06 November 2007

Faded memories

Tiny Naudé kicked the Springboks to a famous victory over the All Blacks in 1965 – but on the eve of his 70th birthday he can’t even remember his own name…

There he sits now, a fading hero from yesteryear, watching history in the making. This old giant, this fusion of beanstalk bones and muddy memories, gazes at the dark-haired youngster standing before him. His green jersey is coated in South Island sludge, and for a moment its weight threatens to sink his spirit.

The old hero takes one look at that youthful face, and for a moment everything becomes clear again. He looks at that black field, and remembers the cold taste of its murky turf. He stares at that sopping, shapeless ball in the chiselled forward’s hands, and knows once again how much the wetness weighed.

Sporting immortality
The young man, just seconds from sporting immortality, stares off into the chilly haze above the Christchurch crowd, up past the bald hills behind Lancaster Park, then looks down at his new pair of soaked black boots. And, in that moment, frozen by misty breath and icy blood, the old man knows what is about to happen – not because he has a vision of the future, but because he gets a flash from the past. He remembers!

The fragments untangle slowly at first: his long limbs like spaghetti after countless scrums … John Gainsford’s gallop for glory … his old friend Gert Brynard levelling the scores at 16-16 … Colin Meads conceding a penalty at the death … the kick that changed everything…

The TV screen is a time machine that takes the old man back.

Great comeback
When the Springboks lost to the New Zealand in Wellington earlier this year in their Tri-Nations match, few remembered that it had been more than 40 years since Tiny Naudé scaled the one summit John Smit and his modern-day heroes must still climb: beating the All Blacks in their own backyard. The Western Province lock kicked a penalty with three minutes to go to give the Boks a 19-16 victory in the third Test of the 1965 series. It was one of the great comebacks.

Veteran Kiwi commentator, Keith Quinn, summed up Naudé’s heroics when he said: “In those days, 16-5 was a great lead because tries were worth only three points. But in the second half, through John Gainsford and that great goal-kicking lock Tiny Naudé, the Springboks slowly came back. It came down to a penalty late in the game. We all thought that Naudé would never get it, but he lifted the ball out of the mud and sent it through the posts…”

Fans who think the Springboks were battling under Jake White earlier this season would do well to remember 1965. The record reads: played eight, lost seven. To really put things into perspective, South Africa lost only 14 of their 49 Tests played between 1960 and the beginning of 1970. Half of those losses came in 1965.

Pivotal role
Tiny Naudé will always be remembered for his match-winning kick against the All Blacks, but it was not the first or the last time the six-foot five-inch lock would play a pivotal role in a Springbok victory. He played 14 Tests between 1963 and 1968, and on at least three occasions saved his side’s bacon. Tiny was a man for the big occasion.

Jacobus Pieter Naudé made his debut in 1963 in the fourth Test against Australia in Port Elizabeth. The Boks, after prevailing in the first match, found themselves having to win to save the series, after losing consecutive Tests for the first time since 1891. Tiny’s response? A try and a 45-metre penalty and South Africa shared the series.

After the glory of September 4, 1965, in which he single-handedly ended the Boks’ longest-ever losing streak of seven matches, Tiny returned in 1967 for a four-Test series against France. Once again it was backs-to-the-wall stuff. South Africa had lost eight of their last nine Tests, and hadn’t beaten the Tricolores since 1952. Amazingly, since Naudé’s debut four years earlier, the Springboks had won just one match – thanks to that kick.

Naudé contributed to a 2-1 series win with three of his trademark long-range penalties in the second and third Tests. The British Lions toured in 1968 for another four-Test series, and Tiny was once again instrumental in setting the tone of a 3-0 Bok victory when he scored a try in the home side’s 25-20 win in the first encounter.

Fell in love
He scored a total of 47 points in Tests, made up of two tries, four conversions and 11 penalties – not bad for a player whom Dr Danie Craven said would never have played for South Africa had he not moved to Cape Town from the then Transvaal. Tiny fell in love with the Cape while on a rugby tour. “I was working on the mines, and our team, Randfontein, played against Maties and some other sides,” Naudé told me in 2003.

“After I returned to the Transvaal, I decided to get long leave and returned to the Cape. I settled in Sea Point, joined Hamiltons, and never returned!” It was at Hammies where he would not only gain Western Province and Springbok colours, but also meet his wife, Miems. “My mate Piet Botha and I were there one night in 1962 at the club social,” he explained, “and there I saw this sexy girl!” The two hit it off immediately. On the field, Tiny represented the junior Boks in 1963 and after a strong performance for Western Province against the Wallabies, made his international debut.

Singled out
Naudé singled out two players as the best he’d shared a field with: Colin Meads, and the one player who would never forget him: Frik du Preez. “You can’t really make a comparison between today’s players and those of my day, because all the rules have changed so much,” he said to me. “Take the lineouts, for example. Back then, you weren’t allowed to lift a guy in the lineout. But if I can think of one player from my era that could be compared to today’s greats, then it would have to be Meads. But a person must just accept that the eras were different.

“Frik, on the other hand, wasn’t a very big man, but he was very athletic. He could jump up to a man’s waist, whereas when I jumped my feet hardly left the ground!”

Condition deteriorated
These days, Tiny and Miems Naudé still live in the Somerset West area, in the house they built more than 30 years ago. Tiny, who turns 70 on November 2, has Alzheimer’s, and in the three years since we first met, his condition has deteriorated to such an extent that he now spends his weekdays at a day-care centre in the Strand. “It just gives me time for myself because I have to do so much more for him these days,” Miems says quietly. “He’s going a little more backwards each day but this house is where he’s lived for so long and he’s at ease here. He no longer recognises me as his wife, only as Miems.”

The things Tiny couldn’t remember when I first visited seem insignificant now. Of his Test debut, there remained just “a flash”, while he couldn’t recall why he was dropped for the second Test of that 1965 series. Today he no longer recognises his own children.

Of his heroic feats Tiny remembers almost nothing. Once, when everything threatened to get a little hazy, there was always that kick, that moment of truth “a lifetime ago”, as he described it, which refused to drain from his memory bank. Now, it’s all blank.

Old friend
On a grey and drizzly Saturday in August last year, as his blond-haired son threw himself against an All Black wall on the dark side of the world, Schalk Burger senior and Frik du Preez decided to look up an old friend.

“Even my children were saying that it had been a long time since they’d seen their father smile,” Miems remembers of the unexpected visit. “When Frik was here, Tiny was even laughing! It was amazing, Tiny’s reaction to him. He just has this connection with Frik. Tiny doesn’t remember the other players. He doesn’t even remember his own name. But he remembers Frik.”

Tiny Naudé’s gift from the sporting gods was a sopping ball wrapped in Christchurch clay, a piece of leather heavy with the weight of history. His feat, now erased from his memory, is preserved on a videotape his grandson simply labelled “Oupa se skop”.

No doubt
Despite his illness, I still like to believe that Tiny sometimes remembers. But can he really? Burger has no doubt. “Tiny’s in a bad way but when Frik arrived, it was amazing – it was as if, all of a sudden, he could remember everything again,” he told me.

Tiny spent most of that day holding tight his most prized possession: a gift from Du Preez, his autobiography Frik. He wasn’t much interested in the text but couldn’t keep his eyes off the man on the cover. And every time he looked up and saw his great comrade – once his brother-in-arm in the Springbok second row – something stirred behind those eyes. After all, how can the memories of your greatest day not sink deep enough to leave at least a fragment of a footprint? “Look,” says Tiny Naudé, his eyes fixed on his friend. “It’s you, Frik! It’s you!”

- Duane Heath is Senior Writer at Rugby World magazine.

- Reproduced with permission from SA Rugby.

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(021) 421 0077 / 78

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