DM Hall Of Fame Inductee #2: André Joubert – The Rolls Royce Of Fullbacks

André Joubert – The Rolls Royce of Fullbacks

Back when I were a lad … there was this South African fullback who scored six tries in a tour match against Swansea. They called him ‘The Rolls Royce of Fullbacks’, and his name was André Joubert. 

Joubert made his international debut in a Springbok team that played against a World XV in August 1989 in Newlands, Capetown. That World XV played two internationals against the Boks – the second was in Ellis Park, Johannesburg – in celebration of the centenary of the South African Rugby Board; the tour was sanctioned by the IRB and sponsored by South African Breweries.

The touring squad contained ten Welshmen, eight Frenchmen, six Australians, four Englishmen, one Scot and one Irishman, but no New Zealanders. The All Blacks had toured as ‘Cavaliers’ in 1986 against the wishes of the NZRU, and had allegedly been paid well [All Blacks Get Paid Shocker!] but had lost their four test series, returning to the Land of the Long White Cloud in disgrace. Most of them were then axed for the so-called ‘Baby Blacks’ who went on to win the inaugural 1987 Rugby World Cup for New Zealand and would dominate the game in the late 1980s. That doesn’t really come into the story of Joubert’s career, but when it comes to the Springbok teams of the 1980s and 1990s, context is more important than mere results.

That 1989 game against the World XV broke the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977, a commonwealth initiative which stated that it was “[the] urgent duty of each of their Governments vigorously to combat the evil of apartheid by withholding any form of support for, and by taking every practical step to discourage contact or competition by their nationals with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa or from any other country where sports are organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin.”

Listen to Dr. Uli: ‘Obey the rules (everyone else)!’

They weren’t kidding around.

The Bok team in which Joubert debuted off the bench included such luminaries as ‘Nasty’ Naas Botha, future national coach Carel du Plessis, Dr. Uli Schmidt, the gargantuan tighthead Flippie van der Merwe – father of current Springbok lock Flip, and at 196cm [6’5”] and 18st 3lbs [115kgs] an absolute giant by the standards of the day – and current Irish forwards coach Gert Smal.

They hadn’t played a test match in almost three years, and there’s a huge amount of baggage that goes with such a gap in test rugby, even when seen purely from the point of view of selecting a team. The selection was as much a sign of gratitude or a vote of congratulations for the efforts of those big names of South African domestic rugby as it was a team based on form and sent out to beat a scratch touring outfit.

To put the game in context, the Boks played fewer than twenty-five matches in the 1980s; they totaled twenty three matches over the entire decade.

  • three tests on a tour of New Zealand in 1981 in a torrid political atmosphere;
  • two games against a touring England in 1984 which the RFU shamefully allowed to proceed;
  • the aforementioned four matches against the rebel New Zealand Cavaliers in 1986 that was led by an all-star group of manager Ian Kirkpatrick, coach Colin ‘Pinetree’ Meads and captains Andy Dalton and the late Jock Hobbs; and
  • those two 1989 tests against the World XV

We’ve Got The Currie Cup, They Don’t Know What They’re Missing

While the Spingboks were excluded from international sport, rugby remained as strong as ever within the republic. The Mole can remember watching tapes of the Currie Cup in the late eighties and early nineties, with huge stadia packed full of crowds and an incredible atmosphere generated over some very ordinary ten-man rugby played at altitude. There was a hysteria about it, an almost tangible belief amongst those crowds that everybody else was out of step, that the Currie Cup was the highest standard of rugby around, and that the All Blacks were only fake champions because the Boks weren’t invited to the World Cup.

The forwards were absolutely enormous, the props huge, red-necked and as fat as fools, and a tan-coloured ball flew for miles and miles in the thin air and bounced twice as high as any ball had ever bounced in the Five Nations. It was bright, wild and very foreign.

The Boks Are Back, Now Hand Over The World Cup

Their re-introduction to the test arena came in 1992 against the All Blacks as detailed by this comprehensive article by McLook, an article which is well worth a read. Surprisingly, Joubert wasn’t involved, despite having been nominated for South African Player of Year in 1991 – the second of his five nominations for that award [he was first nominated in 1989, and picked up three further nominations in 1994, 1995 and 1996]. You only have to look at the number of games winger James Small played between re-introduction and Joubert’s debut to realize that the Boks were trying to make up for lost time with the number of matches that they scheduled, but frustratingly Joubert found himself behind first Theo van Rensburgh and then Hugh Reece-Edwards [now assistant coach at the Natal Sharks] for the No15 jersey.

Reece-Edwards was something of an institution in Natal when Joubert joined in 1992 from Orange Free State. Joubert had been born in Natal but had moved to Bloemfontein to study, and played for OFS for a number of years before completing his degree in Free State University in 1991. His return should have set up a high stakes competition for the fullback jerseys of both the Banana Boys and the Boks, but a niggling groin injury kept him off the pitch for much of the season, and Reece-Edwards retained his place.

Having been an unused substitute in the second test against Australia in August 1993 [in which the hot-tempered Small was sent off], Joubert made his first start for the Boks in the third test against the Wallabies the next week, contributing to the returning Small’s try with a trademark glide into the line:

Even then Joubert wasn’t sure of his place. When the Boks toured Argentina in November 1993, Joubert was selected at fullback for the first test and bagged a try, but found himself on the bench for the second test behind Transvaal’s Gavin Johnson, who scored 22 points [a try, four conversions and three penalties] on debut. The Boks were trying out Henry Honiball at outhalf, and while the Sharks man was a great runner and devastating tackler, he wasn’t much of a goal-kicker. Joubert himself was a more than competent place-kicker, but Johnson had the well-earned mega-boot reputation. Throughout 1994, the Boks selectors were struggling to decide between Hennie le Roux and Joel Stransky at No10 – discarding Honiball entirely, while eventually plumping for Stransky and accommodating le Roux at No12 for the semi-final and final of RWC95 – which somewhat accounted for Joubert not being a locked-down starter at fullback, despite his obvious talent. Le Roux was a spotty kicker, and while he did contribute scores with the boot, very often he was second choice with the placed ball. At one stage, the Boks even dropped the popular James Small to accommodate Johnson on the right wing [against the All Blacks in August 1994] with the Transvaal man kicking them to an 18-18 draw in Eden Park.

SA Tour 1994

Whether it was that the touring Boks were on a charm offensive after years in the international wilderness [institutionalised racism can have a stultifying effect on your public perception, surprisingly] or that it was just a typical between-training-sessions space filler, an audience of Dublin schoolboys from a number of the traditional rugby-playing schools were given an impromptu half-day and corralled into Donnybrook to sit in the stands and watch some of the touring Boks take questions and show a few tips. The Mole was one of those kids. The Boks weren’t even playing against Ireland on the tour, but they felt the need to reach out and touch.

“Where’s Joubert?”

The big draw was Rudolph Straeuli, who would go on to be an incredibly unsuccessful coach of the Boks and commandant of Kamp Staaldraad. There were a few others there, but Straeuli is the one that stands out in my memory. At the time, he was the starting Springbok No8, and a more than decent player: big, rough, uncompromising, hard-hitting, made of the same sort of stock of which South African loose forwards have been made since they took up the game on the veldt. He was only in the saddle for a season and a half for the Boks, and lost his starting role at No8 during the World Cup knock-out stages when Natal’s big lock Mark Andrews was moved back to eighth man, but back in the Autumn of 1994 he was in his pomp, scoring tries in successive tests against Argentina, Scotland and Wales.

It started off fairly innocently. They’d given a short talk and asked if there were any questions, and somebody from down the Bective end asked if André Joubert was going to be there.

The question wasn’t without reason. Joubert had scored six tries and thirty-eight points in the Springboks’ 78-7 walloping of Welsh champions Swansea on Guy Fawkes’ Night the previous week, and looked so much better than everyone else on the pitch that it was pretty obvious that he was the most talented player in the world. He could do it all – he kicked points with precision, he was imperious in the air, he could counterattack, he hit the line like nobody in rugby and he had perfect hands. And he scored six f*cking tries in eighty minutes.

“No. André is not here,” Straueli answered in his thick Transvaal accent. [That translated as “Nao. Ondraey iz nut heeyah.”] Kids may lack life experience, but they know a humourless straightman when they see one. For f*ck’s sake, they’re in school most of the time – there’s nothing they know better! From then on, every time Straueli and his minions demonstrated a drill [“Und yuu putt the boll heeyahh, yah?”] and asked if there were any questions [“Uhh theyahh unny kusschons?] some wiseacre would stick his hand up: “Is André on his way?” Classic.

Kids Know Funny + Rudolf Straueli Is A Totally Humourless Afrikaans Rugby Player = Lifetime Memories.

Invictus Made Flesh And Dwelt Among Us

Pieter Hendriks skinned the aging Campo and darted in for the winning try in the first match of the tournament. The underdog hosts had beaten the reigning champions and favorites, and the tournament was wide open.

It was difficult to get a scope of RWC95 before it kicked off. The Boks had been reintroduced to world rugby in 1992, but far from dominating – as they had promised – they got smashed by whomever they met. However, hosting the World Cup put them in a different position.

Whatever the Boks did that tournament, it was dramatic. Even before the tournament, they were the top item in the news: it was announced that Chester Williams, the one black player in contention for a place in the starting lineup, was injured and wouldn’t be included in the squad. Out of left field, they then proceeded to knock over the World Champion Wallabies in the first game of the tournament, a team against whom they had lost three out of the four matches they had played since returning to international rugby. Highly-strung winger Pieter Hendricks rounded Aussie icon David Campese with a clenched fist for the winning try, and all of a sudden the Boks were motoring.

Joubert was spared the Romania game – fullback rival Johnson booting the Boks to a 21-8 victory over Tiberiu Brinza’s Mighty Oaks – but started at No15 in the next match, in which the Boks almost went off the road. The game against Canada at Port Elizabeth saw the outbreak of an enormous brawl, the so-called “Battle of Boet Erasmus”, that ended with three red cards [two for Canadians Gareth Rees and Rod Snow, and one for South African hooker James Dalton] and later saw Hendriks cited and expelled from the squad in disgrace … with Williams, now recovered from his hamstring injury, now invited to replace him. Yep, I’m sure that was a legit move. No, really.

The late Ruben Kruger breaks through the Canadian defense with Japie Mulder and Joubert in support. The Boks weren’t blowing away the so-called ‘minnows’ in the group stages, and the Canada match was a game in which the feisty northerners wouldn’t lie down for the hosts, sparking an all-in fist fight.

These three wins earned South Africa a quarter-final against Samoa in Ellis Park, and the newly restored Williams exploded out of the blocks with four tries in a 42-14 win. His opposite number on the day was ‘The Chiropractor’ Brian Lima, a player renowned for his hard-hitting tackling, which goes to show that the hype surrounding Williams wasn’t just some media ploy.

As significant as Williams’ try-scoring exploits was the injury that knocked Joubert out of the game. Joubert’s erstwhile competitor Gavin Johnson was played on the right wing ahead of the combustible James Small. He was largely selected for his place-kicking capabilities, which were of the first order. The rest of his game? Not so much. He stepped into the fullback role when Joubert left the pitch, promptly crumbling and reinforcing in coach Kitch Christie’s mind the belief that the injured Natal man was a vital component of the starting lineup if the Boks were to go on to win the tournament. Joubert relates the story of the injury in Albert Heenop’s Natal Sharks: Team of the 90s.

“We kicked through a grubber and I came running from the rearMike Umaga hit me with a stiff arm and I took the impact of it on my hand. Five minutes later in a tackle, I realised that something bad had happened inside my hand. I tried to play on, but simply couldn’t.

Naturally, I thought that my World Cup tournament was over and I was pretty emotional about it. But then Dr. Mark Ferguson started working on my hand. He inserted pins in it and I managed to play both the semi-final and final with a specially designed hand-brace.”

That “specially designed hand-brace” was actually an ashguard, a relatively new piece of hurling equipment that had started production in Ireland and had been suggested to the South African team doctors by a wide awake Irish ex-pat. It was a great little side story in Ireland, whose interest in the world cup had been ended at the quarter-final stage by France. A model was couriered to South Africa, where Joubert was spending every spare moment in a decompression chamber to aid recovery and, after trialing the glove in a range of situations, he decided he’d wear it in the semi-final against France if it meant that he could take the field.

The semi-final between France and South Africa in 1995 is as much remembered for the horrendous conditions it was played in as any of the rugby itself – it’s a pity, because it was an absolute belter of a game.

That match has gone done in history as much for the appalling weather in which it was played as for the exceptional levels of skill shown by players from both sides. The French had the grizzly pack – Califano, Merle, Roumat, Benazzi, Cecillon all present and correct – to go toe-to-toe with the enormous Bok forwards, but their electric backline of Saint-André, Lacroix, Sella, Ntamack and Sadourny was badly hampered by the slippy ball.

That’s not to say that the Springboks weren’t affected by the conditions either. They had proven try-scorers themselves in their back three of Joubert, the restored James Small and the high-flying Chester Williams, while Thierry Lacroix – not the spectacular backs outside him – had been the mastermind of the French quarter-final victory over Ireland, booting 26 points in their facile 36-12 win. Lacroix and Toulouse outhalf Christophe Deylaud bombed Joubert all night long in the Durban downpour, but Juba proved his fullback fundamentals were up to scratch with a nigh-fautless display under the high ball.

Lomu goes for the outside in the World Cup final with Joubert trying to close in on him. The All Blacks were the best team in the competition and would soon prove themselves to be the best team in the world, but the Boks took the trophy with a final performance of ferocious grit and determination.

In an epic, somewhat controversial  struggle, the Boks just about held out. The following day, the All Blacks turned in one of the most scintillating halves of test rugby in history to blow England off the park in forty minutes and claim the other final position.
That match was a hugely emotional occasion, with Nelson Mandela donning the Springbok jersey and a fired-up Bokke taking on as good an All Blacks side as anybody had yet seen. Everyone knows what happened next: the All Blacks were poisoned in their own hotel and the Boks were able to keep up with a weakened team who had shown throughout the tournament that they were the next best thing to untouchable. It’s not that the Boks didn’t show incredible strength of will during the match: they could only take the pitch and do their best against the team they were up against on the day. Jonah Lomu was still a monster, and still required a lot of taking down, and the Boks put their bodies on the line in a way that has been seldom equaled.
In the end, the nerveless Joel Stransky kicked a drop goal, Derek Bevan blew the whistle, Francois Pienaar collected the Webb Ellis Trophy and Nelson Mandela restored the soul of a nation. As tough as it was on the Kiwis, The Mole will take the history on offer. It’s a pretty good story.

Ups And Downs In 1996

On the back of his stellar performances in RWC95, Joubert went into 1996 as unquestionably the best fullback in the world. However, just around the corner was the most exciting broken-field runner the game has ever produced. Christian Cullen, ‘The Paekakariki Express’, scored three tries in his All Blacks debut against Samoa, and four more the next week against Scotland at barely 20 years old. Cullen was the two months short of being twelve years younger than Joubert, and while Juba was still mesmeric, Cullen was simply spectacular.

Juba takes a break in 1996. At 32 years old, he was at the peak of his powers … all the same, Chris Cullen’s incredible try-scoring abilities and broken field running changed the game, and made people look at fullback in a different light. Cullen was lightweight to the point of frail and had no kicking game whatsoever – but he was the most dangerous player in the world with ball in hand.

The balance of power that had shifted to the Boks in that unforgettable final in Ellis Park swung back towards New Zealand in August when Sean Fitzpatrick’s men took a small measure of revenge for their World Cup defeat, winning the All Blacks’ first ever series on South Africa soil.

The New Zealanders won the first two tests [Durban 23-19 and Pretoria 33-26] of a three test tour – and they did it without Jonah Lomu, and with first choice outhalf Andrew Mehrtens replaced by reserve Simon Culhane in the second and third tests due to injury. They had already done a clean sweep of the inaugural Tri-Nations tournament – incidentally, the last game of that competition had been a test against the Boks in Capetown the week before the series kicked off, which the All Blacks had won 29-18. South Africa had been conclusively knocked off their perch, and the 1996 All Blacks had established themselves as one of the greatest teams of all time.

Despite being eclipsed as the best fullback in the world by Cullen, Joubert’s form was still first rate in the autumn of his career, especially for a great Ian McIntosh-coached Sharks outfit. He scored an eye-popping 24 tries in 22 appearances for the Sharks in two competitions, splitting his tries evenly between the Currie Cup and the Super 12. The Sharks made it to the final of the latter competition, beating the Queensland Reds 43-25 in the semi-final in Ballymore before succumbing to a ferocious Auckland team 45-21 in Eden Park. Joubert scored tries in both games, but it was his performances in the Currie Cup that year – especially in attack – that sealed the deal for him: with the fifth nomination of his career, he was finally announced as SA Player of the Year after a flawless Man of the Match performance in the Currie Cup final.

The Lions 

By the time the Lions arrived in June 1997, Joubert was 33 years old, the grand old man of an increasingly young backline. Hennie le Roux was on the outs at just 30 years old, never to play again for the Boks after 1996, despite the fact that he had compiled 26 starts at both outhalf and centre in the thirty months between June 1993 and December 1996. Joel Stransky had taken his considerable talents to Leicester, compiling an enormous 455 points in just two seasons and running the show with all the confidence of a World Cup-winning outhalf. World Cup icon Chester Williams was out of the Boks squad by November 1995, and wouldn’t return for thirty months, only reappearing in June 1998.

After the Boks were surprised 16-25 in Newlands in the first test of the Lions series, there was hell to pay in the three-quarters, with three changes due to performance, injury or discipline. Out went James Small [mouth], Japie Mulder [shoulder] and Edrich Lubbe [dropped], to be replaced by a trio of novices for the crucial second test in Durban.

Matt Dawson has thrown his dummy and leaves Joubert in his dust. With so many changes in the backline from the team that had won the World Cup just two years ago, the two holdovers – Joubert and van der Westhuizen – were the men that Lions fan feared above all other South African backs. However, despite his second test try, Juba didn’t have a vintage series by his high standards.

23 year old Percy Montgomery debuted at No13, with Danie van Schalwyk [22] making his fifth international start one position inside him. On the right wing, Andre Snyman [23] was making his fifth start, while the rangy Pieter ‘Slaptjips’ Rossouw [25] made his debut on the left.

It might have been the inexperienced youngsters around him or it might have been his own advancing years, but Joubert wasn’t in peak form. He looked strangely bereft of confidence.

Neil Jenkins – Joubert’s opposite number in the Lions No15 jersey in the second test, and possibly the least athletic or inventive fullback the touring team has ever fielded in a test match – kicked fifteen points in the second test. While the Boks outscored the Lions three tries to one, they couldn’t kick snow off a rope, and in a long-awaited mirror image of the 1959 test match, the Lions’ goal-kicking outscored their opponents’ try-scoring prowess: back in the day, the New Zealand legend Don Clark had kicked six penalties to the Lions’ four tries to win the first test of the series 18-17. Now it was der Bokke who couldn’t kick their goals, and while Jenks built the score, Jerry Guscott closed the game out with a classic short-range drop goal.

Despite slipping in the traces against the Lions, Joubert’s last game for the Boks was a triumph. He was the fullback in the August test against Australia in Pretoria, when a fired-up home team absolutely plowed the visitors in Loftus Versveld, scoring eight tries and running out 61-22 winners.

Where’s This Fellow Go In The History Of Rugby? He Goes In The No15 Jersey.

Even with the blessing of Nelson Mandela and the backing of the Rainbow Nation, the Springboks were a difficult team to like in the mid-90s. Players like Joost van der Westhuizen and James Small were abrasive and arrogant, and their pack was stuffed with outsized bullies like Mark Andrews, Kobus Wiese and Marius Hurter who all too often went outside the laws of the game in their efforts to intimidate. There was no denying the abilities of players like Os du Randt or the late Ruben Kruger, but they were a brutal, grinding team with little humility.

Joubert was one of the exceptions, along with Joel Stransky, Chester Williams and Francois Pienaar. Pienaar said and did the right things as captain in a politically charged environment, Chester Williams proved that his selection was no public relations stunt – four tries in a quarter-final in his first game back, with the whole of the rugby world looking on! – and Stransky held his nerve in the final.

This might be The Mole’s bias, but Joubert seemed to exist above the furor of World Cup pressure and the media circus the surrounded it. While Pienaar and Williams were public figures during the tournament, Joubert was simply the most talented player in the team.

Classic Joubert in action against the Wallabies. In many ways Joubert fit neatly inside the expectations of what a fullback should be, unlike one-offs like Blanco and Cullen, who are always said to have ‘redefined the position’. Joubert didn’t redefine it, he was just absolutely brilliant at it.

He played clean, he did the basics brilliantly, he had verve and class. He and Jerry Guscott shared a similar trait which the Mole can’t recall seeing since: they rarely looked as if they were running hard. Nowadays, even Vincent Clerc looks a bit frenetic. The Canterbury Crusaders and New Zealand fullback Israel Dagg is the closest comparison in the current era; he’s certainly a wonderfully balanced runner, but all the same, sometimes he looks as though he’s trying things on the pitch that might not come off: Joubert just made things happen which looked inevitable once they did.

The South African would come into the three-quarter line at a glide in the classic position – between second centre and winger – ease down on the accelerator down and zoom away from the defense. It always looked like he had more gas to give it if he chose to do so. He was never straining for the line, or showing some running-back-esque burst of oomph … he just went through the gears like few players of the last thirty years. He was a swerver, not a stepper. It was never stop/start when he had the ball, always smooth.

The Mole would kill for some tape of his days in the Currie Cup in the late 1980s and early 1990s, be it for Orange Free State or Natal. If he had that sort of speed at 30 years old, he must have been simply astounding in his early 20s.

Juba’s prime fell in that era between when the old farts were celebrating their heroes like kings through endless volumes of vanity publishing and when professional rugby was about to take off, with all the television coverage that that entails. He’s neither heralded in clubhouse song, nor glorified on YouTube. That doesn’t stop him front being one of the finest players to ever don the bottle green. Take a knee boys, we’re in the presence of greatness.

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