Pagel's place on pantheon assured

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The Independent Online

"Skrum. skrum, skrum." Ever since Philip Nel, Jan Lotz and the mighty Louw brothers brought the simplest of all tactical strategies to bear on their All Black foe in New Zealand more than 60 years ago, South African rugby has been defined by its heavy oxen, the best-in-show specimens of the front row.

There are more ski-jumpers in Saudi Arabia than weak scrummagers in Springbok country; from the high veldt to the Cape, the young bucks regard the set-piece as their natural habitat, an ultra-physical arena in which they can test each other's strength and spirit to the limit.

And in the court of the prop forward, the loose-head is king: Okey Geffin, Jaap Bekker, Piet du Toit, Johan Strauss, Os du Randt - the names trip off the Bokke tongue like those of the saints at High Mass. Traditionally, the first name on any South African team-sheet was, logically enough, the No 1. That may or may not remain the case in the inner selectorial sanctums of Ellis Park and Newlands, but this much is certain: when Mr John Steele of Franklin's Gardens, Northampton, sat down to pick his side for tomorrow afternoon's Heineken Cup semi-final with Llanelli, the words "Garry" and "Pagel" were at the forefront of his mind.

Pagel played only five times for the Springboks during a lengthy tour of coalface duty in his homeland and although he never finished on a losing side at Test level - he made four World Cup appearances in 1995, getting involved in the "Mandela final" as a replacement, and then helped secure a facesaving victory over New Zealand in Johannesburg a year later - he fell short of a place in the pantheon. In the East Midlands, though, he sits on God's right hand. "I think Garry is probably the best signing Northampton ever made," says Pat Lam, the celebrated club captain and no mean acquisition himself.

If Pagel's absence from last weekend's Premiership match at Leicester was costly from his club's perspective, it was also entirely reasonable. He had missed only one game all season - a 100-point cup romp against Nuneaton - and, at 33, had started and finished more matches than any of his clubmates.

"Bumps and bangs, that's all," he said this week, by way of explaining his non-appearance at Welford Road. "There were a few niggling little problems that needed sorting." Would terminal exhaustion have been one of them? "No, not at all. It's been a long run, longer than anything I experienced back home, I guess. But it's easier to bear when you're winning matches."

Of course, winning matches is the very thing Northampton stopped doing about a fortnight ago; they are far from the youngest outfit in the business - Lam, Allan Bateman and Tim Rodber are all on the Pagel side of 30, with Nick Beal, Don Mackinnon and Paul Grayson nudging the mark - and the relentless heat of battle on three tournament fronts has withered them. Yet their enviable mix of cool-headed professionalism and technical know-how, as personified by their 6ft 4in southern hemisphere cornerstone, remains potent in the extreme.

"When you get to the big games, you need to know that certain things will be accomplished, that certain jobs will be done without you even having to think about it," explains Lam, the Samoan warrior-prince, as he mulls over the Llanelli challenge. "With Garry, that's what I get: complete assurance.

"I can do my thing in the knowledge that his thing is guaranteed. When I first played against him in Super 12, I thought he was just another big South African. Now I know better: his contribution has been massive, no other word for it. Apart from the scrummaging and the big tackles he puts in, he is the iron in the side. I can't speak too highly of him."

Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape in 1966, just as Springbok rugby was recovering from a desperate beating from Wilson Whineray's All Blacks, Pagel propped from day one. "I think that's the South African way: once a prop, always a prop," he agrees. "In those days, propping meant scrummaging and only scrummaging. The game has changed over the last few seasons; there's more mobility in front-row play now, more ball handling and support work, and it's more enjoyable in many ways. But I was brought up to appreciate that if your set-piece is in trouble, so too is your whole team. For all the changes, you still can't escape that basic fact of rugby life."

Having played his early representative rugby with Eastern Province, where no man worthy of his gender ever takes a backward step, Pagel moved down the coast to the brighter lights of Cape Town and Western Province. He figured in the Currie Cup final in '95 and did enough to convince the late Kitch Christie to award him Springbok status in time for the World Cup. Had it not been for the startling emergence of Du Randt, less a prop than a freak of rugby nature, he might have enjoyed a long career at international level. As it was, his age quickly began to count against him.

"I started looking towards England while Andre Markgraaff was in charge of the national team, mainly because I could see that I played no part in his plans," recalls Pagel. "There were negotiations with Saracens, which looked very promising, and then Northampton came in for me. Ian McGeechan was coaching there and as he had just won the '97 series in South Africa with the Lions, the opportunity was too good to turn down.

"I told Western Province of my decision to leave, and because of that they left me out of their side for the Currie Cup final, which they won. It was a big disappointment. Then, just before I flew to England, Nick Mallett took over as Springbok coach. Maybe it could have been different for me under Nick, but I have no regrets about coming here."

Interestingly - and, indeed, encouragingly from the point of view of England's rugby development - Pagel detects strong similarities between Western Province, one of the powerhouses of the Springbok game, and Northampton, a traditional union stronghold but strictly parish pump when compared with the very superior set-up at Newlands.

"Sure, Western Province was on a different scale; they are big hitters in a pretty big league," he says. "But Northampton go about their rugby in a similarly professional way and, to be honest with you, life at Franklin's Gardens is not a million miles away from life back home. Not in the rugby sense, anyway.

"In the end, this game comes down to character and attitude, and we'll need all our character this weekend. There is something different about the Heineken Cup, which carries an exclusivity with it that no other northern hemisphere tournament matches, and we know we're in a position we may not find ourselves in again in a hurry. It could take the club five or six years to challenge like this a second time and for some of us, it's now or not at all.

"There's a lot of optimism and enthusiasm in the squad, despite the recent defeats. Certainly, we're not training like a side who are losing matches."

At the end of next season, Pagel will heave his foursquare frame out of the Saints front row and head off back to his farm in the Eastern Cape. "The time will be right," he said. "I want to be walking and working when I'm 40, not half crippled through hanging in too long. This business doesn't get any easier, that's for sure; the time I feel the improvement in Premiership rugby most is on a Sunday morning after a game."

This particular Sunday morning will be different, though. Pagel will be looking forward rather than back and his focus will be on the scarlet-shirted Llanelli front row. Come Monday, those Welshmen may well be feeling a whole lot worse than their thirtysomething opponent.