Heinrich, Sop-Sop or Soppies - call him whatever you like, but there is no doubting that Heinrich de Waal loomed large over the domestic rugby scene during the height of apartheid.
The soft-spoken Swakopmund-born lad was one of the most influential figures in local rugby, while his laid-back style, good looks and keen belief that one cannot play normal sport in an abnormal society belies a deep passion for the oval ball game.
Although apartheid constantly kept him out of team selections to represent his country South West Africa in the highly competitive Sport Pienaar and Currie Cup competitions – he made up for that lost opportunity when he was the only player from north of the Orange River to represent the rebel Namibia Amateur Rugby Union (NANRU) at the South African Rugby Union (SARU), under the auspices of the vocal South African Council on Sports (SACOS).
Soppies was a vital cog in the local rugby machinery and finally got the recognition he so dearly deserved after he was unjustifiably denied by the skewed selection policy under the apartheid regime.
The speedy winger was among the first set of players to represent a truly non-racially picked Namibian Rugby XV when he turned out for his beloved country against the visiting Zimbabwean team to mark Namibia’s independence celebrations in 1990.
SWAKOPMUND – Many coloured children growing up in the Cape Strand Township, one of Swakopmund’s most populated residential areas in years gone by were dictated by circumstances beyond their control to chase an inflated piece of leather in the form of the beautiful game of football.
At the time the most famous footballer in the country was one Hermann “Pele” Blaschke, who went on to have a successful career with South African glamour football club Kaizer Chiefs, while he also enjoyed a stint in America in the intervening years.
Blaschke is probably the country’s most successful football export, albeit not in monetary terms but on the field of play.
Soppies was indeed a latecomer to the world of rugby as he began life in sport as an accomplished footballer and sprinter of note in the 100, 200 and 400-metre sprints at school level where he called the shots from his primary school days until high school.
He was the undisputed champion at the Tamariskia Higher Primary School but met his match in the form of fellow sprinters Ludwig Ndandu and Wolfgang Erich, who made him play second fiddle in the annual SWAIKS Games and had to be satisfied with a 3rd place finish. He enrolled at the Technical College at the Academy for Education in Windhoek in 1981 and continued to combine football and athletics with great aplomb.
The multi-talented Soppies played as a striker for the Academy team and would occasionally shift between the goalposts to man the sticks, if the situation demanded.
In the meantime, his late brother-in-law Ossie Campell persuaded him to try his hand at rugby, and as they say the rest is history. He joined Western Suburbs Rugby Club where he started out as a hooker for the Khomasdal-based outfit’s third team.
“Suburbs had great rugby players in the mould of Karel Persendt, Corrie Mensah, Peter Boonzaaier, Nimrod Williams, Keith Allies, James Camm, Clive Smith, Raymond Maasdorp and the Walters brothers Gordon and Melwyn. So, I really struggled to break into the first team,” reveals the humorous Sop-Sop.
Soppies was duly chosen to represent the TISAN team in the South African Athletics Championship in Bloemfontein in 1986, but he was eliminated in the heats in the presence of South African sprinting sensation Wessel Oosthuizen, who swept the boards. He joined Rossing Uranium Mine upon completion of his studies and was immediately thrown into the mix of things when he was pitted alongside the legendary Frank Fredericks, Abraham Soa-oabeb, Lucky Gawanab, Leon Carew, Herman Garus-Oab, Giddies Gawanab and the late Patrick Basson representing the star-studded Rossing athletics team in the popular Chamber of Mines Games.
He was a founder member of Dolphin Rugby Club and continued his fragile rugby career at the Swakopmund-based outfit and eventually got to grips with the tough and demanding rigours of rugby and managed to cement himself a place in the first team’s starting fifteen.
The lightning fast Sop-Sop was deployed as a hooker for the team’s first few games before he was converted to a winger as a result of his amazing speed.
“There were many great teams competing in the Western League and the competition was very tough but we had a fairly good team and competed fiercely against our opponents. We also introduced the annual Day of the Dolphin, which attracted lots of non-white teams from as far as Lüderitz,” recalls Soppies.
Being subjected to second-hand citizenship by those at the helm of Namibian rugby, Dolphin and many other teams resolved to break away from what they termed the racist South West Africa Rugby Union. The disgruntled clubs formed the Namibian National Rugby Union (NANRU) with the slogan, “We can’t play normal sport in an abnormal society,” a crystal-clear reference to the prejudices stacked against players of colour.
“There were hopelessly too many injustices and prejudices, including skewed selection policies, deliberately biased refereeing and all sorts of oppressive and discouraging decisions. Literally, the rugby union had two different sets of rules, one for darkies and another for larneys.”
Soppies became a regular face in the NANRU Invitational Rugby XV under the auspices of the South African Council of Sports (SACOS) and represented the union against several South African provincial sides from the breakaway South African Rugby Union (SARU). He toured places like Johannesburg, King Williams Town, Saldhana, Upington and Guguletu - Cape Town.
Soppies was the only member from Namibia chosen to represent the South African Rugby Union (SARU)’s Under-23 rugby fifteen in an exhibition match against the strong South African Universities combined side in Port Elizabeth in 1987. He was also among very few players of colour to feature for Henning Snyman’s Biltong Boere during Namibia’s Independence Celebrations in front of a large crowd at Windhoek’s Independence Stadium in 1990. However, his international rugby career was to be short-lived when he was mysteriously grounded after featuring for the Namibian shadow team in two test matches.
“Make no mistake, Namibia had a very good team with guys like Andre Stoop, Gerhard Mans, Mannie Grobler, Shaun McCully, Bassie Buitendag, Casper Dirks, Sarel Losper and Arra van der Merwe among others. However, I still believe I was good enough to make the team but the selectors thought it otherwise and I just had to live by it.” Despite the disappointment of being left to kick his heels in frustration following his omission from the national team – Soppies took solace from his involvement with his beloved Dolphin Rugby Club as the coastal side enjoyed some success in the domestic league.
Some of his team-mates at Dolphin included Ossie Campell, Mark Swartz, Thomas Coetzee and Tommy Forbes. The club won the first division league title and several club championships."