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Veteran sports writer Dale Granger remembers menacing talk during the 2006 Tri-Nations..
With Nigel McGurk in the news as one of the self-confessed hitmen hired to take out Brett Kebble, I’ve been reliving the moment I first heard his name. I was accompanying the Boks on their disastrous 2006 Tri-nations tour of Australasia, reporting for the Independent Group.
With South Africa crashing to their second worst defeat in history, going down 49-0 to the Wallabies in Brisbane, a torrent of criticism of coach Jake White had been unleashed back home. Suggestions were being made left, right and centre that he wasn’t up to the job.
On the flight from Wellington to Sydney, after South Africa had lost the second test to New Zealand, I approached White, sitting next to captain John Smit, to discuss the way things were going, after he had spat the dummy in public a few days earlier, having just escaped the guillotine.
“Have you heard of Nigel McGurk?” said White. I said no.
“Well why don’t you check him out?” said White. “He is a KES [King Edward School, Joburg] old boy.”
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“I get SMSes all the time [from McGurk] offering to sort you okes [the media] out,” he replied.
“Jake”, I said, “Don’t threaten me.” At that point Smit chipped in: “Hey guys. Just calm down.”
Waiting at the baggage carousel at Sydney airport, I called Argus editor Chris Whitfield to tell him about White’s threat of turning McGurk on me – a guy known as a “heavy”, and no stranger to putting the fist in. No-one wanted to take up the story, but in the end White didn’t need the likes of McGurk to silence anyone at Independent.
Rugby journalist Peter Bills did his best to have me sent back to South Africa… He described me as ‘an unxploded car bomb from Baghad’…
That was, in fact, accomplished instead with the assistance of English rugby journalist Peter Bills, who set up a meeting between White and the Independent Group‘s owner, Sir Anthony O’Reilly – who had been an Irish national rugby player and who maintained a keen interest in the fortunes of international rugby. Bills assured White that they would deal with his critics at Independent, and Bills got to be White’s point man at Independent in South Africa. This only came to light some time later, when White told the story to an inner circle at a Friday lunch club session.
Bills had written a book about O’Reilly that was never published, but got him close to the media baron – and won him a private account to keep him comfortable on tour. On that four-hour flight across the Tasman, Bills had been sitting in first class: so much for cost-cutting at the “cash-strapped” Independent.
It also turned out that during that tour Bills did his best to have me sent back to South Africa, which would have left him as the Group’s sole representative accompanying the Boks. He had a direct line to Independent managing director Tony Howard and Star editor Moegsien Williams, who were lobbying with Star sports editor David Legge (later fired for falsifying overtime claims) to fly me back to South Africa.
Bills, in one of his calls to South Africa, had described me as “an unexploded car bomb from Baghdad”.
This had come after the proverbial had hit the fan, at a press conference the Monday after the Boks had arrived in New Zealand, to banner headlines proclaiming “How low can they go?” and “Brain dead, error-ridden Boks at their worst”.
The press back home were lobbying hard for Luke Watson to be flown over to replace lock cum flank Danie Rossouw, who was on his way home with an injury. My brief at the press conference was to ask White whether he might now consider picking Watson and flying him over to New Zealand. If not, what did Tyibilika, also a flank, offer ahead of Watson?
“At this stage no,” White replied: “For him to get here this late, after never being a part of the squad, would not serve our immediate needs. But we also need to be honest about sensitivities of the make-up of the team and show that transformation is happening in our country. We have got a guy like Solly on tour – and then to call for another flanker to start in a Test match. There is a relationship in a team structure and we need to be considerate to that dynamic between the players.”
The next day the Boks put out a statement denying White had called Tyibilika a transformation player,
The following day, all hell broke loose at the Springboks’ hotel, after the Argus had expanded on the story, getting a news reporter to call Parliamentary Sports Portfolio chair Butana Komphela for comment. Komphela wasted no time putting the boot into the beleaguered Bok coach, demanding White’s immediate resignation and slamming him for labelling Tyibilika “a transformation player”.
The next day the Boks put out a statement denying White had called Tyibilika a transformation player, saying he had been misquoted. I was furious: he had said it at a press conference and news agencies had run the quote in full, as had the rugby365 website.
It was when I challenged White on the plane about this denial that he got in a rage and threatened to put McGurk onto me.
When I arrived back in South Africa I checked out McGurk, finding out more about the ex-KES boy bouncer connected to Mafia-style organisations, who was implicated in murder, extortion and intimidation. After fellow bouncer Patrick Caetano was murdered, McGurk was found in possession of his bloodstained clothing. Then another story surfaced linking him to the death of an Edenvale, Johannesburg, art student. Not long after that allegations emerged that he’d been involved in the murder of Brett Kebble.
As for Bills, his relationship with the Springbok coach ended acrimoniously just before the 2007 World Cup, when a South African living abroad shone light on the headless chicken theme Bills was using in his writing about the Boks in overseas papers – in stark contrast to his obsequious copy published in Independent titles in South Africa.
I somehow don’t think there’ll ever be a 2006 Tri-Nations Tour Reunion.
Text by Dale Granger. This article features courtesy of the September 2010 edition of Noseweek magazine.
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