I started playing rugby for the Police about two years after I started my career as a policeman.
The year was 1982, and I just turned nineteen. Because I am tall, 1.99 meters or six foot six in the old terms, the position I played in rugby was lock. In the first year, I went through the ranks from third team to first team. They chose me for the Border under 20 team in the first year I played rugby for the East London branch of the South Africa Police.
By then I was a permanent member of the East London Police Force’s first team and the youngest player in the forwards. I played amongst seasoned players. Some of them have or were still representing “Borders” Provincial rugby side on several occasions. I learnt a lot from them by playing amongst them.
I was fortunate to be selected for the “first” Multi-racial Border Barbarian Rugby Team, then known as the Baabaas. I became a permanent player in that team. The Baabaas team always played the curtain raiser for the Border side.
I was also a selected for the Provincial Feeder Rugby Team. They sent us to Cape Town, where we received Springbok coaching for one week. I only once made it onto the reserve bench for the Border side, but was never selected to play a match for them.
In the meantime, I enjoyed playing rugby for the East London Police Force’s first team. The biggest rival team we had was the Cambridge rugby side from East London. They were usually the winners and champions of the premier league cup that all the teams played for in that region. During 1994, East London Police had their best first team in a long time.
After a two years lay off from playing rugby because of my transfer to George in the Cape Province and later Cape Town itself, I arrived back in East London. I again started playing rugby. I did not just walk back into the first team. I had to play myself into it, and so I ended up playing for a while for the second team. My only interaction with the first team at that stage was watching its progress. Half way through my first season back at playing rugby, I was selected for the first team. We played well enough to end up in the finals of the premier league cup that year. Again, our opponents in the finals were the Cambridge rugby club.
The Border club rugby supporters were licking their lips in anticipation of the clash between Police and Cambridge. The evening before the game, I was working with the Narcotics unit of the East London Police. I injured myself whilst embroiled in a drug bust that evening.
I was trying to open a door of a drug house by shouldering it. I fell through the door and landed on my left thigh, hitting the corner of a wooden lounge table. Afterwards, during that night, I was in a lot of pain. The next morning, before the game started, I could hardly walk. In my gut, I knew that my rugby days were ending. I wanted to play in the final match that day and winning the cup was going to be an exceptional achievement. I called my doctor that always treated my boxing injuries and asked him if there was anything he could do for me. He told me to come and see him at his surgery. After a checkup on my thigh, he said that I had bruised and injured tissues deep in the muscle and that it will be a while before it would heal. He also said that it would be painful for a long time. His advice was that I should rest it. I told him I could not rest it as I was playing in the Rugby finals in the afternoon. He told me I would aggravate the injury, but. Hard-headed as I was, I wanted to hear nothing of that sort. He capitulated and told me to come and see him an hour before the game. I did, and he injected me with something that deadened the pain for a few hours. But he warned me, once the injection had worn off, I was going to know all about it.
We won the cup that day and it was a brilliant victory for police rugby. We celebrated until late that evening. The pain came back with a vengeance that night. None of the alcohol I drank could keep the pain away. Afterwards, I could hardly walk for a few days, but the victory was sweet, and I was immensely proud to have been a part of it.
As any rugby player will know, there is always a bond between the players in the team. One came to know most of each one’s individual habits, before running onto or whilst on the field. One of these strange habits I can recall was from one guy that played in the Police first team. He was a tight head prop and his habit was the eating of a big chunk of raw liver before a match whilst in the dressing room.
There were also certain codes on the field between us players. The police rugby teams were rough, physical, and ever ready for a bit of fisticuffs. One of codes we used was during a scrum. If the front rankers were having a hard time in the scrum with their opposition, the loose head would say to the locks that when he gives the code, he will move aside and the locks must punch the opposition hooker. The referee did not easily see it as it happened inside the scrum.
One day we were playing against a local rugby team in East London that was just as physical as the police’s side. You could bet on it that there would be fights when these two teams met. This particular day was no different. Not long after the game started, the loose head Prop from our team sported a cut lip. The result of a head-butt he received in a scrum. He was on the warpath. Being our vice-captain, he called my lock partner and me aside just before we went down in the next scrum, which was awarded to the opposition team.
‘If I use the code “come through”, I am going to move aside and I want you two to knock the hooker. I had enough of him head butting me when we go down in a scrum,’ he instructed us. The scrum went down and he shouted, “come through”. From our bent positions as locks, we both threw an upper cut towards where the opposing hooker’s head should have been. I felt my fist connecting a head and thought to myself – job done.
When the scrum broke up, our loose head prop and vice-captain was laying flat on the grass. Unconscious. The medical staff next to the field attended to him. He got up all groggy, and they led him off the field, his match over for the day. I looked at the opposition hooker, but he was fine. I then realized that either myself or my lock partner must off knocked out our vice-captain. After the game, I checked on him. He thought one of the other team’s forwards punched him
‘What a dirty bunch they are,’ he said.
I left it at that.
I was no angel when it came to fighting on the rugby fields. Always ready for a brawl, I was sent off to the cooler on numerous occasions, which was nothing new for me. But unfortunately, you eventually become known for that and not for the good games you were playing some of the time. A good example of this was during 1988 on the Police 75th Anniversary. As part of the anniversary, the Police national side from Pretoria came to East London to play against a Border Invitation XV. It was arranged that the East London police’s first team would play the curtain raiser against a Presidents XV. With the Pretoria Police side, travelled the National Police Commissioner. The District Commissioner of the East London area, a Brigadier, came into our change room before the game whilst we were busy togging up.
‘I just wanted to wish you well for the game and please remember that the National police Commissioner is out there watching the game. So please behave and no fighting. I do not want to be embarrassed,’ was his message to us.
That specific day, I was chosen to play the first half of the match out of my normal lock position. I played in the flank position. Three minutes into the game and the first scrum of the match was called. Going down to scrum, my opposition flank connected me with a fist on the ear. I immediately retaliated and laid into him with a few fist blows of my own. The ref only saw me hitting, and I was immediately sent to the cooler. My team was also penalized. Walking off the field, I realised the consequences. All this in front of our Commissioner. After my ten minutes in the cooler, I went back on the field and played a blinder, scoring three tries during the match. At the end of the game, the scoreboard showed East London Police 40 – Presidents XV 24. The Police commissioner came into the change room and congratulated us on a magnificent victory. He pointed a finger at me and then winked. I knew then I was forgiven for my moment of madness.
For a few weeks after the game, I was congratulated on the fine ‘fight’ on the field that day. However, nothing was said of the good game I played, scoring three of our seven tries. It also happened a few years ago on a rugby reunion I attended in East London when some of my old teammates and I were talking about past rugby games. I was asked a few times if I could recall the fight I had while playing against this club or that club. Nothing about the good game I played any day. It is a stigma you could never get rid of and, to be honest. I am not proud of it. But then again, I was known for my boxing talent and not really for the rugby I was playing.
Although I never made it into the big rugby league, I found comfort in the fact that I had played rugby on all the big Rugby Stadiums in South Africa, such as Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria, Kings Park in Durban, Ellis Park in Johannesburg and Newlands in Cape Town. And don’t forget the Free state Stadium in Bloemfontein, on which I played thanks to the annual Police Rugby week that was held during the years I played rugby.
All the police rugby clubs from the different provinces in the South Africa would play in this big yearly tournament in Bloemfontein. From there, a National Police side was chosen each year to represent the Police.
As much as I enjoyed playing rugby, I had more injuries by playing rugby than I had in all my years of boxing. A serious shoulder injury playing rugby ended my days as a rugby player.