Here follows an extract from Hendrik Hancke’s book, Offhand! A rugby love story.
In the run-up to the Rugby World Cup, journalist Hendrik Hancke criss-crossed the country to talk to ex-Springboks, provincial players and knitters about their love for rugby. In the book Offhand! players such as Jean de Villiers, Gcobani Bobo, Schalk Brits and Frik du Preez share personal triumphs and disappointments, the lessons rugby has taught them and special dressing room moments.
He may have been a pioneer for “little men” in rugby, but in his heart, South Africa’s flikflak king is still a barefoot farm boy from the Koue Bokkeveld and his late mother remains one of his biggest inspirations.
When the 20-year-old Breyton Paulse heard in 1996 that he had been chosen for his beloved WP, he called his mother, Setta Visagie, first.
“Wow, it was a big thing for me to put on the WP jersey at such a young age. The farm people, actually all of the Koue Bokkeveld, almost went mad with joy. I couldn’t believe it myself,” says Breyton, armored in a beanie and a coat against the first serious Boland winter in many years.
“My father died when I was about one year old and my mother, auntie Setta, raised me. She did a lot to get me to where I am today.”
A wave knocked her and her sister, Marie Galant, off the old harbor wall in Hermanus in July 2022. Both women drowned.
Breyton frowned. His voice is slightly softer when he speaks again. “I almost want to say my mother sacrificed her life so that I could get all the chances I needed. She was my mother and my father.”
He still cherishes the call to tell her he is going to play for the WP. “I told her, then there was this dead silence for a few seconds and then she started shouting and making noise. That nice buzz, the one of being excited about something beautiful happening,” says Breyton.
“I can still hear that excitement on the other end of the line. Then my mother said: ‘I hope this is the beginning of great things. Do your best, the best you can, but you better make sure your feet stay on the ground.’ In that moment of happiness, that little message from my mother came through nicely.”
And it took root. “It’s important, because as a young player you have to tread carefully for fame. You can get carried away. You’re going to play for WP now and now you think you’re the cat’s whiskers and all that stuff. I had to hear mother Setta say: ‘Breytie, you keep those feet on the ground.'”
With someone who remains one hundred percent just as he was. “It was an emotional call. My mother knew what we had gone through to get to that call.”
This long road started on the farm De Keur in the mountains of the Koue Bokkeveld beyond Ceres. He spent his primary school days in a small farm school. “There was a school on top of the mountain where all the farm children, including me, later went. I finally completed my matric there at Skurweberg Secondary School in 1994,” says Breyton.
In the Koue Bokkeveld, rugby was everything. “In the farm environment, everyone was rugby crazy when I was little. Always actually. In the Bokkeveld there were two camps – the WP and the Bulls.”
Breyton was never destined for the Bulk Camp. “When I opened my eyes, I was a WP supporter. You know, when I realized what rugby is all about,” he explains.
“The farm owner, Charl du Toit, sent me to the University of Stellenbosch. He still lives on the farm, but is retired. His son now farms there.”
Breyton smiled slightly. “It was a big decision. Our farm children didn’t have a lot of ambition, so it was an adjustment.”
With his move to the Boland, the rest of his life began. “Everything happened so quickly. I went to swot psychology. Rugby was in the back of my mind though. One only hoped and dreamed, but so many great men – men who played Cravenweek, guys with titles – come to Maties…”
In Stellenbosch, Breyton was suddenly a very small fish in a very big pond. “I then had to start swimming very quickly,” he reckons.
And he did. Before long, this flashy Bokkevelder was a star, first in Maties’ under-19 team and then in the first team.
“That’s when I realized: wait a minute, this is quite cool. You should know, here I am playing on green grass fields. We were used to sand fields in the Koue Bokkeveld. It was a big one for me step up.”
His studies later lagged behind. “I still have to fit in about one year of psychology studies.”
Although Breyton will be known in the history books as one of the best right wingers to ever play for South Africa, that was not actually his position. “I was flyhalf for my school and captain as well. Then I played flyhalf for Maties under-19 and then the first team.”
Was he the fastest flyhalf in the Bokkeveld?
“Man, it must be something like that. We always stole apples and then the farmer chased us. I think that’s where I got my speed from!” he jokes.
As a child, he admired the prince of wings. “I supported the great spirit Carel du Plessis and his men when I was still a farmer on the farm.
“My big hero was Carel because he scored so many tries. I may have played flyhalf, but I also scored a lot of tries. Carel’s speed, his ingenuity and his kicks impressed me terribly. Years later, Carel coached me at the WP. It was also quite a big moment for me.”
Things in life don’t always turn out the way you thought they would. “Sometimes it works for you, other times against you. I had to fight hard to get into the WP.”
Breyton remembers his first time on the green grass of Newlands. “My first game at Newlands was for Maties against the Ikeys in 1995. It was just such a big moment for me. The night before I couldn’t sleep. It was running through my mind the whole time that tomorrow I would be putting on my tux in the legendary Newlands dressing room. Even better, I’m going to play on the holy ground’s grass. The same grass the Carels played on!”
He smiles. “I am very sentimental about such things. I also think that if a guy wants something, you have to make sure you know what the history of that area is. Before I ran up to Newlands that first time, I got goosebumps. When I ran up there the last time, it was still like that all the way.”
In 1996, about a year after the Ikeys match, Breyton made the WP team. “I blossomed quite quickly at Maties. Things happened for me and then at some stage the coachAlan Zondagh, made room for me, then he threw me in there on the wing.”
So was the man behind 26 tries in 64 tests actually a random winger?
“Louis Koen was the flyhalf at that time. I said it was fineeven if I play hooky, I just want to play.”
At the WP, Breyton soon fitted in, but his boiling water game did not make a big enough impression on the Bok coaches. “This after two years of constant level of play in Super Rugby. You know, I scored about the most Super Rugby tries of all the South Africans in those two years, but I just couldn’t get a place with the Boks.”
Breyton believes his size worked against him. “You have to remember Nick Mallett was the coach at the time. He didn’t always like the little men.”
This did not stop the “little” Breyton. “I had to work extra hard to get into that team. In the 1999 World Cup year he couldn’t put it off any longer and then Nick had to give me a chance.”
And there comes one of the most important calls of his life. “Just after the 1999 Super season I am at my home in the Cape. It’s the week before the Bok group’s rally. My phone rings. It’s Nick.”
He shook his head as his mind reeled back to that milestone moment. “Nick says: ‘Listen, you’re going to start for me against Italy.’ I could not believe my ears. Nick really didn’t like little men. It was quite an emotional moment. The previous year, he just didn’t want to choose me, but here it’s happening all the time.”
Breyton the Goat.
“It’s hard to describe that feeling. It’s like a blur. One has a hard time believing it. You are speechless and don’t know what to think or say. But you know immediately now that a job will have to be done.”
He laughs softly.
“Wow, what a wonderful call to get… It was the beginning of a long journey. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there yourself. Before the time, it all feels like it’s happening so slowly – it’s like you’re wrestling through gold syrup to that Goat jersey, but when you’re first selected, it’s like everything before that moment is a blur is.”
Then comes the first game day. “When you walk into that dressing room, it’s something very special. It’s such a warm place. You walk in there and it’s as if you run into an invisible wall when you realize your presence in that place is more of a privilege than a right,” says Breyton. “Probably the most special is when you get to your seat and your number 14 Green and Gold jersey is hanging there looking at you!”
Then comes another realization: “A big one. Today you will put on this green jersey for the first time and line up with your comrades to sing the national anthem. An emotion builds up in you that you can only experience in one place release – on the field.
“But you also have to stay calm beforehand because you only have so much energy and you don’t want to waste it before you’re on the grass. As a guy gets older, you start to learn to bottle up that emotion and only let it out on the field at the right moments.”
He nodded his head. “It’s like extra petrol that you carry in your heart.”
This excerpt from Hendrik Hancke’s book, Offhand!is favorable by Jonathan Ball supply. The book costs R290 (price subject to change). Click here to add the book Graffiti Books to acquire.