SuperSport’s unashamed bias in rugby commentary is typified by the bland and bombastic commentator Hugh Bladen, who acts as a sort of glorified cheerleader as he yells out encouragement from behind the microphone. All that he’s missing is a skimpy skirt and a pair of generous boobs, although his banal comments act as boo-boobs quite on their own.
“Bobby, you beeeaauuty!” came the cry as Bob Skinstad scored a try against Australia in 1999; a 20-second “Paaauuuullllseeee!” once followed as Breyton Paulse got in for a routine try.
His senile and bumbling ramblings have regularly been honoured by SuperSport, which presents him as some sort of a national treasure, an all-time great commentator up there with the likes of Bill McClaren.
For a suffering generation, Bladen has been the voice of rugby. He has commentated in many, many Tests (the official figure by now probably more than 200). In all those Tests, one could probably count on one hand all the times he didn’t say “gets into the thick of things”. He has stayed on, which is quite, in his own words, unbelievable. Banal as he was, at least Chick Henderson knew when to walk away.
Far from being a much-beloved commentator, Bladen has been a major irritation for many viewers, some referring to him as Hugh “Bloody” Bladen. In his blundering commentary, clichés have found their home. It takes a special kind of talent to keep the vile phrase “the atmosphere is electric” going almost single-handedly all these years.
But to return to Bladen’s employer, SuperSport: its bias has recently extended to pitiful revisionist tendencies in rugby history. Afoot is a shameless attempt at the rehabilitation of Corne Krige in the public imagination. In Springbok Saga, currently being broadcast by the channel of champions, the 2002 episode tackled the infamous game at Twickenham, where the Springboks lost by a record margin against England. In this 53-3 match, disgraceful levels of thuggery crept out of the Springbok rugby team, and in particular their captain, Krige.
The programme, given an aura of semi-respectability by the involvement of rugby hack Dan Retief, focused merely on the disgrace of the losing margin. Yes, we saw the idiotic shoulder charge of Jannes Labuschagne that got him sent off early in the game. There was talk of off-the-ball incidents, England coach Clive Woodward saying that it had been a “brutal Test match”. Apart from Labuschagne’s Kodak moment, no other footage of dirty play on the field was shown.
Out came post-match footage of South African coach Rudolph Straeuli, saying that two South African players had been concussed during the game, and that we “don’t concuss our own players”.
This is where Springbok Saga ended its version of the events of the day. The viewer was left with an impression of a record losing margin “shaming” 100 years of South African Test rugby. The game was marred, it seemed, by some unfortunate off-the-ball incidents committed by both sides, the only difference being that the English players hadn’t been caught, England actually escaping unpunished after injuring two South African players. One didn’t hear about the numerous England players with unusual injuries after the game, such as fractured cheekbones and damage to the ears.
One didn’t hear about the damage inflicted by Corne Krige.
Like a spectre, Krige appeared on the programme. These days he looks like an aged Russian porn star, a sort of Roger Moore/Jean-Claude van Damme hybrid. With flickering, blood-shot eyes, like a beast brought briefly from his lair in the dark, he lamented at the losing margin, saying that the match had probably taken two years off his rugby career.
Krige said that he had called his players together as the England tries started rolling in and building the score to worrying levels. The game, he told them, had now become a “battle” that they had to get through.
Evidence produced later sketched a disturbing picture of the losing captain, showing that he had been playing more like a loose cannon than a loose forward. He was an unbridled menace not only to the opposition, but also to his own players. “Blitz” Krige (as one paper memorably dubbed him afterwards) was firing in all directions, and not even his own players were safe from him.
Here’s where Springbok Saga revealed its selective treatment of rugby history quite spectacularly.
Left out was the evidence that emerged after the game that, contrary to Straeuli’s speculations, South Africans did concuss their own players. The fist of Krige had in a maul found one of his teammates. It was damage from which the player (Andre Pretorius) didn’t walk away. He had to leave the field.
At the time it was reported:
“The South Africa captain, Corne Krige, last night defended his style of play after video footage of last week’s controversial international against England at Twickenham appeared to show him getting away with numerous acts of foul play, including head-butting and stamping.
“The Rugby Club programme on Sky Sports last night highlighted seven incidents involving the 27-year-old Western Province flanker, including a five-second period in the second half when he was alleged to have hit the scrumhalf Matt Dawson with a stiff-arm tackle, kneed the number eight Lawrence Dallaglio in the back and stamped on the prop Phil Vickery, while also concussing his own outside-half Andre Pretorius with a blow to the face.
“‘I have not seen the footage used in the programme and it would not be appropriate for me to make any comment on it,’ Krige, who considered becoming a professional hunter before opting for rugby, said from Cape Town last night. ‘I would just reiterate that rugby is a tough game.'”
For reasons only known to themselves, the producers of Springbok Saga chose to leave all of the above out. Krige’s fist-of-fury incident was conveniently airbrushed, a sanitised version put forward of a record losing margin. Who knows, perhaps Krige said he would only participate in the programme if all mention of the incident was left out.
All that war talk on the field by “Blitz” Krige shows that the rugby-as-war-zone hell that the Camp Staaldraad exercise would ingrain was already finding lush soil where its dirty seeds could sprout.
In case any players in the 2003 Rugby World Cup squad were left in any doubt that their rugby training had metamorphosed into a masochistic military manoeuvre, perhaps the buckets of freezing water thrown on to their naked bodies in the dark, in that horrible and haunting pit, may finally have driven the point home.
The atmosphere must have been electric.