The Springboks and the All Blacks pack down in a 2003 World Cup clash in Melbourne. Tonight the sides meet for the 100th time. Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images
The Springboks and the All Blacks pack down in a 2003 World Cup clash in Melbourne. Tonight the sides meet for the 100th time. Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

OPINIONSocietySeptember 25, 2021

Scotty Stevenson: Love, rugby, and the story of my family

The Springboks and the All Blacks pack down in a 2003 World Cup clash in Melbourne. Tonight the sides meet for the 100th time. Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images
The Springboks and the All Blacks pack down in a 2003 World Cup clash in Melbourne. Tonight the sides meet for the 100th time. Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images

Ahead of tonight’s hundredth Test between the New Zealand All Blacks and South Africa’s Springboks, Scotty Stevenson reaches deep into his own family history, within which the two nations and their personalities are deeply entwined.

This essay was first published in Dylan Cleaver’s newsletter The Bounce. Subscribe here.

There will be rugby in this story, but you’ll have to sit through the love part first. Or maybe it’s better to say there will be love in this story, if you can stomach the rugby. Either way, have I got a tale for you.

The story begins on a beach in Durban in 1973 and hasn’t finished yet, even if certain characters have departed well before they should have, had everything gone to script. Durban in 1973 was a hell of a place to be if you were a young, long-haired (white) primary school teacher from Whangārei, as my father Peter was. It was also a good place to be if you loved the beach and a bikini, as it seemed my mum Jude surely did.

Dad had first gone to South Africa in 1970, not surprisingly (I suspect) to coincide with the All Blacks tour that year, a tour during which they won 23 of the 26 matches and lost the three that counted. The names! Lochore, Kirkpatrick, Laidlaw, Kirton, MacRae, Thorne, McCormick. The names! De Villiers, Visagie,  Muller, Jansen, du Preez. The name! BG Williams! Dad had been in Matatā the year before, the spiritual home of the New Zealand Native team under the guidance of Joseph Warbrick. Dad taught primary school during the week and ran the pub on weekends. It was later said that he liked to go hunting for venison but often returned with mutton. As far as we know, he never faced charges.

Hakuna, Matatā!

He had only intended to stay in South Africa for a year but on January 21, 1973, dad met mum on the beach where he volunteered as a lifeguard. Durban and its endless summers, love and its endless possibilities. Dad would return to New Zealand by that year’s end, leaving the girl behind but not the feelings. There would be correspondence, flown across the Tasman Sea and the Indian Ocean and back again. Mum would save for a fare, dad would find work in Auckland, a migration would be completed in April, 1974. Among mum’s possessions aboard the Italian liner, Galileo Galilea, was a brooch passed down from her grandmother Madeleine. It was fashioned in the shape of the Southern Cross, with a map of South Africa engraved in its centre. She arrived in Auckland on April 23.

Scotty Stevenson commentating the First XV Schoolboy Rugby match between Auckland Grammar and Kings College in 2019. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Another story begins on November 9, 1864. This is the day the Louisa, a 900-tonne creaking Victorian log pile set out from Gravesend with 305 passengers searching for a new life in New Zealand. Among them, a small party of Church of England settlers, a contingent of assisted immigrants, and a Crimean war veteran named Patrick Devlin, who preferred to be called Peter.

Patrick (we shall stick with his real name but let us not forget the adopted moniker) was not alone. He was joined by his wife Mary Ann and his six children, of whom five would survive the 139-day journey to Auckland. A colourful man with a distaste for alcohol and an equal yet opposite zeal for procreation, Patrick settled in Auckland with his family and embarked on a chaotic existence that featured small-claim lawsuits centred on poor carpentry (and another related to a bulldog tearing his trousers), and a zest for participation in the city’s burgeoning bureaucracy.

Mary Ann died a few short years after her arrival in New Zealand, her occupation listed as milliner, her cause of death noted as general debility, which comes as no surprise given another child had been borne by her in 1866. That child’s name was John, and almost 140 years later, despite a minor name change from Devlin to Delvin, he would become a posthumous star in a South African radio mystery. But more on that in due course.

Not two years after Mary Ann’s futile battle with general debility, Patrick married a Knaggs named Jemima. In the early 1880s, he and the family moved to Whangārei where they took up residence on Deveron Street in Kensington and Patrick again immersed himself in the world of small-town politics while becoming one of the emerging town’s most prolific writers of letters to the editor. Patrick died in 1902 and was buried in a small cemetery on the southern outskirts of Whangārei. It was known as Kioreroa Road.

Jude and Pete spent the first few weeks of their new life together living in Whangārei with dad’s father Jack and his second wife Annie. Dad’s step mum was a proud and handsome Hokianga woman whose brother Joe Julian had for a time been one of New Zealand’s great woodsmen (think Jason Wynyard, but with Kauri trees). Julian was such a dominant force on the competitive woodchopping circuit that he won his last national title as a 55-year old. As the late biographer Max Smith wrote: “For a bit of fun Joe entered the 15in. standing block. It wasn’t much fun for the other contestants. Joe grabbed an axe, sprayed chips like chaff, and won his umpteenth national title.”

Nana, as Annie was to me, was no fan of Mum, at least not at the start. Mum had no one in New Zealand, save the love of her life, who took her to Auckland where at the time the Farmers building – now the Heritage Hotel – was the tallest thing in town. Auckland seemed only slightly less provincial than Whangārei. This had been less a journey by ship than a trip back in time.

My parents were married in an Anglican church on Deveron Street in Kensington. In time, children were made. My brother was born in Auckland and I was born up north. Dad had taken a job at Ruakākā Primary School, which meant life for the young family was a school house in a postage stamp paddock near Knaggs Road in the Springfield Valley, a back-and-beyond collection of small holdings and dairy farms nestled in the stumpy hills between the whitewashed stretch of Bream Bay and outskirts of Whangārei. There was a pet calf called Babalu, and an increasingly uneasy and soul-destroying sibling tension.

Mum did not see her parents until 1978, when they visited New Zealand for the first time. It would be a further 13 years before she would return to South Africa to see her sisters, their grown children and her friends. She had left her homeland in 1974. To arrive back in South Africa in 1991 was less a journey by plane than a trip to a future that was jarringly inconceivable. In the years between, New Zealand had become an engine room for the global machine designed to dismantle Apartheid. It was not an easy time to be a South African in New Zealand.

Protesters and police clash during the Springboks 1981 tour. (Photo by Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

“South African Bitch!” That was one of the names mum was called in 1981, as the Springbok tour unfolded and New Zealand ripped asunder along the perforations of politics and sport. “Slave owner!” Five years earlier, the Petone Rugby Club had passed around the hat to raise a few funds for Andy Leslie’s family before he embarked on the 1976 tour to South Africa as captain of the All Blacks. The names! Bush, Going, Lambert, Osborne, Norton, Williams. All “honorary whites”. The names! De Villiers, Stander, Ellis, Germyshuys, Oosthuizen, van den Berg. All actual whites. New Zealand lost the series 1-3. African nations condemned the tour; 25 of them boycotted the Olympics. John Walker won a gold medal that year in Montreal; his great rival Filbert Bayi was at home.

I was four during the 81 tour, and so my recollections are unreliable, if not now tainted by everything I have learned since. But my mum and dad sure went to see North Auckland play the Springboks at a packed Okara Park. Mum collected autographs of all the South African players. It was not about supporting a tour, or a political regime – it was the need to be in the physical presence of another South African, to feel for the briefest moment a connection with her country. That every one of those players signed the back of that envelope still staggers me to this day. Regardless of what that tour represented, that act of goodwill makes me happy.

After Patrick’s death, John Devlin, aged just nine, was taken back to England by an aunt, and during his time there, somehow the Devlin became a Delvin. Maybe it was a distancing, or a whim, or simply a ridiculous conceit. Perhaps it was because Devlin sounded too much like Devil and his aunt was somewhat of a religious zealot. In any case, at 14, young John Delvin found himself once more on the move, this time to a farm just outside Pietermaritzburg in what is now known as Kwa-Zulu Natal. At 19 he left the family farm and joined the Natal Mounted Police. It was noted in his enlistment registrar that he “spoke the kaffir language”. By 1890, he had resigned his position to take up what would become the predominant occupation of his life: a gaoler. Shortly after that, he married Minnie Needham, a neighbour from his farming days in Pietermaritzburg. Minnie would endure 16 pregnancies during her marriage, and the couple endured the infant deaths of four of their children. Their eldest daughter was named Madeleine.

Like his father, John led a colourful and rather roguish existence, serving under Buller’s command in the Boer War and also serving in conflicts in East Africa. His participation in the British efforts of that time would not ingratiate him with his future Afrikaans superiors in the gaol service. Eventually he was tried and found guilty of falsity and theft (he pleaded innocent of course) and handed a suspended sentence of 12 months imprisonment. Even so, he was still the recipient of a Natal Long Service and Good Conduct medal, one of fewer than 40 to receive the honour.

In 1918, at the conclusion of the first world war, John moved to Mombasa, Kenya. He took with him just four of his children, including his eldest child Madeleine. It is said that his wife Minnie’s family never forgave him for leaving the rest of the family in South Africa. It seemed, too, that Madeleine pined for home. In one letter to her younger sister she wrote: “The only nice part of this place is the sea. I go and sit by it every day and think of home.”

If in 1981 I had been too young to understand the implications of a rugby tour, it was only a matter of time before I became fascinated with my other home, mum’s home. Birthdays and Christmases were spent in eager anticipation of the brown paper packages that would arrive from South Africa plastered in stamps of flowers and foreign vistas, bearing gifts (African themed, always) from aunts and uncles I had never met and grandparents I could not remember. They seemed part of us and yet they were so far away. My connection to them was imagined while poring over picture books of South African scenes: of lions and zebras, great diamond and gold mines, red suns rising over exotic plains, black people.

My brother had two names, Grant and Graaaaaaunt, and we had both a car and a caaaaaaur, and we visited both the park and a paaaaurk and we were instructed to wait a minute and wag ’n bietjie, and to go brush our teeth and to gaan borsel jou tande. Mum was English South African but Afrikaans had been as compulsory for her at school as for everyone else. Some of it stuck – net ‘n bietjie.

Ostensibly, we were just a kiwi family. Except one of us had a funny accent. Ah, but I felt a pull to get to that other place. To see it, to smell it, to put my feet in Africa and to feel – and this is not an overstatement – complete.

We spent the weekends driving past Kioreroa Road as we came to Whangārei for morning sport and roast dinners at Jack and Annie’s. We sat up late as a family in 1992 and watched the Springboks welcomed back to international rugby. My mum cheered for the guys in green, a part of me did, too. Oh, but the names! Fitzpatrick, Jones, Brooke, Fox, Little, Bunce. The names! Botha, Small, Geldenhuys, Schmidt, Gerber, du Preez. The score: 27-24. That match was just the 38th test between the two nations, 71 years after the first. If you want to talk about the greatest marketing strategy ever created, try scarcity.

Three years later I boarded a plane to Johannesburg en route to Port Elizabeth. I was 17 and had been offered a place as a Post-Matric student at Woodridge College and Preparatory School, a co-educational campus set in an impossibly beautiful stand of nature reserve between PE and Jeffreys Bay looking out onto the span of the Van Stadens Bridge. The flight stopped in Sydney and in Perth. No smoking was allowed on board in Australian airspace.

South Africa was everything I had imagined. My first summer was spent with that family I had long imagined in St Francis Bay, made famous by the incredible Bruce Brown surfing film, The Endless SummerWoodridge was a multi-racial private school, its 1st XV the year before I arrived had been dubbed by one paper, “the team of the new South Africa”. South Africans were invariably friendly, exceedingly generous and a kiwi accent was a ticket to all manner of experiences both wholesome and not so much.

Rugby season began in 30-degree heat, with the cricket pitch smack bang in the middle of the field. Skin was lost, often and early. Our coach was an amiable Irishman named Denis Scott who wore a cheesecutter on game days and smoked a pipe. His mate Keith Armstrong came over from Ireland to help coach the team. Keith liked to smoke Benson & Hedges Special Filters in between his John Player Specials, which he liked to smoke between his Benson & Hedges Special Filters. He also liked to drink gin, in copious quantities and was a fan, like us Post-Matric students were, of the on-site school pub.

I had imagined the rugby would be tough, but it was like nothing I had ever played. I had never reached the heights of the 1st XV  at my Auckland high school, but I had played my share of big kids. Afrikaans kids were just … different. They weren’t just big, they were mean. Rugby was not so much a game of evasion as it was a game of brutality and intimidation. There were periods in matches where the laws of the sport – and the land for that matter – simply did not apply. Nothing was off the table, for our side or the opposition. There was kicking, biting, stomping, gouging, punching, pinching and spitting.  And that was just among the visiting supporters. I can still recall one game against an Afrikaans school from the aptly named Humansdorp which was called off with 15 minutes to go after the visiting team’s fathers threatened to enter the field of play and deal to us. Instead we just dealt to each other in one of the most incredible all-in brawls I have ever seen close up.

Rugby was a different game in South Africa but it was just as much fun. Rugby was meant to be physical. Dominance was everything. The top schools in the country were invariably Afrikaans schools, their kids just giant humans, their lineage demanding they were tough to the point of psychotic. They were not without skill, it’s just that it was much easier to break someone than to bother bending them. Was there a lot of kicking? Sure. But that was all part of the game plan: play for territory, give them the ball and fuck them up. It was simple. It was beautiful.

We had a 1st XV game at home on the day of the Rugby World Cup final. Afterwards we piled into the common room to watch the match. Everyone thought New Zealand were the runaway favourites to win that game. The only New Zealander within 500km sure thought it was a done deal. It was a glamour day. It seemed as if the entire continent was bathed in bright winter sunshine. Nelson Mandela appeared in the skipper’s jersey, waving his cap to the 80,000 and the 60 million, shaking hands with all the players. The names! Fitzpatrick, Brown, Kronfeld, Brooke, Mehrtens, Wilson. The names! Pienaar, du Randt, Wiese, Kruger, Stransky, Joubert, Williams. The name! JT Lomu.

New Zealand had played the most exhilarating rugby of the tournament. They appeared, at first blush, to be an unstoppable force and yet, that afternoon, as South Africa wrestled with its demons and came to terms with their black President and realised exactly what this game represented to them and to the rest of the world, they met an immovable object. South Africa did what generations of Afrikaners immortalised in monuments and celebrated through generations had done – they circled the wagons.

In the aftermath of that 15-12 Springbok victory, I took a desultory wander to the dining hall, collected my meal (spaghetti bolognese) and sat at my usual table. The entire school then stood as one and, while I forked globs of watery sauce and gelatinous pasta into my downturned mouth, sang “Shosholoza” for a solid 15 minutes. For the first time that day, rugby had experienced what it was like to be South Africa’s national game. The next six months in that country were the most incredible months of my fledgling adulthood. South Africa was collectively and electrically charged.

Sean Fitzpatrick and the All Blacks at the final whistle of the1995 Rugby World Cup Final at Ellis Park Stadium on May 24, 1995 in Johannesburg. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Allsport/Getty Images

Madeleine Delvin married Harry Pontin in Mombasa in 1922, a year after New Zealand and South Africa had first faced each other in a test series. Their eldest child was born in Mombasa but the young family soon moved to Pietermaritzburg, Madeleine finally returning to the home she had long dreamed of while staring at the Indian Ocean. There they had Daphne who, 21 years later, would marry Norman MacDonald, and they would in turn produce three daughters, Beverley, Marilyn and Jude.

In 1973, while tanning on the beach in Durban, Jude met a man from Whangārei called Peter. He was a teacher, who had only ever planned to stay in South Africa for a year when he arrived in 1970. He returned home leaving Jude behind, but she followed, sensing true love and destiny.

Pete and Jude moved abroad at the beginning of the new millennium. Their two grown children had set off on their own paths in life and there was a future to be secured for a pair of Paradise ducks who had found each other on a tropical shore. Futures are great but the past has a way of stealing the show. Daphne MacDonald had the radio on in Durban. A woman in New Zealand was looking for information about John Devlin, or so the story goes. Daphne, perhaps piqued by the mention of New Zealand and the similarity with her grandfather’s name contacted the station and was put in touch with a genealogist, Jenny Graham. This was indeed the man, Jenny told her. And by the way, she and Daphne were cousins.

Jenny also got in touch with Jude, who by this time was living in Egypt. Over the next several years, pieces fell into place like a family-tree version of tetris. There was a photo of John Delvin, and there was a photo of his father Patrick (Peter) Devlin. But what ever happened to Patrick? Where was he buried? At the time no one knew.

In 2007, as I was beginning my sports broadcasting career with Sky Sport, with whom I would attend every home All Blacks v Springboks test for the next 12 seasons, mum found Patrick. He was buried in a shabby, overgrown and desecrated cemetery on the outskirts of Whangārei along with his wife Jemima. It was Kioreroa Road, the same cemetery she had driven past at least once a week for 33 years without giving its gum trees and carrot weeds a second glance.

Of all the places to find your beginnings: Whangārei! The same town Patrick had lived in, and from where John had left New Zealand en route to starting my mother’s South African family; the same town where the man she would fall in love with had been born. Deveron Street, Kensington where Patrick lived and where mum and dad were married. There, in the shade of a stand of eucalyptus, planted in the form of a southern cross, she found her great-great-grandfather. For 33 years she had not realised she had been home all this time. Of all the blokes, she met Peter, the one who brought her back.

If you believe in genetic memory or in the mystical forces of serendipity then nothing of what you have read will come as a surprise to you and that is good. Some things are simply meant to be, they are beyond our control, or even if we can control them we choose instead to ride on the coattails of the illusionist’s gimmick; the one that makes us subconsciously feel we ought to be making certain decisions, to be drawing certain conclusions.

One could conclude that New Zealand and South Africa both began their respective rugby adventures as a way to get one over those pesky Brits. At some point, New Zealand harnessed the game as a so-called egalitarian pursuit, and at some point South Africa weaponised it as a reflection of white dominance. Neither approach was entirely successful but each side, with its own brand of rugby shaped by its own cultural philosophy, can still claim to have found the formula best suited to its psyche. In 2019, I had the privilege of commentating the 99th match between these two colossal sides as part of Spark Sport’s Rugby World Cup coverage. This weekend Grant Nisbett, fittingly in my opinion, will call the 100th.

And I will watch, as I have done for so many years, with a foot proudly in both camps and an appreciation of the beauty on both sides of the game’s stylistic divide. Mum will watch too, from her home in Northland, just south of Whangārei. Dad was the character who left this story too early. And I’ll have a bob each way in the greatest rugby rivalry the world has known? If that is to be where the fates have led me, then I’ll be happy enough with that. A kid born under the Southern Cross, with a map of South Africa engraved in his DNA.

Keep going!