JOHANNESBURG - Rugby is virtually a religion in South Africa, especially among the country’s white population. South Africa’s team, the Springboks, have won the sport’s Holy Grail - the World Cup - twice. Now, ahead of the next tournament in England, starting September 18, an unlikely shrine to rugby is uniting South African sports fans of all colors and creeds
Silver-haired and always smiling, Bennie Botes has cut generations of men’s hair in his shop in the working-class Johannesburg suburb of Newlands.
A client chats with Botes as others wait their turn for a haircut. Among them are a burly, bearded mechanic wearing oil-stained boots and the suited multimillionaire owner of a shopping mall.
What attracts such a diverse clientele is an amazing collection of rugby paraphernalia.
On the walls and ceiling are thousands of autographed rugby jerseys, caps, pens, scarves, balls, glasses and flags, all hunted down by Botes or donated to him by rugby fans across the world.
The barber said his “obsession” with all things rugby started with a friend’s joke, almost 50 years ago.
“He said, ‘Why doesn’t you start making it not only a plain barbershop?’ And from that day it’s just growing, and growing, and growing,” said Botes.
Botes’ rugby gear overflows into the back of his shop and his nearby house.
Over the years Botes has cut many Springbok legends’ hair. They too, were happy to donate valuable memorabilia.
“Like Oom Piet Malan; he died now, a month ago. I was honored to know him very well. And Fanie King – beautiful rugby players, good rugby players. Then my oldest Transvaal player – Oom Tienie Mathyssen,” recalled Botes.
One of his favorite items is a 19th century rugby ball from England – a massive leather, laced oval about three times the size of a modern ball.
Botes said his business only looks like a barbershop - it’s actually South Africa’s only “true” rugby museum.
“My book collection is from 1818, from the start of rugby… That’s the oldest [item], that book. And then I’ve got a photo there from 1912 – 1913, of the Springboks,” he said, pointing out the items.
Then he gestured towards a green bottle covered in dust. Its label is falling apart, but on it is the famous symbol of South African rugby, a jumping Springbok antelope.
“I’ve got a bottle of wine. He’s more than 100 years [old],” said Botes.
As customers nearby clamor for him to open the bottle, Botes refuses with a laugh. “No, no, no! I can give you a glass of water but not my wine!”
Botes’ colleague, Louis de Hart, said many rugby fans – men, women and children – visit Bennie’s not for a haircut, but just to talk rugby and to stare in wonder at the memorabilia.
“They all like have a debate about the teams. Sometimes they gooi (throw) a bit of arguing. Not like physical, but that happens a lot here,” said de Hart.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, some of Botes’ diehard patrons watched a local rugby game on TV inside the barbershop.
At times like these they often share their fondest rugby memories.
Peter Wilson recalled his first schoolboy rugby game in the 1940s.
“I was so stupid! I was a front-ranker. I took the ball, and when the chap came rushing to me, I threw the ball over his head and ran around him to catch it again! I didn’t even know about the forward pass [rule]. I made a proper idiot of myself,” he said.
At Bennie’s there’s cautious optimism about the Springbok’s chances of capturing an unprecedented third rugby world cup title.
“What I always say is: It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” said Wilson.
Outside his shop, Botes fires up the barbecue on the pavement and the party starts. Naturally, a CD of some of South Africa’s most loved rugby tunes plays in the background.
Back inside, Botes gazes at a faded photo. It’s Loftus Versfeld Stadium, Pretoria, 1968. And Springbok scrumhalf Dawie de Villiers has just scored a try to destroy the British Lions.
The barber whispers: “Do it again, boys. Do it again.”