Rugby Union

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A heritage still close to the heart

THE Waratahs' South African, halfback, Sarel Pretorius, like most new fathers, is thinking a lot about his origins these days.

Tomorrow, on the same day his first child, Sarel Joshua, turns two weeks old, the 28-year-old will play a pivotal role in his side's must-win clash with South African conference leaders, the Bulls, in a game commemorating one of the Waratahs' proudest moments, their 1937 win over the undefeated Springboks.

That must be almost too much heritage for one proud young South African to bear. But Pretorius is relishing the opportunity to play for the other side this time and to measure himself against 22 of his fiercest countrymen.

''There's something extra [in a game against the Bulls],'' he says. ''When I was back in South Africa playing for the Cheetahs it was always a big game playing against those big unions and always a big rivalry against the Bulls. It's always nice to measure yourself against them and especially now that I'm with the Waratahs. I'm also looking forward to speaking a bit of Afrikaans on the field maybe.''

Pretorius will not be the only Waratah with South African heritage on the pitch tomorrow night. Chris Alcock will return to the starting openside breakaway position after recovering from appendicitis and will be needed against the ferociously physical men from Pretoria, the heart of South African rugby.

Unlike Pretorius, who spent all his life in a proud, Afrikaaner-dominated farming region outside Johannesburg before arriving in Australia with wife Nicola last year, Alcock has been here since he was 10. His family, like many South Africans over the past 20 years, left their home in Durban, on South Africa's lush north-east coast, to make a new life in Australia 12 years ago.


''I thought it was one big holiday, I was that young,'' Alcock says. As a rugby-mad schoolboy he supported the Sharks and the Springboks, but mostly because it was expected of him.

''The main reason was my friends said no matter what I was a South African, so if the South Africans won I got shit for it and if they lost I got shit for it, so I said if I'm going to get that then I might as well support them,'' he says. ''But eventually they let it slide and I'm now allowed to support the Wallabies - and the Waratahs, obviously.''

Alcock still has an audible South African accent and is dating a woman who was also born in South Africa but who, like him, has spend most of her life here. He loves going back to Durban and is proud of his heritage but feels more Australian than African these days.

''I like to think my South African roots are my family and friends over there,'' he says. ''That's my connection to Africa. Obviously it's a beautiful place but my roots are my family and friends. So as long as I've got family and friends there I'll always be connected to it.''

Tomorrow's match, dubbed Heritage Night on the Waratahs' season calendar, celebrates the 75th anniversary of the downing of the Boks, the 1937 game that brought the South Africans's undefeated tour of Australia to a sodden, sliding halt under teeming rain at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Australians celebrated a Springboks defeat as much then as they do now.

But the reality is that South Africans have made a rich contribution to the Waratahs over the years. Aside from Pretorius, Alcock and Test lock Dan Vickerman, who joined the club after returning from Britain last year, Tiaan Strauss stands out in the history books.

The dual international lock had played 15 Tests for the Springboks before coming to Australia to play league for Cronulla in the mid-1990s. He joined the Waratahs in 1998, just after the game turned professional in Australia, and went on to captain the side, be named NSW player of the year, and notch 11 Tests for the Wallabies. It was a remarkable career that paved the way for many other men to ply their trade in countries long regarded as fierce rugby rivals.

Pretorius says his stay in Australia has been a tremendous learning curve. Asked why many Australians regard South Africans as the most arrogant among their sporting foes, he laughs and says: ''I think we think so of them as well.

''I think the main thing is sometimes it looks like the guys are arrogant but they are just full of confidence,'' Pretorius says.

Sarel Joshua might be wrapped up in his cot when his father takes the field tomorrow night. But Pretorius and his wife are determined their son will learn all about his father, their family and his own heritage.

''He is born in Aussie but I think he will know where his roots are,'' Pretorius says. ''I will take him back after Super Rugby and show him a bit of South Africa. He'll grow up learning Afrikaans, that's our home language, we speak Afrikaans in the house. But it's always nice to have a good second language, so he'll have English too.''

As far as heritage goes, there might be a pint-sized Waratahs jersey in his cupboard one day.

But probably never a Wallabies one.