On the ‘stand-off’ between Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse

ashwin willemse

By Heindrich Wyngaard

Some among us refer to Saturday night’s standoff between SuperSport commentators Nick Mallett and Ashwin Willemse after the Springbok victory over Ireland as a “mini-rant” – others, using Afrikaans, calls it an “onderonsie”.

Briefly, this is what happened: Mallet made a remark in which he implicated the whole panel, consisting also of Naas Botha and Hanyani Shimangi, as purportedly having predicted in the 55th minute of the test match that the Boks were heading for a second loss against the Irish visitors.

Willemse then interjected, calling Mallett’s bluff: “No, Nick, you said it; not we.” But Mallett, always allowed the space to dominate the pre-match build-up, halftime, and post-match discussions simply continued. Willemse, however, wouldn’t budge and repeated his viewpoint until the camera moved to him. Apart from setting the record straight he also reminded Mallett – and informed viewers – that he, Willemse, had a different view: He believed the Boks could pull it through.

On iol.co.za, seasoned sports writer Kevin McCallum records the incident as follows:

“After the analysis had turned back to the bad, Willemse stuck his hand up and went on a mini rant. No one in the SuperSport studio could get a word in. ‘We need to support the Boks… We can’t slag them off so much. They deserve more from ‘us’.’ […] Mallett looked suitably cowed by Willemse. He agreed the Boks needed support, but …

“And it is the but … that must be remembered,” continues McCallum. “Saturday was one of the great Springbok escapes, a turnaround to remember and inspire.”

Mallet, a former Springbok player and coach, and Willemse also differed on what caused the “turnaround”: to the former it had much to do with the impact made by the (Lions) substitutions, in particular Lions players like Warren Whiteley, Ruan Combrinck, and Julian Redelinghuys; to the latter, credit was due to new Bok coach Allister Coetzee’s timing with the substitutions. Realising his team was in trouble he acted at the right time.

Yet, almost in disbelief, Herman Mostert noted on Sport24: “Luckily coach Allister Coetzee was bold enough to make the changes […]”

Now, what happened between Mallett and Willemse may only have lasted for as long as a “mini-rant” normally does, but to some among us it was – similar to the Boks’ great escape – an incident “to remember and inspire”.

When Willemse, a former SA Rugby Player of the Year, decided he won’t allow Mallett’s misrepresentation of what transpired off-air passes unchallenged, a few things happened:

1. A sporting hero from a disadvantaged background spoke power to one from a privileged background;

2. The “generational gap” on the panel of rugby commentators, where the “elders” like Mallet and Botha are generally allowed to speak their minds and the “youngsters” simply let it be, were challenged;

3. Willemse, intentionally or not, became a champion for transformation, appealing that the “new” Bok team must be supported (beyond the 55th minute of a test match) and that coach Coetzee is given a fair opportunity to make his mark;

4. The power dynamics on the panel were shaken/shifted; and

5. Even if this might appear a bit far-fetched, the spirit of the youth of 1976 and boxing legend Muhammad Ali was kept alive.

It was, therefore, not merely a “mini-rant” or an “onderonsie”. It heralded the end of the age of innocence on a panel of South African rugby commentators.

Heindrich Wyngaard is the co-author of Rugby Changed My World – The Ashwin Willemse story (Greensmile Publishing, 2015) and Die Gevleuelde Woorde en Wyshede van Peter de Villiers (Lapa, 2009). (edited)