It was never going to be a normal night. I remember my friend getting his South African rugby cap autographed by Springbok wing James Small just before our shift, among the bottles, glasses and bustle of a Johannesburg restaurant, started. A few hours earlier, South Africa won the Rugby World Cup for the first time, beating New Zealand’s All Blacks in the final and sparking a massive party around the country. The players were in a party mood as well and decided to have some drinks where I worked. It was a memorable night and something that was only possible before professionalism gripped rugby.
I was in my second year of studying graphic design, and paying it off by working as a waiter at one of the busiest restaurants in Johannesburg. Storyville was reputed for its Cajun cuisine, celebrities and a dance floor that often only died down when the kitchen started serving breakfast. I always wanted to be the barman because they earned around three times as much as the waiters.
The crowds poured in, most of them already drunk from celebrating the Springbok victory, making it difficult to navigate from the bar to the balcony.
I remember the piercing shrieks of the fans as Small and his Springbok teammate Kobus Wiese arrived at the club. They arrived with a handful of the All Black players they had just beaten, including Jonah Lomu, Zinzan Brooke and Sean Fitzpatrick. After some high fives and handshakes, they disappeared into the heaving mass of revellers.
Around a week before, I saw Lomu having lunch with a young blonde girl at a restaurant next door. I was told that he met a South African girl and fallen madly in love with her. I remember thinking it was quite rock ‘n roll of him. The New Zealander, then, seemed like a blissful giant with a delicate flower in his hands. But now Lomu was talking to another colossus, the two-meter-tall Wiese, at the end of the bar. It seemed like they were reliving the intense battle they shared hours before at Ellis Park, a 20-minute drive away.
The club was heaving, it was almost impossible to make your way towards the exit. I went through the kitchen to the back for a cigarette when one of the managers asked me to help behind the bar. Finally, I had my chance. I flicked my smoke away and ran in to help. Small decided he would help as well. He jumped behind the bar, took his shirt off and haphazardly served drinks to the ladies.
Behind the bar, the sludge from spilled drinks soaked my feet while broken glass was piling up in a corner. Smoke was thick in the air and the bar was bursting with thirsty customers.
I had a searing headache and was trying to think straight while looking at a slip that a waiter had given me. I felt like I was forgetting something but I was distracted by something in the corner of my eye. I looked across the bar – Fitzpatrick, the All Black captain, was dancing on a table to a Michael Jackson song, attracting the attention of all the ladies. I still, however, had a nagging feeling that I was forgetting something.
I decided to escape the chaos and made my way to the kitchen when a hand grabbed my shirt and dragged me back. I could feel the short, prickly hairs of his fingers on the back of my neck. I am a big guy, but the sheer strength of my assailant made me feel helpless. It was Brooke, the gigantic All Black, reaching from the corner of the bar.
I suddenly remembered him ordering a fruit juice a while ago. Still clutching my shirt, he brought his large head close to my ear and explained sternly that, although he was a patient man, he was concerned that he had to wait 20 minutes for a juice. The calmness on his face was more frightening than the wrath he was capable of unleashing. I wriggled out of his grasp and said that the orange juice was coming while slowly moving away from him. As I looked for a glass, he grabbed me again. “One mango juice, please,” he said from his unsmiling mouth.
That’s when I learned not to mess with an All Black, especially when thirsty after they’ve lost the most important match of their life.