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Ex-Ulster ace Terblanche giving back to South African rugby

World in union: Stefan Terblanche at the World Cup in Japan
World in union: Stefan Terblanche at the World Cup in Japan
As an Ulster player in 2012
With the fans
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

When history is happening around you, in the moment, there are times when it can be hard to judge its enduring significance.

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So might go the excuse of Stefan Terblanche's university rugby coach.

The former Ulster favourite was a 20-year-old student the day South Africa played their first ever World Cup match, beating reigning champions Australia on home soil after the sporting isolation brought about by apartheid had caused them to miss out on the 1987 and 1991 tournaments.

A landmark game by any measure, it left Terblanche and his team-mates with a scheduling conflict.

"I don't know what our coach was thinking but, because it was a Thursday, we still had a training session planned for the evening," remembers the full-back who scored an impressive 19 tries in 37 Springbok outings.

"Everybody was a student and there was still classes but all the teachers knew that nobody was coming with the rugby on and it being such a big day for South Africa. Our head coach still thought we should have a training session though. Unfortunately we all watched it together and had celebrated a little too hard.

"We still went down to training after but he took one look at us and said 'no, go sleep or go back to the pub and we'll train tomorrow instead'.

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"It was a great day for our country and, as young people, it was a great time in South Africa."

That opener of course is looked upon as something of a footnote now given what came a month later. The image of Nelson Mandela wearing Francois Pienaar's Springbok jersey as he handed the flanker the Webb Ellis Trophy in Ellis Park after New Zealand were beaten in the final is one of the most culturally significant in sport, its impact and reach reverberating far beyond the chalk lines.

At a time when it was still often said the country's black population would support the British and Irish Lions and other visiting teams against the Springboks, the gesture from Mandela was powerful in a way that transcended rugby, a ray of hope and reconciliation after years of racist oppression.

"Looking back now, maybe being younger at the time I guess, I don't know if I knew what it was going to mean for the country," reflects Terblanche whose short but sweet stint at Ulster saw him play full-back throughout the 2011/12 run to a Heineken Cup final. "You grow up a bit, maybe you're lucky enough to play for the Springboks and you can understand a bit more what that jersey stands for, you realise the magnitude and the impact that the final in 1995 had, not only on rugby in South Africa but on the whole country."

Twenty four years on, and it's a very different Springboks side that will look to replicate the feat of 1995, one that for a first time is led by a black captain in Siya Kolisi. The quotas for racial transformation introduced by sports minister Fikile Mbalula in 2016 - demanding a 50% split of non-white players - were a controversial measure and have yet to be fully realised but under Rassie Erasmus the side's restoration of their reputation has come thanks to the most diverse side in South African history.

"I think the people are desperate for good news, desperate for some sporting success," says Terblanche who himself was part of a side that reached extra-time in the 1999 World Cup semi-finals only to lose to Australia and the first ever drop goal in the career of now-Munster assistant Stephen Larkham. "It can be hard to describe the Springboks' importance... if they win on Saturday, it's still smiles on every face come Monday. Lose and you think there'd been a death in the family.

"So this is a very popular side at home, because they win again but also as it's one that's fully representative of South Africa.

"We talk so much about transformation targets in rugby but we don't care if it's black players, white players, we just want the best players to be representing South Africa.

"Regardless of colour, regardless of race, these are the best guys and it's refreshing to see that.

"We've not been great since the last World Cup, we were seventh in the world, our lowest ranking ever, the 57-0 (to the All Blacks), we lost to Italy. The last two years with Rassie, it's been a steady increase and we've been getting results. There's been a great improvement. It's not exciting or expansive but it's winning.

"It's an incredible achievement to get to the final, but if you're there you might as well win it," he adds.

Just like in 1995, a win today would be a good news story in tough times rather than an opportunity to show that all is well upon a global stage. South Africa remains a country of startling financial inequality, something Terblanche, who returned home after playing the last game of his career in Ulster colours, sees often through his work with the South African Rugby Legends Association (SARLA) where he acts as CEO.

While it is thanks to his role assisting World Rugby's disciplinary processes that has had him enjoying his time in Japan for the past four weeks, back in South Africa he has been dedicated in his efforts to grow the game in less traditional strongholds than the one that reared him, a young child who would patiently wait for his postmaster father to finish work before wiling the hours away kicking a rugby ball each evening.

While SARLA began in 2001 as a way for recently retired players to keep in touch through the usual golf days and exhibition games, for the past decade it has been throwing its energies into the award-winning VUKA programme, run in conjunction with SA Rugby, where rugby is brought to those who normally would find themselves financially shut out from the sport.

"Often in rugby you were left by yourself when you finished up at the end of your last contract so really it was an old boys club," he says. "But 10 years ago we started a development programme. We had people with passion and we had people with skills so we wanted to do something positive.

"There's things that we take for granted with our own children, like being able to buy boots or kit, or even being able to get to the training pitch.

"But in South Africa, with some of these boys and girls, you're talking about people fighting daily for food, for shelter, kids that are missing parents.

"They never had the opportunity to play before, going to rural schools that wouldn't have the facilities, kit, coaches, transport, we're putting all that structure in place and they can then play together at schools level and national level as we're now in all 14 provincial unions. I'll encourage my own kids to come down to the training sometimes just to show how so many don't have what they might take for granted.

"We're seeing some great rewards with the kids. We have 400 coaches at the minute and we have 25,000 kids - we could quadruple that number if we had more coaches. In those 25,000 there's real talent."

Some already no doubt with dreams of being the next Siya Kolisi. After today there could be even more.

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