THE South African rugby team’s training base this week during the Dublin leg of their Northern hemisphere tour has been at Blackrock College Rugby Football Club’s Stradbrook grounds.
Although you don’t have to be a Blackrock College past pupil to be a member of the club, it is closely affiliated with the school.
Unlike many a previous Irish Test match, Blackrock College will not be providing any alumni to the side to face the Springboks on Saturday. The most conspicuous absentee being the injured Brian O’Driscoll.
It would be a proud occasion for a school to provide one player to a test rugby team but what if that school provided five to the match day 22 on one side and then also provided a starter to the opposition?
That is the exact situation for Bloemfontein’s Grey College. Not only can the school situated in the Free State province, boast scrumhalf Ruan Pienaar, tight head prop Jannie du Plessis, hooker and vice-captain Adriaan Strauss as starters, former Leinster prop CJ van der Linde and lock Flip van der Merwe on the bench, then there is the matter of Richardt Strauss, who will be making his first appearance for his adopted homeland as hooker.
To make this school reunion of sorts, even more interesting is that it will be a family affair also, for the Leinster star as he competes against his cousin Adriaan, both of course filling the same position.
In all reality, Grey boy’tjie - as Grey old boys of a sporty disposition are known in Afrikaans slang - could have had an even greater presence at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday if had not been for injuries. There were eight former Grey College students in the match day 22 that battered the Australians at Loftus Versfeld in Pretoria during the Rugby Championship in September.
Five of that group were starters including exciting young out half talent Johan Goosen and Frans Steyn at centre. Both miss this tour due to injury. Replacements that day, hooker Tiaan Liebenberg and prop Coenie Oosthuizen are also on the Boks’ injury list.
Add to this already impressive roll call, yet another great hooker Bismarck du Plessis, again currently among the Springbok wounded.
Of the six Grey boy’tjie taking to the field this weekend, five are forwards, the Free State whose Super 15 franchise is the Cheetahs, has historically been seen to produce bruising stars of the Springboks pack, while regions such as the Western Cape are more famed for pacey backs.
This image of the Free State could be compared with the traditional image of Munster. However, with Simon Zebo and Keith Earls starting for Ireland at fullback and outside centre respectively, this perception is changing.
Munster’s forwards pack is currently hosting a further product of Grey College in the form of Wian du Preez. It could be said that the school is something of a conveyor belt of rugby talent with the players “made” on the institution’s playing fields.
The next stop for many a Grey old boy with rugby aspirations is to play for the Free State Cheetahs at Currie Cup level and then on to the Cheetahs Super 15 squad.
However, many opt to leave Bloemfontein for various reasons to play with other South African franchises such as the Durban based Sharks receiving both du Plessis brothers. Before journeying north to Ulster, Pienaar also had a stint at the Sharks.
Ireland it would seem is proving to be a popular destination for Grey boy’tjie with Linde and of course Richardt Strauss. A precursor to both was Ollie le Roux, yet another front row forged at Grey College who was part of the squad that won the Celtic League in 2008 after 54 Springbok test caps.
Much of the talk from an Irish perspective at the Springboks team announcement yesterday centred on scrum half Pienaar. The 28 year old shares his position with another graduate of Grey College but of another era and whose courage became far more recognised in legal and political arenas than the playing field.
Bram Fischer may have played for the Free State against the All Blacks in 1928 but his enduring legacy will be that of a brave anti-apartheid activist, who as a barrister represented Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial that led to Mandela’s incarceration. Fischer educated at Grey College, coming from a privileged Afrikaner background he sacrificed a lofty position in apartheid South African society for the sake of equality in his country.
Fischer died of cancer in custody in 1975 after almost a decade in jail due to his anti-apartheid campaigning and as an active member of the Communist Party.
Fischer’s legacy adds another dimension to the achievements of past students of his school.
A much more frivolous aspect of Grey’s heritage is the existence of a secret handshake, used between students past and present of the school to identify themselves to each other. This tradition developed in the 1920’s and is still a symbol of Grey pride.
It would be interesting to see if Strauss greets his five fellow - and now opposing Grey boy’tjie - with that special handshake after Saturday’s encounter . . .