The try that carries his name came at the cost of Carlos Spencer, and is still rated as one of the best tries in a test match in world rugby. In an instant, Bands had a moment that would follow him around and still does, becoming a legend of the front row, and scoring the try that made all props around the world whoop with delight.
But few know that Bands’ road to that moment, and his short Bok career were based on luck and hard work. And if there wasn’t the belief from a few key individuals, he never would have even tasted provincial rugby, nevermind score one of the best test tries of all time.
Growing up in the North West province, a young Bands was introduced to rugby the hard, uncompromising way, in dusty stadiums where television replays would never exist, and got a taste of the hard yards on the rugby field long before anyone ever knew him.
SEVEN YEARS IN THE WILDERNESS
He made a single appearance for the Stellaland sub-union, a provincial side that has long disappeared before himself disappearing for seven years, emerging at the ripe age of 27 before he finally got his break.
Bands speaks of life in a small town, school at Lichtenburg and club rugby in Mafikeng, a stint in the army and a 20-year old hooker who had dreams, but was hit hard by reality.
“In those days the boys were rough and tough. When you played RPM (Rustenburg Platinum Mines) there were some big boys there. Here you are 20 years old, fit and out of the army, chasing wings and going crazy. But then they chop the tree quite quickly,” he laughs.
“In those days there was only a warning for a fist fight, you shake hands, there was an introduction and you sit with blood on your face.
“Times were tough on the farm as well. During the day I had to farm, and then at night travel to Mafikeng to play club rugby. Sometimes it was difficult, and the motto was, if you don’t attend practises, you don’t play.
“For a few years I couldn’t make practise at Mafikeng and Stellaland as well. So I just stopped.”
A DROUGHT THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
Content to be a farmer, Bands continued away from the rugby field, until nature played an integral part in pushing him back to rugby. And a bit of luck and belief changed his life.
“Then in 1998 I had my third drought and the bank wouldn’t help me with a loan. The only thing I knew was to play rugby. I went to Free State, played a year there, and they didn’t want to give me a contract, because they said I was a sub-standard player. So in 2000 I moved to the Bulls.
“At the end of 2000 Hennie Kriel saw me, and told Heyneke Meyer gave me a contract and things went from there.”
It was the beginning of a journey that would see him help the Bulls to the Vodacom Cup in 2001, Currie Cups in 2002, 2004 and 2006, and win him a Springbok cap and a trip to the 2003 Rugby World Cup.
But in a world where scouts find players and some seem pre-destined to the top, Bands fought his way literally up from the bottom.
“I started my career at Harlequins and played my way up. I took the long and tough road. Coming from a small farming community where you aren’t in the city and where there aren’t scouts, I had to take the low road. I had to play my way up.”
A CHANGE TO BELIEVE IN
In 2001, he was offered a contract with Eric Sauls at SWD Eagles, but it was Heyneke Meyer who saw something in him and asked him to stay. The chat included a shift to tighthead, on Meyer’s advice. And with that Bands was etched into the story of the Bulls empire that built its way up to win the 2007 Super Rugby title.
“Heyneke said to me, stay with the Bulls and in three years time you will be a Springbok. I thought here was a guy who played Stellaland and Free State didn’t want him, so what is this guy smoking? The fact is he saw something in me as he did in so many other players,” he smiled.
“In 2001 I played for the Bulls hooker and Heyneke came and said if you play hooker, you will be ok, but if you change to tighthead, you will become a Bok. The change from hooker to tighthead was pretty easy to me, but you need to have some cahunas to play there.
“I always joke that the guy who played loosehead is a guy who couldn’t make it as a tighthead. It’s a joke between the guys. I played flanker most of my life.
“There is a way things work. You play centre, then you become fat and then you play flanker, and then you get fatter and become a hooker. Then either you make it at loose or tighthead or your career ends. It’s about watching your diet, you can easily sneak from the backline to the front row if you don’t watch your weight. “ Ironically Bands also has two caps at wing – being brought on as a substitute when the Bulls were leading to “get some game time.”
THE TRY THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
And in 2003 he became a Bok. Cue the countless replays of the try that made his name, and the sight of Carlos Spencer flying off the tackle in the background.
“Two weeks ago it was in the newspapers as one of the top 20 tries of all time. Bryan was 14 and I was number 20. I made the cut and I think I was the only front row player in the top 20,” Bands explains as he reminisces about the try.
“Referees are funny guys. They never take the blame for anything. You need to know that you will take that opportunity. He will never blow the whistle to say he was in the way. So I figured out the gap is where the referee stands.
“They are pretty much show ponies as well and will never say they are at fault. So it happened that they kicked the ball and Ashwin (Willemse) took it up. That’s what made Joost such a legend – to see the opportunities, and he passed the ball and I went through the gap just past the referee – and he didn’t blow the whistle.
“Carlos was in the way and I bumped him. I was flabbergasted because New Zealand’s defence was strong at that stage. Looking over my shoulder I couldn’t see any support so I continued and went over for the try.
“It is one of those things, I think I scored three or four tries in my life, and if you are going to do it, you need to do it well. They say life is about timing and the timing was awesome.
“It was a humbling and awesome experience.”
GETTING EVEN WITH CARLOS
It was a replay that has been played over and over again, and will always be part of a highlights reel. And Bands believes it was simply a chance to get even with Spencer, who had “smoked” him the year before in a Super Rugby game.
The try will forever bind the two, who have become friends since and often rib each other on the memories.
“I was fortunate. Funnily enough people remember me for two things – the try against New Zealand and a punch I threw in Potchefstroom in a game against the Leopards. My dad said if you are going to do something, do it well.
“I was never a fighter but I threw a few. The one that counted was for everyone to see, and the try I scored as well. It is awesome that when you get to functions people ask you about it.
“I’ve seen Carlos a few times, and at one function he was on the stage with me. We were on the couch together and people asked about the try. At one stage Carlos nudged me and said “you know Richard, I really f****d up.
“He is an awesome guy and there is a reason he was called King Carlos.
“In 2002 we played the Blues and he came running straight at me and I thought I was going to smoke him. But he looked me in the eye, and just at the right moment sent the offload to Doug Howlett to go and score under the posts. As he turned around he said ‘mate we passed you on the left.’ I said to him that night at the function - after that chirp, I think we are at one-all after I bumped you in Dunedin.”
Bands was a one-man wrecking ball in his time, as Richie McCaw, the great All Black captain will also recall after a “bump” in 2005 when the Bulls stunned the Crusaders at Loftus.
Bands in full flight received the ball, and McCaw was in the way. A second later, the All Black captain was lights out, and stretchered off the field. Bands still feels bad for the incident, which happened in the heat of the game, but has found a funny side of it as well.
“Shame, I saw Richie mentioned me in his book, where he said I was half-man, half brahman (a type of bull). The Bulls were on fire and it was a hot day in Pretoria, 34 degrees at Loftus with no wind, and the Crusaders came from snow and winter to Pretoria.
“We were on fire, we won that game that day. Fourie played me and McCaw was in front of me, and I just smashed him. As I smashed him you could see his arms going straight and he was out. He was lying there for quite a while, and I didn’t know but they were struggling to get his tongue out his throat, he had swallowed his tongue.
“It was a bad incident and I apologised to him afterwards. It was a freak accident. But a funny story behind it, the guys who work at Loftus put a sign on the golf cart that carries the players off – after the knock – they wrote there “Kiwi recovery vehicle”, which was pretty funny. I see it is still on the cart today.”
Rugby may have changed, and safety rules probably mean a prop like Bands won’t be seen again in the modern game, but that one moment in Dunedin will continue to linger in the memories.
And was just reward for a player who fought his way up from the bottom.
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