9 November 2016 – Robin Howell (class of 2007) recently represented the South African Rugby League national team, the Rhinos, in a two-test series against Niue. A flank in rugby union in school, he now plays either wing or fullback in the 13-man-a-side game.
“It was a real honour and privilege to be selected to represent the country. It was a great, happy feeling,” he said.
Singing the national anthem before playing for one’s country is a very emotional experience, said Robin Howell
Playing a test match is an intense, emotion-filled experience, especially just before the match, he added: “You get a big rush in your tummy. You’re nervous. You don’t know what is going on really until you’re 10 minutes into the game. Standing there in front of Niue doing the haka was an amazing feeling.”
Robin, from Ladybrand, attended Saints from 2003 to 2007, beginning in Storey House and finishing in Chandler. He represented the school’s under-14A and under-15A rugby teams, but was then was out of action for two years after breaking an ankle. In 2007, he played for the 1st XV under the coaching of Kassie van Kasterop.
After school, though, rugby was put on the backburner as he turned his attention towards his studies. Then he joined the Benoni Rugby Club.
Introduction to rugby league
It was about five years ago when he first learned of rugby league: “I was playing Union rugby for them [Benoni] and when the season finished the guys suggested that I play rugby league in the off-season,” Robin recalled. “I had no idea what it was. I decided to try it because it was something different.
“Fitness-wise it was a little bit different, but I had been playing Valke sevens rugby for a couple of years, so my fitness was okay. The adjustment wasn’t that big until I started playing fullback or wing.”
With rugby union so ingrained into the South African sports’ psyche, rugby league has served as a poor second cousin, but the game is slowly starting to gain some traction in the country, he said.
Robin Howell takes the attack to Niue
“We are trying to pick it up in South Africa. It isn’t very big, but it has picked up a little bit in the last couple of years.”
The limited numbers of players has meant limited international opportunities and adjusting to the international game is not easy. “The speed of the game at international level is completely different. Everything happens so quickly and then, all of a sudden, the game is done. It goes by so fast,” Robin said.
In 2015, South Africa played a two-leg World Cup qualifier against Lebanon, but were soundly beaten, which meant they missed out on the Rugby League World Cup 2017. They will, instead, participate in a World Cup for up-and-coming nations, which will take place at the same time as the World Cup.
“We’re learning as much as possible. We have some tours planned for next year, which include Ireland, Serbia, the up-and-coming World Cup and Niue. We’ve got to learn as many lessons as possible, learn from the mistakes we make, and go forward and build rugby league in South Africa, and become one of the stronger countries in the world,” Robin reckoned.
At present rugby league has a presence in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Port Elizabeth. There is possibly a team in Bloemfontein, he said, and work is being done to expand the game throughout the country. “Next year we want to get a couple of development teams going. We want to go to the bigger cities and promote rugby league.”
But being in direct opposition to the big money, established brand of rugby union is not easy and growing rugby league is a slow, laborious process. The difference between the two forms of the game is most clear in terms of sponsors.
Robin explained: “We are getting there slowly. We have struggled over the years. To get Niue to come here, we had to sell T-shirts, we had to sell raffle tickets, we had to go out and find sponsors, which was difficult.
“We are trying and we’re getting there. Slowly but surely backers are coming on board.”