Rugby Union: Swanepoel the rookie scuba-diving 'nuggett with attitude'

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The Independent Online
Six months ago, the very thought of life without Joost van der Westhuizen was enough to send Springbok supporters in search of psychiatric counselling. Suddenly, Werner Swanepoel materialised to calm the nerves of a nation.

Werner who? Chris Hewett sheds some light on the unknown Bokke scrum- half, who replaces the irreplaceable at Twickenham tomorrow.

This will sound heretical enough to uneducated English ears, so it is easy to imagine the kerfuffle it is likely to cause down Pretoria way. Still, in for a penny, in for a krugerrand. Joost van der Westhuizen does not - repeat, not - possess the longest, fastest, most accurate scrum- half's pass in South African rugby. You want proof? Ask the Springboks themselves, any of them. Well, with one obvious exception.

Actually, make that two exceptions. Van der Westhuizen, the brooding but undeniably brilliant Blue Bull of Bokke legend, is not the sort to give best to anyone, least of all an understudy with little or no reputation outside the boundaries of the green and gold republic. But then, you are equally unlikely to catch Werner Swanepoel spouting forth on the subject. He talks about everything else, does Swanepoel, but he gives this particular issue a wide berth.

"We all know about Joost's ability, which is phenomenal," says the 24- year-old scuba- diving Free Stater. "At the start of the season, my aim was simply to secure my place on the Springbok bench. For me, that was enough to worry about. Now that I am in the side, people say to me: `Ah, you must play like Joost, get your game up to Joost's level.' It's no use my sitting back and saying: `I can't do that.' I will try to take the opportunity that I now have, but to follow Joost is to ask a great deal of myself."

The real story comes from the coaches, players, journalists and rank and file supporters attached to this formidable and, in the light of last summer's humbling defeat by the Lions and the subsequent management upheavals, remarkably happy Springbok camp.

"He doesn't possess the absolute killer break that Van der Westhuizen offers, but he's not far short of Joost when he goes for a gap and, yes, he has the better service," says Louis de Villiers, an acute observer of the South African scene.

By common consent, Swanepoel eased a splitting selection headache for the South African top table by performing with striking maturity in last week's 52-10 victory over the French in Paris.

Much to the chagrin of the Bokke hordes, particularly those from Northern Transvaal, Van der Westhuizen had been invalided out of the tour a week previously, so Swanepoel, capped as a replacement but never as first choice, was given his head. He began by fielding a loose French kick and sending Percy Montgomery away for a try inside 50 seconds and with his forwards shelling out quality possession against a dispirited band of self-destructing Tricolores, he revelled in the occasion.

"The difficult stuff was over by half-time because the pack had taken charge and were giving me the ball on a plate," says Swanepoel. "At the start, the atmosphere at the Parc des Princes was quite something and it really meant something to me to be out there for the anthems, but the crowd went still after a while. All I needed to do was stay focused on my tasks. My teammates made it easy for me."

Modestly, Swanepoel paints a self-portrait of a rookie who knows his place in the great Springbok scheme of things. "The coaches tell me to play it as I see it, but when you're positioned between your captain, Gary Teichmann, at No 8 and a great stand-off like Henry Honiball, you tend to let others call the shots," he insists.

But according to another fast-arriving Springbok high-flier, the Western Province flanker Bobby Skinstad, young Werner is no shrinking violet. "He's a forward's nightmare," he says. "He just doesn't shut up. He's a nugget with attitude." An Afrikaans version of Austin Healey, then? The mind boggles.

Swanepoel was born in Bloemfontein and educated at Grey College, the great sporting nursery that boasts Morne du Plessis and Kepler Wessels among its more distinguished old boys. He won caps at under-21 and under- 23 before touring Britain and Ireland with a powerful South Africa A squad last year.

Come the late spring, he was on the Bokke bench and it was from there that he observed the miseries of the Lions series. Indeed, he won his first cap in the final Test, replacing van der Westhuizen as the clock ticked down on a "dead" match at Ellis Park.

A generally unsuccessful Tri-Nations cost Carel du Plessis his job as coach but his successor, Nick Mallett, was quick to make his own investment in Swanepoel's future. "I've known Nick for a month and I've been deeply impressed by him as a rugby thinker," says the scrum-half. "We're getting along just fine.

"What we are doing on this trip is reasserting our own standards; South African rugby has a culture of winning and we need to rediscover that culture after the disappointments of the Lions tour and the Tri-Nations. Quite simply, it is important to win every Test we play, both to ourselves as players and to the nation as a whole.

"I believe we are now playing with greater flexibility. You talk of Plan A and Plan B but we go up to Plan Z now; there is a different game plan for every game. And my own game? Well, it is for the English to discover what strengths I may have."

And off he goes, a happy-go-lucky smile etched across his dark, high- veldt features. "Tell me, will they be singing `Chariots of Fire' at Twickenham?" he asks, blissfully unaware of his error. If it proves to be the only mistake Werner Swanepoel makes this weekend, England may need more than a few choruses of "Swing Low" to see them through.

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