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Eddie Andrews: 'We've seen players commit suicide... I was fortunate'

By Liam Heagney
Eddie Andrews (front left) packs down with John Smit and Lawrence Sephaka at Springboks training in 2006 (Photo by Touchline/Getty Images)

A very different narrative existed 20 years ago when Ireland last embarked on a two-Test series tour to South Africa. Both countries had been whipped at the quarter-final stage of the previous October’s Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in Australia, the Irish getting chewed up and spat out by the French in Melbourne while the vulnerable Springboks were easy-beats for the All Blacks in the same city the previous night.

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Two decades later, the rivalry has never been as salty. South Africa are the reigning back-to-back World Cup champions, but their route to the trophy lift last October in Paris was dented by the Irish beating them in a pool match five weeks earlier.

It’s safe to say we’re in for a treat with what is on the horizon in Pretoria and Durban in the coming weekends. “The reality is it’s war,” reckoned Eddie Andrews, the former Springboks tighthead when speaking with RugbyPass. “Whenever you play a Test match it’s war.

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“Both countries are passionate. We have seen how amazing Ireland’s form has been for the last couple of seasons. The World Cup was the exception where they came up short (against New Zealand in the quarter-finals) and South Africa were victorious.

“It’s amazing to have these two teams play against each other; for Ireland to claw back that loss at the World Cup and demonstrate why they have been playing well and also for South Africa to say, ‘Hold on, this is another opportunity to cement our winning ethos, to play to our strengths and to get one over Ireland on the incoming tour’.

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“It won’t be easy. We know there is lots of banter between (Andy) Farrell and Rassie (Erasmus) but it’s just the nature of the game. Rassie is amazing, someone who is so passionate with his time, dedication and commitment. He is really good for South African rugby and to have him in charge, there is continuity. The players respect and trust and they play for him. That is what you see on the field, what you saw against Wales this past weekend.”

Next Saturday at Loftus, of course, won’t be Ireland’s first outing in South Africa in 20 years. They also visited in 2016, but that tour was a lumpy three-Test affair contested by two average teams coming off the back of disappointing England 2015 World Cup campaigns.

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What took place in 2004 is the reference point for this particular interview as that two-game series heralded the arrival of Andrews on the Test scene at the age of 27, eight years after he belatedly began playing rugby for the first time at the age of 19. The Cape Flats, the area where Andrews grew up, was poverty-stricken. Serious social problems included a high rate of unemployment and gang activity, but rugby eventually offered Andrews his route out.

To this day he remembers the pride he felt in his second cap versus Ireland at Newlands, where so many people from his area turned up to celebrate his breakthrough. The Stormers tighthead was cruelly signed off on 23 Test appearances, however, missing out on the immortality that would have been winning the 2007 World Cup in France.

He was in Jake White’s team that July but spinal stenosis, complicated by a recurring back injury, resulted in his retirement. So crocked was he that when an emergency call came from France asking if he had recovered enough to take over from the injured BJ Botha, he was forced to say no.

Coping was tough. “I stayed away; the most difficult thing to have done was to watch the final. I was injured before the tournament and when BJ Botha got injured, I got the call to fly up but I was still not fully recovered. So it was a double whammy for me at that stage knowing you could have been there but you know you could not. You wear your thick hat and you just support the team, but very painful to watch it knowing you could have been there.”

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Thankfully, missing out didn’t define Andrews’ life post-rugby. “We know that for rugby players to transition from playing to life after rugby is not the easiest thing to do. We have seen players commit suicide, there is mental health issues, but I was privileged and fortunate that I had a healthy support structure.

“It was just shifting focus and acknowledging you are no longer able to play the game and you should shift focus now, what does life after rugby look like and how do I reposition myself and you take steps towards achieving those outcomes.”

Eddie Andrews Cape Town
Eddie Andrews wore his Love Cape Town shirt with pride last week when promoting the World Rugby U20 Championship 

He took great solace that he beat the system in being capped by the Springboks. “Coming from a community where I come from and being able to achieve that relative success, that’s the platform I was given. I didn’t come through the traditional ranks of top schools, I come from schools that didn’t have rugby as their code and to be able to start my rugby career at the age of 19 was a testament to the support structure and the ambition at the time.

“The school in the Cape Flats, there were no opportunities there. It was soccer and hockey and tennis, so you never had the opportunity and also access to resources was the second problem, another difficulty you had to face. Having access to things like a gym, having money to pay for a gym and have a safe space to go and train. Those were the challenges you had to face at the time and one of the reasons when I made my debut at the time why I was overwhelmed with emotion was reflecting on the journey and realising the opportunity was now here.

“When we returned to Cape Town the following week (after debuting versus Ireland in Bloemfontein) we played the second game at Newlands and just to see all the supporters there. Not just general support but people from my community. I remember a friend of mine saying to me, ‘You shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it’s not just your own success but it’s who you represent, it’s your family, it’s your community – use that platform to communicate a very simple message that you can achieve success irrespective of your circumstances’.”

What were Andrews’ circumstances? “Born in the Cape Flats,  a community riddled with social ills… dad was a bricklayer, mum a butcher and sport was not part of our family DNA. It was just being in the right community of individuals supporting you along to prepare myself and eventually become a professional player.”

The reason RugbyPass bumped into Andrews the other day was he is now Cape Town deputy mayor following a 13-year political career and he was at the Hamilton RFC in the shadows of DHL Stadium to welcome the World Rugby U20 Championship to Cape Town.

He never envisaged doing what he does. It just materialised by chance but he quickly realised it is easy to help people from inside the political spectrum than trying to do something from the outside. “It’s not about the numbers, it’s about the ones and twos and how you empower one individual into helping them sufficiently so they can have powers of impact.

“In the context of local government, it’s access to water, sanitation or access to economic opportunity so there is a reasonable employment opportunity in that household. It is a very basic, bare minimal start that we have and we are excited with what we have done over the past 13 years. When I read a report I don’t just see numbers or names, I understand the context in its entirety because I have come from there. I still go to those communities, so that is why it’s more personal to me than anything else.”

What was the catalyst to get involved? “I was part of a foundation using sport to communicate a message of positive change, knocking on the doors of government for resources. I was encouraged to apply for the next elections and I thought, ‘Well, I can have access to resources, so why not apply?’ That is literally how I stumbled on it 13 years ago. It was never my intention to enter the political sphere but I have seen it is a platform I can manipulate and exploit and effect positive change in my community.”

Simple things matter. An example? “It’s not rugby-related but something very basic. We have the biggest netball union right here and we were able to resurface an entire four courts and install spotlights so they could play. There weren’t enough courts so they had to put in the lights to extend their playing and practice hours. When we unveiled the courts it was a joy seeing the happiness it brought to these young girls who were now able to play in a dignified manner, get changed in a changing room, not in the field.”

Andrews literally wears the Cape Town mantra on his sleeve; when we spoke his shirt had a ‘Love Cape Town’ message stitched on it. “Events like the World Rugby U20 Championship really gives us an opportunity to change the narrative and also showcase all that Cape Town has to offer.

“We have 21 nature reserves. We have three UNESCO heritage sites. We have 10 per cent of the country’s coastline, all 307 kilometres right here in the city. That is what it is about. We partner with events like this, global events, and that is the image that is portrayed across the world. It’s important so people can see what Cape Town is like and shape their own view and not just listen to the negative.”

Rugby in areas such as Cape Flats, however, hasn’t yet been fully transformed on the back of inspiring Springboks success stories such as Andrews’. “It’s yes and no. Yes, there is an intention to change and to ensure that those previously disadvantaged communities have access to resources such as having a field to play on, having irrigation systems to sustain the field, so that is the yes part.

“The no part is in the context is we need to do more on. If you want more kids to come through the convertor belt, you need to invest more at a very, very basic level at the schools, at the clubs and ensure that the administrators are sufficiently capacitated to take it forward as you need to invest. You need to sell that support and that is where the no comes in.”

That’s why in the battle to convince hearts and minds to provide greater funding, South Africa winning another World Cup last October was timely. “It’s absolutely real. I’ll just give one example. When the Springboks came to Cape Town on the trophy tour, people from all over the city of Cape Town descended on that team bus, not just at the locations where they hosted an event but along the highways, coming out and shouting and screaming.

“What that team represents and specifically the captain, Siya Kolisi, and all other players in terms of where they come from and successes they have achieved, that’s the important message. That’s the legacy, that you can achieve success irrespective of your circumstances. That’s the picture we want to reverberate.”

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