Former Springbok Joe van Niekerk has recalled the brutality of the boot camp known as ‘Kamp Staaldraad’ used as preparation for the 2003 Rugby World Cup in Australia.
South Africa were in poor form heading into 2003 and had dropped to their lowest-ever position on the World Rugby Rankings up to the time.
The Springbok management opted to put their players through a bizarre boot camp in an effort to toughen the players up, one that van Niekerk does not have fond memories of.
“They wanted to break us, humiliate us, scare us. I even lost four pounds in three days. Kamp Staaldraad, it was crazy when I think about it.
“We called the soldiers ‘Sir’, they answered us using our service number. We had to climb nude through tunnels dug by foxes as they poured frozen water over our heads.
“As long as we were climbing, we were waiting for recordings of God Save The Queen and the Haka. It was crazy, I tell you. We also spent one night in the desert. We were all starved, so the soldiers carried boxes inside of which there were live chickens.
“I grew up in Johannesburg. I’m a little town guy. I had never killed a chicken. Especially since the soldiers refused to give us a knife.
“So we had to kill the beasts with our own hands. I even believe that a player tore out a vein from the animal with his teeth. What a nightmare,” van Niekerk told French publication Midi Olympique.
‘The soldiers threatened us with guns’
On one occasion during the camp, the Springbok players were forced to stay in cold water at gunpoint. Van Neikerk, who was 22 at the time, was disappointed in the squads senior players for allowing such exercises.
“If I had been a team executive at the time, I would have refused to put my team-mates at risk in this kind of exercise.
“One morning, when we had to stay in the very cold water of a lake, some players tried to get back to the shore. The soldiers then threatened them with their gun, even firing two bullets on the ground, van Niekerk explained.
The soldiers running the camp refused to use the Springbok players’ names, in an attempt to remove individuality from the squad, and didn’t tolerate any non-compliance.
“Another afternoon, at 35 degrees, the soldiers gathered us in full sun. Derrick Hougaard raised his hand and asked, ‘Sir, may I ask you a question?’ The soldier replied: ‘Yes, number 42!’
“And Derrick to continue: ‘You wouldn’t have sunscreen?’ We all exploded with laughter and the soldiers were mad with anger. So we queued up to do push-ups while the soldiers came and went on the bridge formed by our backs,” van Niekerk said.
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South Africa ultimately had a disappointing World Cup, crashing out in the quarter-finals after a 29-9 loss to New Zealand.
Head coach Rudolf Straeuli initially defended the camp when details of Kamp Staaldraad emerged, but eventually resigned from his position.