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The other side of the fence

Submitted by on Saturday, 6 December 2008No Comment
The other side of the fence

Former Bok hooker Owen Nkumane talks about his early fascination for the game, the pain of missing a Sharks final, and having to take criticism on the chin.

What were the early influences that got you into rugby?

When I was at prep school there was a big fence between the high school and the prep school; which the primary school boys weren’t allowed to go over. After soccer matches a bunch of us would be kicking a soccer ball and milling about and then, at about three o’clock, the first team rugby would start and there was this huge atmosphere. It was my first exposure to rugby and very exciting and also there was something about it being on the other side of the fence where I wasn’t allowed to go. So I decided that when I got to senior school that would be something I got involved in.

Where did you grow up?

In Soweto.

You were at St John’s College – how did that come about?

In the early eighties with the uprisings beginning, my parents wanted to keep us out of the troubles. So they started with my sister; they placed her in St Barnabas in Boksburg. Then through church – the priest’s kids would get bursaries to go to private schools – through one of those kids I got exposed to St John’s College. My parents had a look at a bunch of private schools like St Peters – but they didn’t have a high school; St David’s, Pridwin and eventually it ended up with me going to St John’s.

Private schools are expensive; it’s unusual your parents could afford it?

Well at first they could afford it and my brother and I were at St John’s. Then we hit hard times and my parents had to take my brother out; fortunately I managed to get a bursary to the high school, so I stayed on.

How did you feel going to a school like St John’s, where in many instances there are kids from enormously wealthy families, which must have been in stark contrast to your Soweto origins?

It wasn’t actually different. Everyone was quite private about their wealth. None of the kids were flash. You know the, ‘My dad drives a Porsche’, sort of thing? From some of my mates I believe that it was a bit different at other schools, but maybe, because in many cases it was ‘old’ money at St John’s, it was never pushed. So it wasn’t a problem in my life.

You are the only rugby Springbok the school has produced – how unusual is that?

(Laughs) Well of course it is – I suppose also because not only am I the only one – I’m black! I’m not sure if it explains it, but when I was there, even though we were quite good, we never used to beat the bigger more established ‘rugby schools’. Mind you they’ve produced a lot of bankers! Sometimes I think that’s the way I should have gone (laughs).

How did you end up playing hooker, one of the most demanding positions in rugby?

When I started rugby, I played prop. Strangely they wanted me to be a centre! But the backline boys always seemed to be in the choir (laughs) and I thought they were soft, so I opted for the forwards. The biggest influence in my rugby at that stage was a guy called Steve McFarland. In fact for various reasons he ended up coaching me for five years in a row. His cousin is the current Blue Bulls defence coach. After school I went to Wits and when I later came across Tito Lupini, he told me I should play hooker.

When you were playing for the Lions you were unexpectedly dropped before the Currie Cup final against The Sharks – how did you feel about that?

Yes that was in 1999 when they won it. I was dropped about two weeks before and I was devastated. It took me quite a long time to get over it. Of course I’m at peace with it now, but I remember it being very painful.

Do you think there was anything racial in it?

I don’t think so. I had personality problems with Laurie Mains the coach. When we started it was fine, but he started telling me I was lazy; and then the harder I tried, the more the doors shut. It was very frustrating. When I look back at that 1999 year, it would have been wonderful, but it just wasn’t to be. I remember the one time I was on the bench and the game was wrapped up and I had been promised a run, but nothing happened. So after the game I went to him and said why didn’t you play me and he said, ‘I’m sorry – I forgot.’

You were awarded your Springbok colours in a midweek game against Ireland, tell me about that.

Yes, I just played mid-week games – I never played in any tests. But let me tell you a bizarre thing about my trip. I was walking down the road in Lansdowne and a black guy stopped me and said, ‘Remember you aren’t just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it for all of us’. At first I just said, ‘Thanks” and walked on. But it hit me later on. There I was 23 years old, away from home, on the threshold of a dream and suddenly I’m doing it for ‘them’. He wasn’t even South African, he was a Nigerian or from one of the other African countries.

When you ran on for the game and you were suddenly a Springbok, how did you feel about it all?

I was young. If it happened to me now it would be a completely different story. Obviously I had achieved something, but I never played anything close to what I think I could have done. I was always wondering if I was doing the right thing; if I was running the right angles; if I should have done what I did; because I just knew I wasn’t looked upon as being as good as the next guy – that’s just the way it was.

Did you experience any overt racism in your rugby career?

Funny, right since schoolday I have never been called a name or been abused on the rugby field. I have also never been punched during a game. It’s actually fascinating that I can’t recall a single incident. But I can tell you a story off the field, which happened after a game I had played for the Lions against Northern Free State at RAU Stadium. There were these two kids chatting to each other and as I walked past the one says to the other, ‘Hey did you watch that bloody kaffir, he is HOT! He is brilliant!!’ (Laughs). I don’t think there  was anything malicious in it – just his upbringing -  a way of telling his mate that not only was I brilliant – I was also black (laughs). I think the other thing, at least as far as club rugby was concerned, I had played against large numbers of the guys in school soccer, school rugby, school cricket; competed against them in athletics etc., so we largely all knew each other.

Was it the same at the top level of the game; amongst the Springboks?

Well you instinctively knew who to talk to and who not to – but it wasn’t a race thing – more an age thing; a hierarchical set up. As a new boy you didn’t just walk in and take over. But if for example with everyone else around, you weren’t ‘familiar,’ with someone like James Small in the changing room; it didn’t continue when you left and were in the car park. There things would just be normal and James and I would chat like mates.

How strong were you compared to your opposing hookers?

I was alright. I also had a good technique because I had played prop, so I could scrum. There was one bloke who played hooker for The Bulls, Jannie Brooks who was tough and was a superb hooker and very strong – he could be a handful; but I was up there with all of them when it came to holding my own. I never really felt inadequate. You know through the Sport’s Institute, who had picked me up when I was quite young, I had always been given scientific programs and trained and worked out properly, so I was always in pretty good shape.

What are your views on keeping the Springbok logo?

You know when I got my colours; my late aunt said to me, ‘Do you realise what you have done – now that you have that, you can die.’ Meaning I had achieved the impossible. But it must stay – so many have given so much for it; if they do scrap it now they are just giving in. There is so much history and obviously I am now part of that history. No I think it should stay. I think Luke Watson (arch critic of retaining the logo), should just play – he is a good player – but I think he is going about this fight the wrong way.

Did you ever feel as if you were a ‘quota’ player?

I didn’t, because I had played for the Lions who didn’t have a quota system; I had come through the clubs and the age groups; I’d played for the emerging Springboks and smashed my opposition, so I didn’t feel as though I was a quota player at all. But I didn’t achieve what I could have, because I was so sensitive to what I was doing and how I was playing. Although I have no regrets about it, as I think maybe my job was to show it could be done; to open doors and to get things going. I also sometimes feel the same way about my commentating. Before I came along they never really had black guys calling rugby games. And even If I don’t do it as well as some people would like; I’m doing it.

Just as I asked you what the influences were that made you choose rugby; who influenced your commentating and media career?

Gerald de Kok has been fantastic to me. He eased me into the whole business and has helped me a great deal.

How do you deal with the negative criticism and sometime personal attacks that appear on blogs and in the press?

You can’t please everyone. My dad always says if your boss thinks you’ve done a good job; that’s what counts. The public always have an opinion. Although when you do well, no-one says anything (laughs). But it does get personal. There is very little constructive criticism out there. They don’t say, ‘I think you should have done this, or this’. It so often is just personal. If you made the same criticism against someone in another job, it would be downright rude. Luckily I have some very honest friends in the industry who say things like, ‘You’re mumbling again…’ that sort of thing; which helps in getting it right. But in the end it goes with the job and I just have to shake it off.

Your career was ended by injury, what happened?

I had a problem with my knee. So I took time off, but I came back too early and then it never came right.

How do you keep in shape now?

(Laughs) I’m back to dusting off the clothes in my cupboard that were too big. At the beginning of this year I was in pretty good shape and then I fell off the bus. So now it’s very roller coaster – I think I’ve picked up about 10kgs.

In your commentating how do you handle teams with complicated names?

When I called the game against Italy, I got an Italian friend to help me with the pronunciation and then I wrote all the names out phonetically. But sometimes you ask the manager how to pronounce a name and he does it one way; then you ask the player how he pronounces his own name, and he has another way; and then you talk to the coach and he says the player is wrong and it is something else – then you have a problem (laughs)!!

What is your biggest blunder on air?

During an outside broadcast, I was walking to interview some guys and I turned my mike off to cut the wind noise and then forgot to turn it on when I did the interviews. Even now, someone always says sarcastically, ‘Have you turned your mike on?’ (Laughs).

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