Springboks Welcome Any Time On the Coromandel
You Can't Benchpress Your Heart, Pienaar Tells Students
The unveiling of the only intact set of rifles gifted to a New Zealand town after the South African Boer War brought some very special guests to Thames on Thursday – and the visitors made a lasting impression on those they met.
Springbok players – brothers Jannie and Bismarck Du Plessis - and Ruan Pienaar spent most of Thursday in Thames on an unofficial visit that included Thames High School, The Treasury, Thames-Coromandel District Council and the Thames Rugby Club.
The visit was facilitated via Johan Volsteedt, the former Head Master of all three men and a man who devoted his life to their own high school, Grey College in South Africa. The players visited not as Springboks but as Old Grey College Boys whose ancestors were affected by the Boer War. The visit gave them a rare opportunity to see with their own eyes Boer rifles that bear their surnames and are now housed at The Treasury in Thames.
These 15 rifles were among 200 captured Boer rifles that were gifted to New Zealand from South Africa and were individually numbered. They came with the inscription SAT - South African Trophy - and Thames received the first 15 rifles.
Thames is now the only place in New Zealand to have an intact and complete collection, unveiled for the Springbok visitors at The Treasury in Queen Street, Thames.
All three players left a lasting impression on all of the locals they met, including Thames High School students who spent an hour asking probing questions from how much the men bench press - "you can't bench press your heart" replied Ruan - to thoughts on brotherhood rivalry.
The players were led onto Thames High with a powhiri, a traditional Maori welcome, and this was followed by a thunderous haka by the Thames High School First XV. The Springbok players acknowledged the link between their former high school Grey College and Thames High School, which were both established by Former Governor Sir George Grey.
Among the high school audience was the music teacher who taught Jannie at Grey College. The pair caught up one-to-one later in the staffroom, where all three players relaxed and mingled with head students, teachers and TCDC staff who helped facilitate the visit.
When speaking to the gathered high school students, Jannie said he enjoyed spending his free day in Thames: "In the real part of New Zealand". He talked about the legacy left by Sir George Grey, who ensured that schools were built in poorer townships because he wanted a better future for youngsters.
"Sometimes we as humans think what we are so important but it's actually what you leave behind. It's the difference you make in other peoples' lives...and if that can stay around for generations then you accomplish something a lot bigger than yourself.
"I just want to say kia ora," Jannie continued, before revealing his slight uncertainty over the Maori welcome and haka. "The Maori greeting sometimes defies logic, but if it's a greeting we accept it, and if it's a challenge, we accept it,” he said.
Grey College is the third oldest school in South Africa. Jannie explained that Sir George Grey started it because many of the local children couldn't read or write and their parents taught them out of the old Dutch bible. He donated a sum of money to start a school and did the same for Port Elizabeth in South Africa, as well as other schools in New Zealand.
“At the end of the day we're here because of a guy who had a vision to invest in people and their futures and I think that's massive. If you invest in something that's bigger than yourself - that really is a challenge worth accomplishing in life."
Students relished the chance to ask questions of the players, including about Jannie and Bismarck's brotherhood rivalry.
"When we were younger the rivalry almost bordered on something sinister because you measure yourself against your brother and always want to be better. And then dad got sick, he got Parkinson's Disease and we realised we have only got each other and if there was rivalry between us, one would pull the other down. Instead of having rivalry we tried to support each other. I think there's still rivalry but if you can put everything into perspective, that's really important."
New Zealand South African Chris Williams, a staff member at TCDC, had spent the morning with the players and agreed it was 'a dream come true' to meet them face to face. He acknowledged Jannie's qualification as a doctor, his brother Bismarck's job as an investment broker and their collective roles as farmers on large blocks, before asking them how they managed these commitments alongside elite international sport?
"Sometimes you have to sacrifice your own time, your family time, your friends, and going on holiday or staying at home. But with anything you do in life when you really want to achieve something, you make a sacrifice of yourself to achieve that," said Bismarck. "How we manage it is also with very expensive phone calls to home."
Later on at The Treasury building in Thames, the three players were absorbed by reading the story of the historic rifles, and handled them with awe. "It's nice to see them preserved, it's a little bit surreal,” said Ruan. “I can't say that they are part of my family but I think the fact that there's a name on it, that this man slept alone and he didn't know whether he would make it...if you think about it, it makes it pretty special."
Jannie told those gathered at The Treasury that it was wonderful to spend time in the real part of New Zealand: “To experience it in its pure form is refreshing and really nice."
Regarding the rifles, he added: “It's wonderful that somebody took time to preserve what's rightfully been called a treasure. Unfortunately in our country...we just go forward and try to forget the past. Sometimes it's nice to sit and reflect and see where you are from. We are as Afrikaanz as you can get, we couldn't speak English until we got to High School and there's definitely a connection. The fact that my grandfather, whether he was right or wrong, he fought…it puts it in a special place in your heart. Thank you very much for having us, it's been a wonderful day.”
The players jokingly ended the visit with the words: “Let the war begin on Saturday. Hopefully the marksmen in green and gold will be better than the marksmen in black and white."