DUBAI // The fire is still burning bright for Joost van der Westhuizen. If anyone had been in any doubt over what amounted to an exhibition match against a British & Irish veteran XV yesterday meant to the great Springbok scrum-half, then it should have been patently clear by the end.
Van der Westhuizen's South African Legends side were nine points ahead, deep into the second half, at the time. Victory was all but assured. He had been replaced but still he would not let up, making a goggles gesture to the touch judge over the failure to award offside during a harmless piece of play from the British side in midfield. Blatant offside in his view. Awful decision not to ping the British side for it. This was a manifestation of his deep sense of pay-back for 1997, when his Boks side lost to the British & Irish Lions.
"The thing about the guys is, beforehand we are happy to have fun and talk about the game, but the moment it starts, we are all going for it together," reflected van der Westhuizen, 39, following the 35-24 victory at Jebel Ali Shooting Club yesterday. "If you play rugby half-heartedly, you are going to get injured. We have played the Lions five times now and we have won four. It is very competitive.
"What makes this win special is the fact I was the one who fell for the [Matt] Dawson dummy in 1997. It was good to get them back." Their opponents' claim to being termed a British Legends side was somewhat tenuous, due mainly to circumstances beyond their control. The travel chaos caused by the volcanic ash cloud over European airspace had deprived them of a number of their original squad. In particular, the absence of John Bentley, the powerful winger who contributed so much to that Lions win on South African soil in 1997, was keenly felt.
"On Tuesday night, we weren't coming - it is as simple as that," said Scott Hastings, the former Scotland centre. "All the guys woke up on Wednesday and started texting and e-mailing each other to say flights were back on and the airspace was open. "It was a tremendous effort. When you agree to these things you have made a commitment to the supporters, and the players felt that they had to get here."
To bolster their ranks, the UK side had called on the best available local talent they could find. Indeed, they were more like Arabian Gulf Legends than British Legends at one point. It threatened to have embarrassing consequences early in the piece as Andy Russell, a South African expatriate who plays fly-half for Dubai Dragons, stole the show from his illustrious counterparts. So influential was Russell, he even earned a late tackle and shove from Pieter Muller, the South African centre, clearly meant to warn him don't come down my channel again anytime soon.
"They phoned me up on Tuesday and said I might be needed to help out because of the ash cloud," said Russell, whose brother Brent is a South African sevens great. "I was happy to offer my services as I was coming to the game anyway. Some of these guys are my heroes, from the 1995 World Cup, so it was a great experienced. "There was a bit of rivalry there, and I got a little bit of a late hit at one point. They were trying to niggle me a bit because they knew I was South African. I'm glad the South Africans won, but we were competitive as well, so it worked out perfectly."