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Making a big splash

There have been times when the weather has been too bad for rugby – even worse than it was in the Currie Cup match in Durban last Saturday.

The heavens opened in Durban and Kings Park, not a well drained ground apparently, was sodden. The players splashed and surfed about making their ardent best of it but they will testify to legs sorer than usual on Sunday. It was a day to remind us of that nearly fatal day in 1995.

It was the semifinal of the Rugby World Cup – South Africa vs France. It was even wetter on that June day than it was last Saturday. Several Zulu women were sent to try to sweep the water away – a curiosity to all but Durbanites it seemed.

The referee, Derek Bevan, was in midst of a tug-o'-war. On the one side Louis Luyt , who is a South African, was insisting that the game go ahead and on the other Marcel Martin of the IRB, who happens to be French, was insisting that the match be cancelled because the field was too dangerous.

If the match had been cancelled France would have won because of a better disciplinary record, thanks to the James Dalton sending off in Port Elizabeth and the Pieter Hendriks suspension. The match was postponed and eventually after an hour's delay Bevan gave the go-ahead.

The match was played, South Africa squeezed out a victory and went into the final. Having a watch to give away Luyt gave it to Bevan for allowing the match to go ahead, causing controversy.

In 1921 South Africa toured New Zealand for the first time for a three-match series. New Zealand won the first, South Africa the second, leaving the third a decider. Tokkie Scholtz, a Springbok on the tour, described the field as "a lake with the occasional patch of mud showing here and there like raisins in a poor man's Christmas pudding".

The match ended 0-0. The last Test in 1928 when the All Blacks toured South Africa for the first time was also played in ghastly weather – the notorious Umbrella Test at Newlands. But this time the All Blacks won – to draw the series two-all.

Do you remember the 1987 Currie Cup Final? In 1985 Northern Transvaal came to Newlands for a Lion Cup match. The rain pelted down and almost on his own Naas Botha saw that his side won that match 12-3.

In 1986 the first Test against the New Zealand Cavaliers was played in miserable, wet conditions at Newlands, and Naas Botha was the master of the field. It is ironic that Botha, a child of the dry north, was quite possibly the best wet-ball player South Africa has ever had. But then his concentration was absolute.

The 1987 Currie Cup Final was between Transvaal and Northern Transvaal at Ellis Park and the weather was nasty. There was heavy rain; there was also pelting hail. In that rain and hail Botha was again masterly. Apart from his immaculate handling his kicking was immaculate, and there were 67 000 spectators to see it, unlike the sprinkling at Kings Park last week.

The rain poured, the hail pelted, the wind blew and Northern Transvaal won. Hempas Rademeyer and Schalk Naudé scored tries for Transvaal. Northern Transvaal did not score any tries but Northern Transvaal won because in those ghastly conditions Naas Botha kicked four penalty goals and four dropped goals, three with the right foot and one with the left foot despite the best efforts of Charles Pieterse, Wahl Bartmann, John Robbie and Jannie Breedt to stop him.

There was a change of jerseys in a match on Saturday which has a remote connection to another bad-weather match. After 13 minutes in the first half, the referee stopped the match and the Free State Cheetahs clad in mostly white jerseys went off the field and changed into orange jerseys, thereby ending the colour clash with the Golden Lions who were clad in mostly white jerseys.

In 1957 Ireland played Wales in filthy weather at Cardiff Arms Park. Early in the second half, the referee, Jack Taylor of Scotland, stopped the game and suggested that Wales retreat to the change room as both sides were the colour of mud and indistinguishable.

But Taylor was censured for this and the IRB introduced a law forbidding players from leaving the field during a match. (Then at half-time players stayed on the field.) For three years Taylor did not get another international appointment. His next was in 1960 when the Springboks played Wales at Cardiff Arms Park.

On that day the wind blew a gale, the rain poured down and the River Taff, which bordered the ground, rose. The mud churned up above the grass and as in 1957 the players became indistinguishable and the field's lines became invisible..

South Africa played with the gale in the first half and led 3-0. After 15 minutes in the second half referee Jack Taylor stopped the game and asked the captains if they would like to abandon the game.

Terry Davies of Wales opted to carry on and, bless him a thousand times, Avril Malan of South Africa said his side would play on, though abandonment would have meant victory. South Africa held out to win 3-0 – thanks in great part to heroic Doug Hopwood who picked and carried into the Welsh over and over again. That night the Taff flooded the field.

It is the referee's task to decide whether or not a field is safe enough to be played on. David Bevan and Lourens van der Merwe decided that the Durban field was safe enough and so did Freek Burger in Johannesburg in 1987. But there was a case recently when the referee decided the field was not safe enough to play on – and he got an amount of flak for the decision.

Ireland went to Paris to France in one of those ridiculously late kick-offs in the midst of 72 hours of freezing weather. The referee examined the pitch the day before and found it safe enough. He examined it at 7 o'clock that night and said it was OK and then just before kick-off he found frozen patches and the match was postponed. 80 000 unhappy Frenchmen trudged home with yet another reason not to like the English!

There was a Test abandoned during the game because of the weather. In 1991 the USA Eagles were playing France in Colorado Springs, an area of high incident of lightning strikes with the highest incidence of death from lightning in the USA. A thunderstorm broke out and the lightning spectacularly hit the scoreboard. The referee, Albert Adams of Pretoria, stopped the game. The game was not resumed.

There have been other weather features that have affected matches.

In 2005, Italy played Fiji in Monza when the Stadio Brianteo was covered in snow. Tappe Henning refereed that one. Then there was the match in 2006 between Fiji and Italy in Suva when the temperature was 51 degrees Celsius and the players spent half-time taking cold showers.

In 2006 the Super 14 Final between the Crusaders and the Hurricanes was played in dense fog. Jonathan Kaplan was the referee. He allowed the match to go ahead. The Crusaders won.

In 1908 England played Wales in Bristol in dense fog. It was not possible to see the width of the field and, according to one player, players had to rely more on their ears than their eyes. They finished the match and only after some time realised that one of the players was missing. They found the Welsh fullback Bert Winfield still on the field, gazing into the fog, unaware that the game was over.

Oh, and there was the World Cup match in Port Elizabeth between South Africa and Canada which nearly did not happen because the lights failed. And we have had pitch invasions for political reasons and a flour bombardment in Auckland.

But back to Durban. There was that unique occasion in October 2010 when bees invaded the field just before kick-off when the Sharks and the Blue Bulls were already on the field for their Currie Cup semifinal. It took a massive effort to de-bee the field and play started three-quarters of a hour late. Three people were stung – Steven Sykes of the Sharks, a dancing girl and Marius Jonker, the referee.

Strange place Durban!

By Paul Dobson


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