There’s a rather well-used joke that goes like this:
Q: “How do you know if someone was in Grey College?”
A: “He tells you.”
This is as much of a back-handed compliment as you’re likely to get as it says two things: One, Grey College is not just any school. And, two, people are proud to be associated with their alma mater. And who wouldn’t?
Because how else would a province like the Free State continue to punch above its weight in rugby? Well, I actually want to talk about Free State rugby too, but it’s impossible to separate Free State rugby from Grey College. To do so would be like trying to separate Oxbridge from rowing. Or buggery, for that matter.
Johan Goosen is the latest precocious talent from Grey.
Both my father in-law and brother in-law went to Grey. And ja, I must admit, I’m a bit jealous about the fact that I didn’t go there myself. Instead, I matriculated at Hoërskool Diamantveld in nearby Kimberley. Our only claims to rugby fame are Flippie van der Merwe Sr, Wessel Lightfoot and Luther Bakkes. And the Protea cricketers Rudolph Steyn and Boeta Dippenaar. Not bad. But not quite Grey, hey?
I mean, they count Morné du Plessis and Kepler Wessels amongst their alumni. Then there’s Ruben Kruger, Naka Drotské, Ollie le Roux, Pieter Müller, Helgard Müller, Coenie Oosthuizen, CJ van der Linde, Ruan Pienaar, Wian du Preez, Richardt Straus, Adriaan Strauss, Jannie and Bismarck du Plessis, Frans Steyn, Tiaan Liebenberg, Flippie van der Merwe Jnr, Deon Stegmann and the prodigiously talented Johan Goosen.
Frans Steyn, doc Jannie Doep, Flippie van der Merwe and CJ van der Linde are just a few Old Grey Boks.
When you look at the classic Free State style of play, it’s characterized by one thing: Running rugby. Yes, they’ve had De Wet Ras, but outside of him there were legends like Gysie Pienaar. Now, if you’ve seen Grey College rugby, you’ve essentially seen the template of Free State rugby.
There’s also a deep irony here. Well, that is if you buy the horse shit arguments put forward by certain commentators that Afrikaner rugby is dour, conservative and devoid of expression. That it lacks a certain, hmm, je ne sais coeur. Show me a province more rural Afrikaans that the Free State. And yet, this is where the most expressive running rugby in South Africa has been played for decades. Fact.
It’s when they leave for greener pastures, most notably to the Sharks across the Drakensberg, that that electrifying brand of attacking rugby is coached out of them.
I am not aware of any song or poem written to celebrate Bloemfontein. The most notable geographical feature is the rather humble Naval Hill, to the southeast of the city centre. Then there’s the Sanlam Flats and the mirror-like municipal building. Oh, there’s the CR Swart building with its 22 floors and revolving restaurant! And its very own “Waterfront”. Sad, eh? Well, all is not lost, because the chicks there are hot. Very. Fucking. Hot. In fact, I married one. People also tend to be generous and easy to make acquaintance with. None of that cliquey kak you find in the Cape or the machismo-meets-paranoia of Gauteng.
You take a careful look at Free State rugby and you realise that they only have three major clubs to choose from: Old Greys, Collegians and Free State University. Compare that to the many clubs in the Western Cape. Granted, some of them are more social projects to keep skollies off the street, but the player base is just decidedly huge compared to that of Free State. In some ways this counts in Free State’s favour as they aren’t paralyzed by the different factions as is the case with Western Province rugby’s eternal Mexican standoff between historically Afrikaans clubs, coloured clubs and the English clubs of the Mother City’s southern Suburbs.
Free State, therefore, is a bit of an anachronism in modern sport. Almost like the Green Bay Packers they keep on surprising friends and foe alike with their achievements – achievements that happen despite their geographical isolation and lack of resources.
I guess that’s why they’re close to being most SA rugby lovers’ second-favourite team: They can never beat the big boys consistently, but watching them try brings a tear to the eyes of all lovers of sporting passion and raw talent.
So next time someone tells you he went to Grey College, be a man and admit that he’s got reason to be just a little windgat. You won’t be a lesser man for it. Just a realist.
I was going to end this blog on this really deep and pensive note. But then I though nah, what the heck. Let me tell you about two other famous Old Grey boys… Steve Hofmeyr and Hansie “the devil made me do it!” Cronje.
Ja, we all have our blind spots, don’t we?
This isn’t just any school ground. This is Grey College. A field of dreams.