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Please, rather call me John

Submitted by on Saturday, 6 September 2008No Comment
Please, rather call me John

Ex-international rugby player and 702 talk show host John Robbie spills the beans on being a British Lions player, loving husband, proud father of two lawyers, and the pain of being dumped as M-Net’s rugby commentator.

You played rugby for schools, clubs, two universities (Dublin/ Cambridge), Ireland, the British Lions and were on the bench for the Springboks. Which gave you the greatest pleasure and are you most proud of?

I had great fun with all of them and look back with huge pleasure. But I still can’t believe I played for the British Lions. Recently they brought out the definitive history of the Lions and there is my name and picture alongside some of the greatest players in the game. It’s almost like looking at somebody else. So that’s something I am immensely proud of. Also being one of the players of the year in 1987 – that was great!

In that 1980 tour you played in the last test against the Springboks at Loftus, which the Lions won 17 – 13. What are your memories of that match?

First of all how desperate we were to win. We had narrowly lost each test and were 3 – 0 in the series and badly wanted to win the last test. I remember defending like mad and the immense relief at winning. Secondly, when the final whistle blew I had the ball in my hands, so luckily I got it as a souvenir.

In your biography ‘Game of my Life’, you mention that you fouled Errol Tobias and you have never forgotten it. What did you do?

Naas (Botha) had been off playing Gridiron in the States, had come back and we were playing Springbok trials in Stellenbosch – Errol was competing against Naas for the fly half position. Anyway, Errol was moving in support of somebody and if he got the ball would have run through to score; but I held him back. He turned around and could have swiped me one, which he didn’t; but the look of contempt he gave – made me feel terrible. In any rugby career much worse things have been done, I’m sure, but I’ve never forgotten that.

With regard to dirty play, how different is the game today compared to when you played?

The game is so clean. By all means it’s a very hard game, but it is very clean compared to when I played. And the amazing thing is that when we played, they always talked about the previous generation, who they said were dirtier than us (laughs). When I look back at some of the tests, particularly in the seventies in SA, like the All Blacks or France against the Springboks, I say thank God I didn’t play in those games (laughs).

And now the players are paid?

Yes, I played in the amateur era. I think the South Africans were semi-professionals even in my amateur era (smiles). But in Ireland as a British Lions player and an Irish International, I still had to pay my subs for the club and had to buy my own kit. When I started playing for Ireland, we got two jerseys at the start of a season and had to buy other international jerseys if we wanted to swop them – crazy!

What got you into the game in the first place?

I had a Welsh grandfather who I adored and he loved rugby, so I used to go watch with him. That was it. And then it became all I ever thought about and all I ever wanted to do. I look back at university where, because of my passion for rugby, I never went to extra-curricular events at all. I think it was Winston Churchill, who said, ‘the love of learning came to me late…’ It was the same for me. But you can’t change things…

During your time in International rugby, what was the most unusual incident you remember?

It was when Tony Ward forgot his boots! It was the third test, British Lions against the Springboks in Port Elizabeth and he and I were reserves. The rain was pouring down and we were late because there was almost a gale and floods. In the dressing room he realised he had forgotten his boots. Tony has these tiny feet, so no-one else’s boots fitted him. Anyway, as we took our seats we could see Ollie Campbell down with blood pouring out of his head. Noel Murphy (the coach) turned and said, ‘Quick Tony, warm up you’re on… ‘. At which Tony looked at me as though it was my fault and said, ‘Now what do I do?’ I replied, ‘Now you pray!’ (Laughs). Fortunately somehow Ollie got up. To this day I don’t think Noel Murphy knows that Tony didn’t have his boots and that his goal-kicking, reserve fly half in a series decider – we were two down with two tests left – about to go on, was sitting looking down at stockinged feet… (laughs).

Today the conditioning of players is very important; much more so than in your time?

Yes the game is amazingly professional now and the biggest thing is the weights and the conditioning. I really wish I had gone through that, because then I would have been able to take a tackle more and been a much better player. My problem was I could never get really involved, because I would have been killed. As a result I tended to stay back a lot. I could tackle, that wasn’t a problem, but I couldn’t take too many tackles. Nowadays even the little guys are so conditioned; it’s just second nature to get involved.

The laws have changed a lot since your era and I’m not referring to the new experimental laws – how do you feel about those changes?

I think they have tinkered with the laws far too often. The game is still wonderful and I think that professionalism as well as the ball being changed from the old leather ball, which got slippery when wet, has made it much better. Actually, when you pick up a ball these days you can’t imagine anyone dropping it; except I suppose now a guy is tackling you around the chest and someone around the ankles at the same time (laughs). But I’m mixed about it. Maybe it’s because I’m used to a game that was quite stop start; in between set pieces you got these moments of unbelievable magic that you remember decades later. But now the game flows from end to end, until they don’t know what to do, so they hoof the ball up in the air. Maybe it’s just an old fogey talking, but I don’t know any other sport that has been tinkered with as much as rugby.

Would you consider coaching?

I would love to coach; but I simply just don’t have the time. But if I became a coach, looking at the people who are involved in it, I would go to Murray Mexted’s academy (International Rugby Academy of New Zealand), and do a coaching course there.

Do you think all aspects of the game are covered now, or are there still things you older guys could teach today’s players?

I think without doubt, there are still some areas where players of my generation could teach them something…

…like what?

I read your interview with Murray Mexted last week – he is a great mate. Seriously, in one game with Murray I learnt more about back row/ half-back play, than I did in my whole career. We were playing in the Raikes Memorial game at Wits and before the game I had a three minute chat to Murray. As a result I went through more gaps that day than I ever did before. He taught me the timing between scrum-half and number eight and even in the test match yesterday (SA 53 – Aus 8), I could see they got it wrong at times. And it is so simple. I also remember Danie Gerber, one of the greatest players I ever came across, explaining how he beat defences from set pieces. Also, so simple. So yes, if I was a coach I would get them to give master classes to my players.

You played in the Naas Botha era and he was famous for his drop kicks, but it appears you weren’t too bad either?

As a scrum-half I dropped 23 goals in 83 games for Transvaal, including three in one game against Eastern Province. I used to say to Rob Louw (WP/ Springbok flank), ‘Watch the drop; it’s coming…’and he used to say, ‘But John you’re so slow these days…’ (laughs). I got a few.

You were the rugby commentator on MNET and then you weren’t. What happened?

Ooh, that’s a touchy subject. I was MNET’s first full-time rugby commentator. Then a week before Bill McLaren came out to co-commentate on a test match, I was ditched. I was spun all this rubbish about my personality being too strong, etc. But years later I learnt it was because of my 702 show, which the powers that be didn’t like. I was so angry and apart from anything, I needed the money. I am convinced that’s what gave me M.E.

What is M.E?

In my case I started to feel generally dreadful and flu-y all the time; then I found I couldn’t hold a thought easily. Once just before the first elections, I was interviewing Jay Naidoo on air and I suddenly found to my horror I couldn’t remember his name. I thought I had a brain tumour, so I went for tests and they discovered I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or M.E.

How did you cure it?

The most amazing thing was that most doctors didn’t know how to treat it. It’s a long story, but I met a doctor Cecile Jadin, who had a way of treating it. Although I’m still not completely clear; it is much, much better.

You’ve got a great job on the radio; but what, if anything annoys you about it?

The worst thing is people think you have an agenda. There is no agenda other than to run a good radio show. But you say one thing some people disagree with and they pigeonhole you. You are suddenly an ANC-supporting-communist, or a neo-liberal-colonialist or a racist… Also, any issue that makes people feel uncomfortable in South Africa funnels down and becomes a racial one. But most issues are not about race and that is the saddest thing. Maybe that’s one of the biggest challenges in the country; changing that view so people are dealt with simply on merit.

What is your hang-up about been called Robbie by callers to 702?

When people called me Robbie it used to annoy me, because my name is John Robbie, so I used to correct them.  But then I decided to move on from it. But now if I don’t correct them I get emails saying, ‘why didn’t you correct him, because on this date you corrected so-and-so, from such and such political party/ background/ colour…’ (laughs). You can’t win.

What is the biggest mistake you’ve made on radio?

It was calling the Minister of Health by her first name. It was the first time she had been picked up in public about the madness surrounding HIV/Aids.  But when I had what undoubtedly was one of the most important interviews I could get, a politician on the spot regarding the insane policies that had cost hundreds and thousands of people’s lives and quality of life; the mistake was, by unknowingly or maybe arrogantly calling her by her first name, I gave her an out. She was able to use that as a red herring – she was therefore able to duck the real issue.

Did you pioneer talk radio in this country?

I’d like to think my show was the first to deal with the real issues of the day.

If rugby didn’t exist, which sport would you have done well at?

Soccer – I’m still waiting for a call from Sir Alex… (laughs).

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