Rugby Union: The quiet war of Gary Teichmann

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The Independent Online
WHEN GARY TEICHMANN leads out his apparently unbeatable Springboks for this afternoon's historic encounter with England at Twickenham, he will do so in the disconcerting knowledge that a small but influential band of South African malcontents consider him unworthy of his place in his country's back row. There must be something wonderfully Pythonesque going on here. "What has Teichmann ever done for the Boks?" you imagine them asking. "Apart from dragging them out of the mire, clean-sweeping the Tri-Nations, winning 17 Tests on the bounce, rewriting the record books and establishing them as the best team in the world, he's done absolutely nothing."

Nick Mallett, who launched his still unblemished Springbok coaching career 15 months ago by persuading Teichmann against depositing his green jersey in the nearest dustbin, can scarcely credit the whispering campaign against his main man in the South African press. "Let me tell you something about Gary," he says, his dark eyes smouldering with righteous indignation. "What we've achieved over the last year or so has more to do with him than anyone else in the whole set-up. He is not the sort of guy who stands up and sounds off at the top of his voice, but in a team full of particularly strong characters, he is the one everyone respects. First name on the team sheet? Definitely."

One of Mallett's senior professionals makes the point more graphically: "He's won 17 from 17, for heaven's sake. What do these bloody people want? Twenty from 17?" Considering the captain's unconventional background - as a Zimbabwean who barely laid a hand on a rugby ball until the ripe old age of 14, Teichmann is to all intents and purposes an outsider - the support of his colleagues, Afrikaner and English-speaker alike, is more than touching. It is overwhelming.

If his No 8 play, usually so cultured and creative, has not quite hit the heights on this tour, there are extenuating circumstances. Dozens of them, in fact. Teichmann has not only played 37 successive Tests for his country but has not missed a Currie Cup or Super 12 match with Natal since God knows when. "I could probably have done with a rest at some point over the last 18 months or so, but with Natal playing so well in the big tournaments there just hasn't been an opportunity," he said this week. "Still, there's nothing wrong with me that a couple of weeks in the Transkei won't put right."

Teichmann is acutely aware of, and has been wounded by, the criticism aimed at him in recent weeks, some of which concerns his personal form and some of which is rooted in the theory that Bobby Skinstad, the most dynamic loose forward to knock the rugby globe off its axis since Michael Jones screeched on to the scene more than a decade ago, is an even better No 8 than he is an open-side flanker. The captain will be 32 next month. If he claims an 18th consecutive Test victory this afternoon and establishes a record unlikely ever to be challenged, let alone broken, would it not be a reasonable time to call it quits and take up a prone position on Durban's North Beach?

"I want to play in a World Cup," he says, simply. "It's a perfectly attainable target and besides, I'm enjoying myself."

Which is a very different mindset to the one he found himself inhabiting during the summer of last year, following a series defeat by the Lions and a painful 55-point humiliation at the hands, or rather the studs, of the All Blacks. The Springboks were in pieces, riven by internal division and paralysed by uncertainty. "We were terribly low," admits Teichmann, "and I was not alone in wondering whether it was worthwhile carrying on.

"It was not a happy side by any stretch of the imagination and, as captain, I felt all that negativity very deeply. We'd had so much chopping and changing that we no longer knew what we were doing when it came to the major games. Several senior players were sceptical about committing themselves to the tour of Europe and I was among them.

"I spoke to Mark Andrews [the Natal and Springbok second row who, like Teichmann, has been an ever-present throughout this record-equalling run of victories] and discovered he was thinking along exactly the same lines. As things stood, he didn't want it any more. Had Nick not been appointed and had he not acted so quickly to pull everything back together, a number of us would not be here now."

No one, least of all the captain, underestimates the scale of Mallett's influence; Teichmann describes him as "an up-front guy, a superb coach and an intelligent communicator". But a rugby intellectual in a tracksuit can only do so much. When a side finds itself crumbling under the Wallaby hammer in Perth or being driven towards the edge of the abyss by a rampant collection of inspired All Blacks, it takes a special individual to lead his charges to salvation. Like Francois Pienaar before him, Teichmann delivers at the big moments.

"Captaincy wasn't something I'd even thought about, let alone strived for," he says. "I kind of fell into it with Natal and when Francois picked up his bad injury against the All Blacks back in '96, the management turned to me as someone with leadership experience at provincial level. There was never any question of my attempting to emulate Francois; even had I wanted to copy his style, I couldn't have done so. I just wasn't made of the same stuff and anyway, I didn't think I could carry it off alone.

"What I did - what I still do - was consult the senior Boks at every opportunity: Mark, Joost van der Westhuizen, Henry Honiball. I've had constant support and reassurance from those guys, especially when we've been up against it. When the All Blacks went 23-5 up against us in Durban during the Tri-Nations, I wondered whether it was even possible to score 19 unanswered points in the space of 40 minutes. But as we ran back onto the pitch I heard one of the players repeat the same words over and over again: `We don't panic, we don't panic, we don't panic.' He was right, we didn't panic. And we won the game by a point. I knew then that we had something special going for us."

Certainly, there was no sign of Bokke panic at Wembley last month, even though Wales had the tourists by their Rainbow Nation jockstraps for 70 of the 80 minutes. "That was all down to confidence, to pure belief," Teichmann explains. "Wales were bloody good that day, right on top of their game, but we scored tries at important times and our discipline towards the end was of a very high standard. But, hey, this trip has been so much harder than last year's. On the one hand, our opponents have improved. On the other, the pressure on us has grown as we've closed in on the Grand Slam and this damned record.

"I'm just pleased we won in Dublin to make it 17 in succession; it would have been very hard on morale to have slipped up one short of the All Blacks' figure. Now we have that one in the bag, we can go out at Twickenham and throw everything at England. It will be a tough game, definitely, but I can't think of a better way to finish a long, long season."

SWEET 17: THE WINNING STREAKS OF THE TEST RECORD-BREAKERS

SOUTH AFRICA

1997

Australia Pretoria 61-22

Italy Bologna 62-31

France Lyon 36-32

France Paris 52-10

England Twickenham 29-11

Scotland Murrayfield 68-10

1998

Ireland Bloemfontein 37-13

Ireland Pretoria 33-0

Wales Pretoria 96-13

England Cape Town 18-0

Australia Perth 14-13

New Zealand Wellington 13-3

New Zealand Durban 24-23

Australia Johannesburg 29-15

Wales Wembley 28-20

Scotland Murrayfield 35-10

Ireland Lansdowne Road 27-13

NEW ZEALAND

1965

South Africa Auckland 20-3

1966

Lions Dunedin 20-3

Lions Wellington 16-12

Lions Christchurch 19-6

Lions Auckland 24-11

1967

Australia Wellington 29-9

England Twickenham 23-11

Wales Cardiff Arms Park 13-6

France Paris 21-15

Scotland Murrayfield 14-3

1968

Australia Sydney 27-11

Australia Brisbane 19-18

France Christchurch 12-9

France Wellington 9-3

France Auckland 19-12

1969

Wales Christchurch 19-0

Wales Auckland 33-12

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