De Beer drops off the radar
June 14, 2012
Jannie de Beer steered the Springboks past England in the quarter-finals of the 1999 Rugby World Cup © Getty Images
Thirteen years ago, as summer was about to spring on South Africa, the hottest sportsman in the county was Jannie de Beer. On October 24, 1999, his boot had produced the world-record five drop goals that put South Africa into the semi-finals of the Rugby World Cup. That they lost there, despite the continued best efforts of his kicking, did not do much to dampen the individual hype that surrounded De Beer.
His was a Cinderella story worthy of its fairy-tale status. De Beer knew, from the day he was named in the national squad for the World Cup, that he was not the first-choice fly-half. After Nick Mallet took over as coach, De Beer had lost favour and was told that Henry Honiball would be picked ahead of him at the World Cup under any circumstances besides injury. As bad luck would have it, a hamstring strain ruled Honiball out of for most of the tournament and De Beer was cast in the lead role. He put in a performance worthy of an Oscar.
When ESPNscrum caught up with De Beer after the first Test in the current series between South Africa and England, he was the antithesis of what he had been more than a decade before and came across surprisingly cold. "If you want to know about that game, it's all over the Internet," he said with a heavy sigh. "It was great when I played; it was great but now…." His voice trailed off and his sentence did not end before another one took over. "I am actually trying to make a fire here, not to burn the house down," he clarified. "But this gadget is a bit confusing."
Clearly, De Beer was preoccupied and did not feel like rehashing the easily Google-able details of his feat. He was right, those were all over. The 34 points he had scored in that match included three drop goals in 11 minutes after the break to create daylight between the Springboks and England. They were followed by two more in two minutes as the curtain fell on the match to put the result beyond doubt. YouTube's videos of the kicks (there are two) have only been watched just over 8,000 times together, but the internet sharing service only came into existence in 2005, so that is not a true measure of the memorability of the match.
What made it timeless was the ease with which De Beer slotted the ball through the uprights to carve up an England side that was thought to be unbeatable. "England were definitely the favourites going into the match. They had very established players, the likes of Martin Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio and not many people thought we'd have a chance," said Naka Drotske, current coach of the Cheetahs franchise, who played hooker in that game. "One thing I remember is that the forwards were very good that day and presented a lot of balls to Jannie."
Although Drotske said there he was not aware of any game-plan to create drop-goal scoring opportunities, Mallet said it was a pre-planned tactic crafted on the golf course. "It was a few days before the game and someone mentioned that Jannie was a very good goal-kicker and we wanted to play to his strengths. Some of the guys from the Free State had played with him and they started talking about it. I asked Jannie where he prefers to kick and he very sensibly said down the middle of the field and so he worked out some moved to get the ball to him to do that."
De Beer himself has a different theory about how the strategy came about and mentioned it in an interview in 2003 with the Weekend Post. He named Brendan Venter, who was suspended for the quarter-final, as the person who had the idea to try it. "We studied the way England played and realised we would have a lot of time to do it and decided to use it as an option," De Beer said. "The first one or two were from turnovers and not planned but after that the guys started calling for it."
Whatever it was, Mallett is still "just very pleased that it worked, because we were having a hard time with the referee and not giving us many penalties, a bit like the last  World Cup. " Drotske remembers that, "when the first two happened it was actually quite easy to believe it was happening because the situation was right for it."
He called the ones after that "just amazing," and said "they made it very frustrating to the opposition because they did not know how to stop it," while Mallett admitted that,"it got to that point where Jannie was just having a crack every chance he could because he was on-form." De Beer admitted to being "shocked" when the game was over and he realised that all his attempts had worked. "I'd gone for drop goals before and wasn't convinced any of them would go over."
Some of De Beer's post-match comments were of a religious nature as he credited God with giving him the talent to excel. In the immediate aftermath, a section of the media reported that De Beer believed God picked favourites, something he had to verbally work his way around in the future by explaining whether he lost faith when he lost matches. "It's not a case of God not being on your side," he would say.
Even though Honiball was fully fit for the semi-final, Mallett chose to stick with De Beer, partly on Honiball's insistence. "Henry was sitting behind me during the quarter-final and he said he didn't think he should play in the team even if he was fit for the semi, because Jannie was doing so well," Mallett said.
The decision was later questioned when South Africa lost to Australia - ironically their defeat was partly due to a Steven Larkham drop-goal. De Beer's only comment on the match was to thank Mallet for backing him, despite knowing that it would have been "technically" better for Honiball to play. "If you performed, Nick backed you, it was good."
Jannie de Beer is engulfed by team-mate Joost van der Westhuizen during their record-breaking victory over England in Paris © Getty Images
De Beer never played for South Africa again, because he gave up his spot in the third-fourth place play-off for Honiball. "Then, Jannie came and said to me that because he has such respect for Henry, he should play in that match and we beat New Zealand. It really spoke to the calibre of the two guys, they were so team oriented," Mallett said.
Three years later, De Beer retired following a series of knee injuries. Saracens were the last team he represented. Unlike some of his former-team-mates, De Beer has maintained an arm's length from the game. Drotske and others at his home union, Free State, lost contact with him when he moved away from Bloemfontein to Pretoria. Venter still had his contact details, but said he had not spoken to him in a while.
De Beer casually remarked that he is "not too worried about what's going in rugby," anymore and talks with the tone of someone that is disillusioned with the current calendar and the goings-on in his home country. "I watched the Cheetahs only once, I think, in the Super Rugby competition, because they just play so much," he confessed. "I'm not too worried about what's going on in rugby these days. You know, I looked at the squad for the series and 90% of the guys on that list, I have not even seen before."
There are other things occupying De Beer's time, such as his directorship of a company that sources properties for South Africans overseas and his ministering role at the Christian Revival Church. But somewhere in this man who was a hero for a summer, the rugby bug still bites. "I still love the game and if there is a big knockout game or final or international going on, then I will watch but it's not a big thing anymore."
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