Sean Fitzpatrick on rugby

Sean Fitzpatrick is a former All Black

Sean Fitzpatrick: Nothing better than touring South Africa

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You ask any All Black who toured South Africa in 1996 and I'm pretty sure they would cite it as their greatest memory as an All Black. Photo / Getty Images
You ask any All Black who toured South Africa in 1996 and I'm pretty sure they would cite it as their greatest memory as an All Black. Photo / Getty Images

My response to the Springboks pulling out of Sanzar is - don't do it.

The All Blacks and the Springboks need each other, perhaps more than either would like to admit. In my view, it's still the best rivalry in world rugby. I have magical memories from my youth of sitting in front of the TV with my family in the dead of night, tingling with excitement at the prospect of watching the All Blacks take on the auld enemy.

My heroes the All Blacks, playing South Africa on the TV in the wee small hours of the morning - pure rugby heaven for a young lad.

Playing the Boks has always been the ultimate challenge for any All Black and that remains the case. Playing them in New Zealand is a tough proposition, but fronting up in South Africa is another level altogether.

It's probably one of the most intimidating challenges in world rugby. To beat the South Africans, you have to do it off the pitch, as well as on it.

From the moment you step into their country, they're on your back. Groups of kids, solitary old men, middle-aged women having lunch, gangs of beer-laden Bokkie farmers - wherever you are, everyone you meet has a dislike for you and wants to share it with you.

I have so many memories from my playing days of people coming up to me and saying, "Fitzpatrick, I want to take you outside and scrum you into the ground", or "Fitzpatrick you're going to eat some humble pie come Saturday". It was almost as if it was personal.

I remember wandering out of the ground in Durban after a post-match dinner where we'd won and mixing with fans who were having their own after-match beers. This great big Bokkie started growling at me, a big lad, all hairy and pot-belly, and he looked very capable of doing what he was threatening - to teach me a lesson, to knock my block off. He expended a good deal of energy telling me how much he hated me.

However, despite his fairly agricultural welcome, I stuck around. We traded insults and then I chewed the fat with him and his mates about the game. I left a little later with (I hope) at least his grudging respect that I didn't scuttle off at the first sign of trouble. Even in the car park, I couldn't back down against the South Africans. And to his credit, neither could he when he saw a Kiwi.

You ask any All Black who toured South Africa in 1996 and I'm pretty sure they would cite it as their greatest memory as an All Black. Sure, winning the series helped, but there was so much more than that.

The intensity on and off the field was both draining and exhilarating. The single-minded focus and burning desire of the entire group to be the first team to win on South African soil was a joy to be a part of.

When we walked off Loftus Versfeld having won the series, the satisfaction that we'd beaten our greatest rivals in their own back yard was immense. For the dirt-trackers to perform the haka for us as we walked off the field was fantastic.

For the late great Don Clarke to come up to me in the tunnel and hug me and say (crying) "thank you for achieving what so many generations of All Blacks have been trying to do for years" was emotional dynamite.

I count those minutes as among the most rewarding in my entire international career.

Is the Sanzar structure the best for all parties? I am not going to answer that but I do know that one of the game's greatest traditions was the South Africa-New Zealand tour in either country.

How do we get this to work in the current structure? In the modern rugby world of sleek, highly-managed itineraries and the over-arching commercial imperative of dollar returns, I really don't know.

As a fan, I would dearly love it. Fans and players love it - a rugby phenomenon that allows the touring team to engage with more people, in more places, and with more depth, than in any other form of the game.

A tour to South Africa? That is the best of the best. They don't like us, we don't like them, so let the man blow the whistle and let's get down to business.

It may sound small-minded to some but these are the things we need to treasure for the sake of our game. Enmities, rivalries are to be valued and cherished.

Enmities that run as deep as the one between South Africa and New Zealand are rare. They are the medium through which both countries' pride and identity can be expressed to each other and the world, and they are worth preserving.

In the fast moving tides of international rugby, we need to be careful that we don't end up high and dry, stranded on the sanitised sandbanks of quick-fire, one-off internationals; while we hanker back to the good, old days of All Black-South Africa tours and touring - where folklore is created and legends are born.

- Herald on Sunday

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