Joost van der Westhuizen during the rugby World Cup semifinal at Twickenham, England in 1999. The Springbok team of which he was part was called by many the greatest ever. Picture: AFP
Joost van der Westhuizen during the rugby World Cup semifinal at Twickenham, England in 1999. The Springbok team of which he was part was called by many the greatest ever. Picture: AFP

On Wednesday, I got stuck down a rabbit hole, falling there while researching the 1998 Tri Nations for an interview/shoot that was going to happen on Thursday morning. It was a last-minute thing. I was given a day. I didn’t need it, but I took it and loved it. 

When I’d come up for air, it felt like I had relived most of that romp of a series in real time. I certainly watched just about every minute of the Boks beating the All Blacks in Durban on August 15, a victory that seemed likely, then improbable, then produced a miraculous, manic 13 minutes of mayhem, hope and disbelief. 

It was such an incredible match, it could have been a fitting end to the 1998 Tri Nations, but there was one more match, Australia at Ellis Park a week later. Indeed, the Boks probably played their best rugby of the year in Joburg. Nick Mallett, the coach, certainly thought so. 

“It was an emphatic win,” Mallett said and Don McRae faithfully recorded in his book, Winter Colours.

“It’s the best we’ve played so far. And I can say now, on 22 August 1998, SA are the best team in the world. And, looking at the last 11 months, I would say they have to be the greatest-ever Springbok team. If you look at the record books I don’t think you will find a comparable achievement. We have beaten France away twice, England both overseas and here, and New Zealand and Australia both home and away. I don’t think we can give enough credit to Gary Teichmann. It’s staggering what he and this team have achieved.” 

Greatest ever? If they aren’t, they weren’t far off. I was sports editor of The Sunday Independent at the time, a position I had taken up just a few months before the Tri Nations started. I didn’t get to watch them play live, but I may have used those words a few times in headlines.

This was a team of giants. As for Teichmann, well, in the glare of Mallett’s praise, he was the calm captain, the eye in the storm. He had played the final few matches in some pain, having injured his neck against the All Blacks when they beat them in the last Test match at Athletic Park. He needed a pain-killing injection to play in Durban, and then again before the Joburg Test. He did not ask the doctor about the injury as he knew the medical staff would have told him not to play.

But, said Teichmann, there was no way he was going to miss that match. He was, sadly, fated to miss the 1999 Rugby World Cup the next year after Mallett dropped him, a decision Mallett has since admitted was a mistake and one he regrets.

Who knows what they could have done in the tournament had he had Teichmann to steady his players when the madness raged around them?. 

A year and some change later, I counted my pennies and headed north to watch the final four matches of the 1999 Rugby World Cup. Jannie de Beer had kicked seven types of nonsense out of England. I would have a Bok semifinal to watch, the first match of a double-header of very different rugby from the four best teams on the planet. Well, three and France.

The Springboks lost to Australia on the Saturday in the rain and wind, and afterwards we went harder on the Guinness than was necessary.

New Zealand-France was the next day. The train to Twickenham wasn’t as full as it had been the day before. Touts were selling tickets below face value.

New Zealand went all Durban 2018 on France for the first 46 minutes, controlling the match and leading 24-10. Then came the miracle. Christophe Dominici, who passed away last week at the age of just 48, had set up the opening try of the match, but his best moment was still to come.

France had kicked their way back to 24-22. They won turnover from a ruck in a way that might not stand muster today. A high chip over the top bounced just out of reach of Andrew Mehrtens. The ball bounced wickedly back to Dominici, who plucks it, slides through Mehrtens’ attempted tackle and away from a desperate chase by Taine Randell.

I was in the stand on the other side and saw the move being set up. Jeff Wilson, the full-back was at the bottom of the ruck the French won.

So, too, was Tana Umaga, the right wing. There was a hole in the defence. I pointed to the space. Dominici found it and the ball. It was, like 1998, one of the great moments of rugby, a rabbit hole day you want to dive into again and again.

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