to which he belongs gives the players a chance to play again and relive old stories from the great times. Under the leadership of McIntosh, the former Springboks and Sharks coach, the South Africans came to Europe and mingled in the ranks of Portuguese rugby.
On Thursday they went to AIS Agronomia, where the players met youngsters and watched them practise. McIntosh spared some time to give a conference about ‘structure’, saying: “We have made some exaggerations in the structure in modern rugby, which has almost taken away the players’ self-thought of the game.”
Offering an insight into his thoughts and career, he gave some parting advice to the Portuguese coaches: “Teach your player to be the man.” In other words, help the player to be an important part of the game, to be involved with or without the ball, so that your rugby can flow.
On Friday, the tour moved on to local school St Julians, where the Legends had a quick practice. Their eyes were on the kids, with whom they played for a while, inciting smiles and tackles from the youngsters who had never seen Percy Montgomery or John Smit in the flesh.
Montgomery, who won 102 caps and is South Africa’s record point-scorer with 893, was a kicking coach for three years after retiring in 2009. He now has a foundation which helps kids excel in rugby and in school, while working in property and finance. “And I’m a full-time father, a job in its own right,” he said.
He continued: “This is my first time here, I’ve only been in Spain. Getting to know the place was part of what made me come here. Where I was born and raised, in Walvis Bay (Namibia), there was and still is a big Portuguese community. The guys are liking here!”
Butch James is another of those making his own way without ties to a professional club or franchise. He has his own advertising company but retains a link to rugby in his role as a commentator for Super Sport, which covers the Currie Cup and Super Rugby in South Africa.
“It’s my third year since retirement. I don’t miss it but it’s good to be back with the guys,” he said. “I knew it was my time. I’ve played since nine and retired at 35… I had a long career and was happy about it. If I have any advice for the young and current rugby players, it’s start preparing your transition early on. It’s important to have options.”
James and Russell had been to the Algarve before, at the Browns training resort, but this was their first time in Lisbon. All the Legends promised a fun game, eagerly anticipating playing together again and shaking off the ‘rust’ of their legs.
Saturday 4 June was when history was made as the Legends from Portugal and South Africa met on the field of Jamor. The old Boks didn’t come just for the party as they played at full throttle, showing great composure when close to the try-line. The visitors gave a master class on running and support, while the Portuguese tackled as hard as ever, fuelling the South African passion.
James executed some brilliant handling and passing, while Russell, the ‘Pocket Rocket’, showed he still has the moves. Smit, Lawrence Sephaka and Pieter Dixon, the former Bath and Stormers hooker, mauled the opposition mercilessly and by full-time the Boks had won handsomely, by 75-12.
Luis Pissarra, captain of the Portuguese Legends, had only smiles to give by the end of the game. “The Springbok Legends came to play, they gave all they had,” he said. “It was fun, me and the team had an awesome day. We didn’t sleep for a week waiting to play once again together.”
The 58-year-old Gerber, one of the greatest centres the game has seen, scored the final try and showed that age is just a number.
The tour was an unqualified success. More than 5,000 people packed the stands at the Jamor and both young and old had the chance to get a photo or a word with the Legends.
This type of occasion is what rugby is all about, showing there are no ‘superstars’, just rugby-passionate members keen to embrace a different culture and share a bit of their own.
The worldwide rugby community has much to gain from former players, it just needs to spring motivation and to show them they matter, not only in their playing years but in their retirement too. We have seen players graduate to the commentator booth, coaching pitch or management board (such as Smit, who was CEO of the Sharks until resigning last month so he could spend more time with his family), but there’s a large number who ‘fade’ away. How can we maintain them as part of the game?
The tour was only possible thanks to the efforts of businessman Tim Vieira and Lorne King (St Julians U12 coach), combining efforts with the Portuguese Federation and the clubs of Agronomia, Direito (both trained together on 2 June), St Julians and Escolas da Galiza Rugby (both participated in a rugby clinic in Cascais).