x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Man who taught Matt Damon rugby now teaches in the UAE

A Dubai-based rugby coach trained Matt Damon, nominated for an Oscar for his role as the South African rugby captain François Pienaar in the film Invictus.

The South African rugby captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, urges his team on to World Cup victory in the movie Invictus.
The South African rugby captain François Pienaar, played by Matt Damon, urges his team on to World Cup victory in the movie Invictus.

The actor Matt Damon was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the South African rugby captain François Pienaar in the movie Invictus. But how did a Hollywood actor learn to play the game so convincingly? The man with the answer teaches in the UAE. s Rugby has always been a part of Rudolf de Wee's life. But he never thought it would land him a job working alongside Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

That's what happened when a childhood friend, the South African rugby star Chester Williams, asked the Dubai-based coach to help train actors for the movie Invictus. Mr de Wee was soon in Cape Town, working with a cast that included some of Hollywood's biggest stars and earning a couple of on-screen moments himself. The film charts South Africa's victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, a moment that helped unite a country that had been torn apart by apartheid.

Directed by Eastwood, it stars Freeman as the former South African president Nelson Mandela and Damon as François Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks rugby squad. It is a story that Mr de Wee knows well. He grew up under apartheid in Paarl, Cape Town, and was 20 years old when Mr Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after serving a 27-year sentence for anti-apartheid activity. When Mr Mandela was elected president, Mr de Wee saw how he used his support for the team to unite the black and white communities of South Africa.

The movie's portrayal of the story, Mr de Wee said, is "very accurate". Mr de Wee, now 40, received a call from Williams, the only black member of the 1995 World Cup team, in February 2009 while in Johannesburg. His old friend asked him to come to Cape Town to help choose and train players for the film. Hundreds of people, from rugby players to film fans, flocked to the auditions. Some were semi-professional players. Others could barely play, he said, but were eager to be a part of putting history on the big screen.

"For South Africans, sport is everything," he said. "Winning that World Cup was so important for the whole country. "It's something we saw that, as a country, we could achieve. We can play together, live together. Whatever colour you are, you're South African. "It brought so much hope for us. The whole world was idolising us with Mandela. He put us on the map. For us as a country, that win was a unifying force."

Mr de Wee appeared in the film twice, once as Paul Hull on the England team, and again as George Gregan on the Australian team. For a month, the actors worked six to eight hours a day as some of rugby's most historic games were re-enacted. The result was a film that "is part of history", Mr de Wee said. "It's important for people to see what happened from a historical perspective," he said. "It will be good for the country in the long term."

He recalled the scene in which Damon, in the role of Pienaar, stood in Mr Mandela's cell on Robben Island. "As he stretched his arms out from one side of the cell to the other you could see how much it meant," he said. "He was taking it all in. This was more than just a film, but being part of something bigger." The cast and crew were grateful for the help of Williams and Mr de Wee, who made sure the actors were well trained.

"Chester wanted to make sure we played real rugby in the film," Eastwood said in an interview with American Rugby News, a website. "He said, 'None of this fake movie stuff. We're going to play proper rugby,' as he put it. It's a very tough game, and the guys who play it are a special breed of cat." Williams provided technical assistance, as well. The film's producer, Lori McCreary, said: "Chester was a great adviser because he remembers every single play and where every person was. He was in a unique position in 1995, being the only black player on the Springboks. He became kind of a symbol at the time."

Today, Mr de Wee coaches young players in Dubai, which he said was "the polar opposite to South Africa". The city's melting pot of cultures and nationalities was something he had never seen in the country Mr Mandela hoped would be the true "rainbow nation", he said. "It was the first thing I noticed but it means you feel very welcome here." He has played rugby since the age of five and was a semi-professional player with Paarl Rugby Club, one of the oldest clubs in South Africa, by the age of 20. He also joined the police force then.

Ten years later, he felt the need to concentrate on his career in law enforcement and spend less time on the pitch. "By that time, I wanted a career with what I was doing with the police, so I had to scale down the rugby," he said. "By that point I already had two children and I had other responsibilities." A little more than six years ago, he began teaching rugby at Paarl Boys, one of the top high school teams in South Africa.

He started when his first child, Rogan, now 14, wanted to learn the sport like his father. He saw that his son's coach had 45 children to work with, and decided to get involved. "I set up some drills for the kids and after that they wanted me to come back every night," he said. What began as part-time coaching while he worked as a detective, eventually became a full-time job. At 34, he made a change in his career path that brought him back to the game he loved.

Now, he teaches at schools in Abu Dhabi and Dubai with Libra, the sport consultancy and academies specialists that send coaches into schools and hosts outdoor activities for children. Some of the young talent, including two young girls in Abu Dhabi, will join the Arabian Gulf team so that their skills can be taken to the next level. Mr de Wee teaches at Al Raha International School, Canadian School and British International School in Abu Dhabi and the Greenfield Community School in Dubai. He said his job keeps him busy, picking out and nurturing some of the country's budding young stars as well as introducing them to his passion.

"Rugby for us is life. In South Africa, it means everything," he said. @Email:mswan@thenational.ae