3 June 2005
There are roughly two full teams’ worth of South African professional players plying their trade in England’s premier rugby union competition, including a host of former Springboks as well as a number of lesser known players – among them a scrumhalf from KwaZulu-Natal whose nickname is “Howzit”.
South African rugby players are big, powerful men known in particular for their prowess in the tight phases of the game – a fact that English clubs seem to appreciate.
If one takes a look at the South Africans playing for Zurich Premiership teams, prop is the position in which they are most sought after. Out of 33 South African players in the Premiership season just ended – won by the London Wasps – roughly a quarter were props.
Propping up UK scrums
A number of those players have represented the Springboks: Newcastle’s Marius Hurter (13 caps), Gloucester’s Christo Bezuidenhout (four caps), Robbie Kempson of Northampton (37 caps) and Cobus Visagie of Saracens (29 caps).
Then there is Matt Stevens, who played for the South African under-21 team behind Ryno Gerber. Stevens, from Kwazulu-Natal, has represented England at full international level.
Gerber, at 24, was recognised as one of the top up-and-coming props in South Africa. The powerful front-ranker represented the Free State Cheetahs before moving to the Tykes Leeds for the 2004/2005 season.
Playing ahead of Matt Stevens, Gerber was an important part of the South African under-21 team that won the World Championship in dramatic fashion in Johannesburg in 2002.
Pierre Durant of London Irish is one of the lesser known South Africans. His clubmates call him “The Rock” because they’re fully aware of his abilities in the front row. He played for South African Universities and Eastern Province before making the move north in 2002, first to Saracens, then to London Irish.
Heinrich Kok of Bath previously played for the Lions (SA provincial) and Cats (SA Super 12) sides, packing down on both sides of the scrum.
The London Irish, known as “The Exiles” because they are home to so many players from abroad, have seven players with South African connections on their books – or eight, if you count their recent signing for 2006 of Bulls and former Springbok hooker Danie Coetzee.
Ryan Strudwick, formerly of KwaZulu-Natal, has been club captain since 2002/2003. He has been named the club’s player of the season three times and has turned out for the side in more than 150 games.
Like Strudwick, Geoff Appleford struggled to make his mark with the Sharks during a time that the Durban-based team dominated the game in South Africa. And like Strudwick, he excelled after making the move to London.
A centre, Appleford has gone on to play for England once, but he has made a greater impact in Sevens, regularly turning out for his adopted country. Appleford recently signed a three-year contract that will see him moving to Northampton Saints.
Former Free State fullback Michael Horak has also played one full international for England. He previously represented South Africa in rugby league!
Flanker Roland Reid was born in Middelburg and played for South African Schools and the SA under-19s. However, he has also played for Scotland in two tests.
Also up front is the aforementioned Pierre Durant and hooker James van der Walt, formerly of the Lions, and a man who represented South Africa at schools, under-19 and under-21 level.
On the coaching front, Gary Gold, coach of the Villagers’ second XV in Cape Town back in 1997, has enjoyed success with the London Irish. His class was recognised by Western Province director of coaching Nick Mallett: Gold recently signed to coach Western Province next season.
Two former South African MBEs
The most decorated of the SA/former SA crowd at London Irish is Mike Catt, who was schooled at Grey High School in Port Elizabeth. As part of the England team that won the World Cup in 2003, he was awarded an MBE (Member of the British Empire). A vastly experienced player, Catt played 65 times for England at flyhalf and centre.
He is not the only former South African to be awarded Royal honours as a result of the English World Cup triumph. London Wasps’ centre Stuart Abbott was also a member of the England squad, and he too picked up an MBE.
Abbot is one of two SA-connected players with the current English club champions. The other is little known scrumhalf Harvey Biljon. He is from Kwazulu-Natal and previously played for the province’s under-21s. His origins are clear when one learns that his nickname is “Howzit”, which is a typical South African greeting.
Bath also has a sizeable South African contingent. Besides Matt Stevens and Heinrich Kok, the club is also home to former Springbok centre Robbie Fleck. Capped 31 times by the Boks, Fleck made the move to England after he was overlooked by coach Rudolf Straeuli for the 2003 World Cup.
Frikkie Welsh is also in the Bath backline, playing either centre or wing. He joined from the Blue Bulls in August 2004 after excelling in the Currie Cup and for the Bulls in the Super 12. Although not a Springbok, he did represent SA at A level.
Leeds Tykes have four South Africans in their squad. Prop Ryno Gerber was mentioned earlier. Then there is flanker Pierre Uys, formerly of the Pumas, Western Province and the Stormers, and the winner of one Springbok cap.
Behind them is centre Andre Snyman, who was for a long time a fixture in the South African national team’s midfield, turning out 36 times in tests. Flyhalf Gareth Wright, who played most of his representative rugby in South Africa for Border, is also in the Tykes squad.
Worcester’s ninth-place finish this past season was the best finishing position for a newly promoted team since Bristol achieved sixth place in 1999/2000. The Warriors did it with five players with South African connections in their line-up.
Up front was former Lions’ hooker Andre van Niekerk, along with ex-Shark Brad McLeod-Henderson and Zimbabwean international Leon Greeff who, like McLeod-Henderson, also played for the Sharks.
At the back, former Springbok Thinus Delport turned out at fullback, while the speedy Giscard Pieters did duty at centre and wing.
The Northampton Saints also had five South Africans on their books and, until he was given the boot, Alan Solomons as coach.
Apart from Robbie Kempson, the Saints had hooker Johan van Wyk, lock Selborne Boome and former SA captain Corne Krige – playing his final season for the club. In the backline was Wylie Human, who will be returning to the Cats next season.
Krige is not the only former Springbok captain to have plied his trade in London. Andre Vos has been a fixture at London Harlequins for a number of seasons now; at the club’s recent annual awards ceremony, he was voted both supporters’ player of the season and players’ player of the season.
Harlequins have just been relegated from the Premiership; they’ll be hoping to bounce back from that disappointment with the help of Vos, as well as another couple of former Boks: Dave van Hoesslin, who joined the club from the Sharks, and former Bulls lock Geo Cronje, who has hardly been in the mix since he joined because of an injured knee that required surgery.
Apart from Christo Bezuidenhout, Gloucester has flank Jake Boer in their squad. He has been with the Cherry and Whites since 2000, and led Gloucester to victory in the Powergen Cup in 2003.
Boer was named the Zurich Premiership Player of the Year the same year, and also picked up the overseas player of the year award. Gloucester love his industrious ways, and in May 2004 signed him to a new three-year contract.