The amazing story of how an Irish Lions star ended up being hunted by Apartheid's most dangerous assassin
Published 29/06/2016 | 19:32
It has been 35 years since John Robbie came to South Africa, but it still gnaws away at him.
A skeleton in his closet, as he puts it. No matter how many years pass, and no matter how much success the radio host enjoys in his adopted country, he hasn't been able to forgive the circumstances with which he arrived in South Africa.
It goes by the name The Rainbow Nation now, but you could have coined a far less friendly moniker for the Apartheid era country that Robbie arrived in with the Irish rugby team back in 1981.
The scrum-half's decision to travel with Ireland to a segregated South Africa had massive ramifications for him - it cost Robbie his job with Guinness, for one.
While morally the tour might have been questionable, professionally it was a godsend for Robbie. He left a job he didn't have much passion for and eventually transitioned to the media - today he is one of South Africa's most prominent radio broadcasters, hosting a highly regarded morning show and regularly communicating with his 330,000 followers on Twitter.
Still, despite being credited with broadening the viewpoints of many white South Africans in the aftermath of Apartheid, Robbie still feels an everlasting strain of survivor's guilt.
"I say it now with some shame, we were totally wrong to tour," Robbie says of that 1981 trip with Ireland.
"You have to look back at the times. We were amateur players and we didn’t have any money. Touring South Africa was an incredible opportunity. You could justify it at the time and I suppose I did but if I’m really honest, I think deep down I knew it was something that I wouldn’t be very proud of. A lot of people tried to talk me out of it.
Robbie in the dressing room on the 1980 Lions Tour.
"I recently spoke at Trinity College at a 40th anniversary of the club winning the Leinster Senior Cup and I apologised to anyone who I had offended. I sort of feel like it is something that I have to get off my chest. Over here where I’m involved in current affairs and try to do what is right and fair at all times, I almost feel as if I have some skeleton in my closet. I’ve got it out of the closet and I will admit to anyone that it is the stupidest thing that I have ever done in my life.
"And yet, I have to honest, it was fantastic for my rugby and without it, I wouldn’t have had this incredible journey in South Africa. So I have very mixed emotions."
That is the dilemma that Robbie faces. On the one hand, touring South Africa during the racist Apartheid era was clearly wrong. On the other hand, it was the best decision he ever made, in a way.
Robbie exploded onto the scene as a star schoolboy rugby player in 1973, helping lead The High School to their only Leinster Schools Senior Cup trophy. After that, it was off to Trinity College where he studied natural science.
An Ireland call-up soon followed and amazingly, he was selected at scrum-half for the national team at age 20.
He won nine caps, but one crude statistic sticks out when he looks back on his time with Ireland.
"The fact that I played nine games for Ireland and I lost nine, which still must be a record," he says with a rueful laugh.
Robbie playing for the Lions against South Africa.
"I was some sort of bad luck charm. I get picked for my first cap out of the blue at age 20. I had played one inter-pro, and it was a strange Ireland team with some older players and some young ones. I made my debut on the same day as Ollie Campbell. I was 20 and he was 21. That was ridiculous when I look back on it. I was still scared playing club games and here I was playing for Ireland."
Robbie was in and out of the Irish team over the next number of years, but an injury saw him fly out to South Africa in 1980 - one year before his life-altering trip - to tour the country with the Lions.
The now 60-year-old looks back with pride that although he never won a game with Ireland, he never lost one with the Lions, winning all of his midweek fixtures and starting the final test, where the team also came out on top.
Robbie toured again with Ireland a year later and decided to stay on in South Africa thereafter to play rugby, representing Transvaal, and came very close to winning honours with the Springboks.
Ironically, a cancelled All Blacks tour was one of the occasions where Robbie was deprived of a cap, something which he now looks back on as a blessing in disguise.
"To play for the Springboks from a rugby perspective would have been so ridiculous, but in a way, I feel that what happened is almost penance," he said.
"There was talk that they may award Springbok caps to those who played in those downgraded tests and I thought to myself, in my mind, that if that should happen, I was going to politely decline to receive the cap. That would be my way for atoning for what I did. From a rugby perspective it would have been fabulous but in a funny way I’m glad it didn’t happen."
Towards the end of his career, Robbie did a bit of rugby punditry, a role that was a natural fit for the gregarious raconteur. After moving through the sports broadcasting ranks, Robbie was asked to fill in for a week on a late night phone in show on Talk Radio 702 in Johannesburg.
His forthright and confrontational style immediately won him huge amounts of listeners and as luck would have it, South African President FW de Klerk released the nation's political prisoners a week later - Nelson Mandela among them.
FW De Klerk's decision to release South Africa's political prisoners changed the country.
Suddenly, South Africans needed a place to air their views, and in Robbie, they had the perfect mediator - as an outsider, he was unafraid to challenge the biases of racist South Africans, something he thinks was crucial to his eventual success.
“Here is this loudmouth rugby player, who is white and Irish. He is different. He is liberal. He is progressive and he doesn’t take anything. That is the only way I could have been successful," he says.
"Could you imagine someone from say, Holland, coming to Ireland and becoming a radio host and telling people where to go and what to do? He would be chased out of the place and people would be very offended."
That one week stint was in 1990. 26 years later, Robbie is firmly entrenched as one of the most authoritative voices in South African media. It is easy to overlook now, but the radio host's choice of interviewees after the end of Apartheid caused a lot of controversy.
Former political prisoners, who had never been heard from in the media, were now getting airtime - and not everyone was happy.
Robbie remembers when he came face to face with Eugene De Kock, a notorious Apartheid assassin who the press dubbed 'Prime Evil'.
Eugene 'Prime Evil' De Kock
De Kock was sentenced to 212 years in prison for crimes against humanity in 1996, and when he was released on parole in 2015, Robbie was treated to a horrifying discovery.
"He sounded like a dreadful man but I went up to meet him in the tea room in Johannesburg and it was surreal being surrounded by prisoners," Robbie said.
"As I walked over to him to have a chat he started laughing, this terrible Apartheid killer. Then the guy who was with him said, ‘you’ve got to tell him’. He told me that in the 1990s, he was instructed to assassinate me. He was supposed to do it with a crossbow. I was supposed to be assassinated with a crossbow. He said he refused to do it because he didn’t kill people who had a different opinion, he killed people who were planting bombs."
Amazingly, after wrestling with the guilt surrounding his arrival in South Africa for over 30 years, it was learning of his crossbow-planned death that finally brought about some closure for the former Ireland international.
"Even though it was quite chilling to hear him describe how senior police came to him to try and have me killed, I found it cathartic," he says.
"Given the guilt I had over being a rugby player here, the fact that somehow they saw what I was doing on air and tried to have me assassinated, I wear that as a badge of honour."