Rugby World Cup: Skinstad's skills have Springbok tongues wagging

South Africa's unlikely hero has to revive the ailing champions in Rugby World Cup. By Gary Lemke
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The Independent Online
A FEW kilometres outside the centre of Cape Town, there is a sign at the side of the road. "Bobby crashed here," it reads, a legacy of the accident which very nearly derailed Bobby Skinstad's career in Rugby World Cup year.

Depending on who is telling the story, the circumstances surrounding the accident, which has made his knee the most talked-about in South Africa, range from (a) Skinstad being drunk at the wheel of his car, (b) been goaded into a sense of road rage by All Blacks Justin Marshall and Andrew Mehrtens, and (c) irresponsible speeding.

His version is that, following a Super 12 match between The Stormers and Canterbury on 18 April, his car skidded off in the wet and he ended up in hospital. Then again, the pin-up of this sports-loving nation has heard it all before. Good looks, fantastic talent and the object of desire of a generation of teenagers, "Bobbymania" has swept the country. So have the stories.

"My poor mum. I think I've got about four love children, I've developed Aids, I'm gay, I've had 10 fights in bars that I've never been to in my life, I've crashed cars. I've even crashed boats over the past few weeks. It's actually a joke, now I take everything with a pinch of salt," he says.

Skinstad is paying the price for being the antithesis of a South African rugby forward. They are supposed to be hard-nosed (bent-nosed too), cauliflower- eared, Afrikaans- speaking and not known for their eloquence.

The 23-year-old loose-forward, who is at the World Cup at the expense of the deposed captain Gary Teichmann, has learned to take things in that huge stride of his.

To the unbiased, the Test rookie - he has just 10 caps - Skinstad is regarded as the one player who can restore under-fire coach Nick Mallett's reputation. Having lost four of their last five Tests, the feeling is that the Springboks are going to be world champions for only another couple of weeks, as a cruel mixture of crippling injuries to key players and a string of puzzling selections have seen them slip down the ladder. The hammer is likely to come down hard on Mallett if the Webb Ellis Trophy is not among the luggage which returns to Johannesburg in November.

A pedigree player who has risen through all the national age-group ranks and who has also been one of South Africa's rare success stories in the Sevens, Skinstad's on-field strengths are his explosive speed off the mark, superb handling skills, anticipation and flair, but his detractors point to his penchant for the "fancy stuff", often being found in the back line when the play is spread wide.

Sponsors have quickly seized the moment, and the "Skinstad tongue" has become a major marketing tool. One jeweller had him stick it out, complete with diamond stud, while TV has used him prominently in the build-up to the World Cup, scoring a try and celebrating by hanging out that tongue.

Guinness have taken a different slant and signed him for their beer category sponsorship at Wales '99, while other endorsements mean that his annual salary (a comfortable R1.5m - about pounds 150,000) is well supplemented.

However, signs that he has become a little irritated by the publicity became clear at a recent Springbok farewell banquet. "C'mon, stick out your tongue for us while we take a photo," was met with a stern "no" and "I only do it when I play rugby."

Skinstad has, however, not managed to dodge publicity in the same manner in which he side-stepped both the Irish and Scots in memorable 50-metre bursts to the tryline during last year's tour of Britain, which saw the South Africans equal the world record streak of 17 consecutive Test wins before it was snapped by England.

Stories of his neighbours complaining of all-night parties at his Cape Town residence have been well documented on newspaper front pages, but those tales of revelry belong more in the basket of fiction than fact considering he has been locked up in a Springbok training camp for the past two months.

The World Cup presents the perfect opportunity for Skinstad to put all the off-field attention that has been his constant companion over the past season and show why he has been picked as the best No 8 in the land. His swallow dive when clinching the match-winning try against Australia in last year's Tri-Nations is still etched in the memory, but new ones are required over the next month.

In the past Mallett has used the explosive runner as an impact player, much in the same manner that Jonah Lomu is being used by New Zealand All Black coach John Hart. The idea was to bring Skinstad on when his fresh legs could turn a game around in moments. Matches that were being lost - the 1998 August Test against the Kiwis in Durban, when the Boks eventually triumphed 24-23 is the best example - were suddenly won.

However, the ambition grew stronger and with it the desire to play the full 80 minutes. He was always seen as the natural successor to Teichmann, but the circumstances in which Mallett decided that Wales '99 was the stage created a howl of protest.

Since making his Test debut as a replacement against England in 1997, Skinstad has become the best example of the all-round modern-day rugby professional. At 1.94m, he is a solid 104 kilos, but his 100 metre sprint would not be out of place on the track. Those hands of his make him a solid performer at the back of the lineout, his speed makes him a threat on both attack and defence and his size is deceptive. The world has been patiently waiting for Skinstad to show them the full range of his ability which has generated a cult-like following in South Africa.

Now, with Scotland lined up as opening match opponents in just a few days' time, that wait is over.