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‘We just wanted to play’

Submitted by on Saturday, 22 November 2008No Comment
‘We just wanted to play’

Former Springbok Ray Mordt talks about playing for three different countries, rugby league, how his hell-raising days helped his game — and sleeping on squash courts on the controversial New Zealand tour.

As a youngster you had a reputation as a street fighter and a troublemaker. How true is that?

I was a bit naughty (laughs). I never took drugs, I never smoked and I never stole. But I was a bit boisterous. We used to get into a couple of scraps. (Laughs) I was banned from every night club in Salisbury. But I used to be a bit of a Robin Hood, I hated seeing somebody getting pummelled – so I would interfere. Although I suppose I can’t say I never looked for a fight. But we were all a bit, ‘macho-man’ at that time.

Did you ever lose any fights?

No – never really. I got hit – I came home with black eyes and the odd broken nose. In the end what happens is, you go out and everyone wants to challenge you, so it feeds on itself and you keep getting into more fights. In those days (70′s) there were a lot of army, RLI, (Rhodesian Light Infantry) guys around and I had long hair and they looked for me. But I never really got beaten (smiles). And then I went into the army and I was one of them.

Being fit and in shape is almost your trade mark. When you were playing school and club rugby in the then Rhodesia, how hard did you train?

You know I wasn’t a good scholar; I was always at the rugby fields kicking a ball. But I didn’t really know much about training, so I did a lot of kicking and stuff, but it wasn’t very scientific. Then I went to the army for two years, I never played rugby there and I put on a lot of weight. So when I finished with the army I started rugby again. I joined Police where after training with them for about three weeks they asked me to leave. Told me I wasn’t welcome because of my reputation as a troublemaker. It was a bit embarrassing so I left, even though I knew there were guys at that club who were worse villains than me.

Where did you go?

I was a bit lost, but for some reason I phoned Ian Robertson, (Springbok centre and full back 74′, 76′) and started training with him. He said to me, ‘You’ve got potential and lots of weaknesses. But I’ve had a lot of clowns like you with potential, who after two weeks I don’t see again. I can help you, but I can’t do it for you. I’ll show you how to better yourself – you have to make it happen.’ So we trained together and became good friends. I gave up the partying and scrapping. He became my mentor. As I said I wasn’t a great scholar, but now I had found something. So rugby stopped my naughtiness and I suppose that’s when I started to train properly.

Do you regret your miscreant years?

I’m not proud of what I did, but at the same time, I don’t regret it. It gave me a lot of confidence on the rugby field. I wasn’t scared of anyone, no matter what the size.

Apart from being, in Danie Craven’s words, ‘completely unstoppable’, you were quite quick; how fast were you?

I did the 100m in 10.59 sec. That was my best.

When you were at Transvaal you had a run in with the coach, Aapies du Toit and went to play for Northern Transvaal. What happened there?

You know on Sunday’s we would crap ourselves. We wouldn’t even accept invitations to braais or parties, because every Monday was murder time, when Aapies trained us. He used to make us run hills, and more hills, and 440′s, and run, run, run – I tell you it was murder time; but I used to drill them all. Then I played a game and things didn’t go well in the game and afterwards he basically accused me of not playing well – not trying. I think of all the things you can accuse me of – ‘not trying,’ is not one of them. So I left. He didn’t think I would go because all my mates were at Transvaal – Tito Lupini, Chris Rodgers, John Robbie, Ralph bekker. But I went (laughs).

To move forward to the ‘Demo’ tour of New Zealand in 1981; it was very controversial, it nearly split New Zealand and in some cases pitted family members against each other. How did you feel about it?

As a youngster, I was 23 yrs old at the time; I just wanted to play against the All Blacks. For a rugby player that was the, ‘real deal’. We were so excited to go. But it was something else. As an example I was supposed to play my first game in Hamilton. We were in the changing room and the ref kept asking us if we were ready, yet there was a delay. Eventually we heard that there was a guy who apparently had cancer and had threatened to commit suicide by flying his plane into the stadium. Also protesters had blockaded the ground with trucks and so on and in the end we never played the game.

That must have been disappointing?

It was, but you can’t believe the chaos that tour created in New Zealand. I think the majority wanted the tour, but as you said in your earlier question, it split families. And the policing and everything, we were well protected, cost the government an enormous amount of money. And the protesters were amzingly well organised. They would come and keep us awake at night by banging pots and pans outside the hotel – they would have shifts, like a bloody military operation. I didn’t understand the politics – we just wanted to play. In the bigger centres some of the hotels wouldn’t have us, so we slept on stretchers in squash courts. One squash court for the forwards and one for the backs (laughs). In fact at the 2nd test in Wellington, we slept at the stadium, so you literally ran from your bedside, onto the field for the game.

That must have been quite stressful?

I didn’t mind it – it brought the team pretty close to each other. But I suppose it wasn’t the ideal way to prepare before a test.

On that tour you became the first Springbok player to score three tries in a test? In fact you then scored three tries in your next test against the USA.

Yes. I actually almost scored three in the next test after that, against South America, but only made two. Although records were not what mattered; I was part of a team and I had a job to do, which I tried to do as best I could. The players around me made it; I just got the pat on the back. That team (’81) was a great side – we never lost a provincial game on that tour of New Zealand. I think it is still rated as one of the best sides to leave our shores and if circumstances had been normal, who knows how well we could have done?

Did you make friends with any of the All Blacks?

It wasn’t a very sociable tour. We used to play the tests and move on. Also I was young and very quiet and never mixed much. But the people I met I really liked. They are very similar to us. They are down to earth and they are humble and I love their arrogance in rugby. I like it. And they are arrogant – they say, ‘We are the best’. You know to be a great player you have to have inner arrogance. You don’t have to be a big deal around town, you have to be humble – but not when you get on the field, there you have to be arrogant. Don’t talk it – do it! That was one of the things I liked about our 2007 World Cup side – a fantastic bunch of boys, because they were all so humble; a real credit to the management.

You played rugby for three countries.

Yes I played for Rhodesia, Rhodesia-Zimbabwe and South Africa (laughs).

And then you went and played rugby league for Wigan?

Well I’d given my life to rugby and I had nothing to show for it. I never had any assets – I never had a house, or anything. And I was offered huge money, £100,000 to go and play Rugby League. So Rob Louw and I went – but when we got over there – it wasn’t all kosher. In the end I had to get us ‘sold’; we got £65,000 for three years – big difference! But I needed to do something about my life. I had my first daughter and life without money was getting difficult.

What was the rugby like?

It was very different, although I really enjoyed it. The defence and the tackling were tough – there were more big hits. It’s very aggressive too. It was also quite hard because they had a Kiwi coach who didn’t like us, because we came from Rugby Union, so we struggled to get as many games as we should. In the end after about two years they released Rob because he got injured and so I asked if I could get released. They let me go as well and I came back here.

Having been a League player, how did you then get back into coaching rugby?

I had met Kitch Christie when I played for Harlequins and we became friends. When I got back he asked me if I was available to be his assistant coach. He then took the job as Springbok coach from Dr Louis Luyt, on condition that Doc Luyt could get me back in; because I was then a professional. It was all sorted out, although I wasn’t allowed to coach at the ’95 World Cup.

What was your relationship with Dr Luyt like?

You know I once had to go see him about a problem. So I went to his office and asked his secretary Susanne if I could see him. She said he was busy, but I said, ‘I need to see him.’ I was nervous – going to see Doc was like going to see the headmaster. Eventually she says you can go in. I went in and he was sitting there with a face like thunder. I was a bit flustered and very anxious and just blurted out, ‘What’s wrong – why you so uptight?’ and I started laughing nervously. At first he just scowled and then he also cracked up laughing with me. We discussed whatever we had to, and we went for lunch. So we got on great. I’m very fond of him – there were certain things I wished I had more backing in; but I left on good terms. Before I got a fax (laughs).

You’re still in remarkably good shape – what exercise or sport are you doing now?

I’ve got a cable machine at home which is like weights but it’s easier on your joints. So I do cross training, bench-press, shoulders arms and at other times, legs – that sort of thing. I do high reps and about four sets, but not exceptionally heavy. I do it about four or five times a week. I can’t run because of my knees. I also do a bit of static cycling – I don’t go on the road.

What do you do business wise?

You know I’m a fitter and turner? A tool and die maker – I have a trade. When I got back from playing rugby league, a friend came and told me about a small business that reconditioned hydraulic cylinders that was for sale. I got involved and now we have been going for about nineteen years.

If rugby didn’t exist, what sport could you have excelled at?

Maybe golf? I’m playing off an eight.

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