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Hasib
October 13, 2003, 08:22 AM
Van Vuuren good doctor to have on your side
By Brendan Gallagher (Filed: 06/10/2003)


These are desperately hard times for Namibian rugby. No money, little infrastructure, just 400 senior players from which to pick and six top internationals boycotting the squad for one reason or another. Over the next month they face certain hidings from Australia, Argentina and Ireland with only their match against Romania at Launceston offering any hope of victory.


Man of may parts: Rudie van Vuuren is also a GP and part-time vet
Yet Dr Rudie van Vuuren, their first-choice fly-half who also opened Namibia's bowling in cricket's World Cup in March, can still raise a smile. In fact you wouldn't know he had a care in the world.

The truth is he has known much worse in his professional life and for him, at least, sport continues to be pure relaxation and pleasure. He is the last of a dying breed and the game will be immeasurably poorer when he and other kindred spirits are forced to accept they can no longer compete at the top level.

Though Australia have rolled out the red carpet for them at Salamander Bay, there is an understandable tendency to bemoan Namibia's lot at present and feel slightly embarrassed for them as they prepare for an uneven struggle against rugby's elite.

But ask yourself a simple question. Who leads a more fulfilling life, Van Vuuren or one of our nose-to-the-grindstone Premiership professionals? Who will get the most enjoyment out of the World Cup? Who would you rather be?

Van Vuuren works in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, as a GP, a modest enough job description that does scant justice to his Herculean efforts. He is at the forefront of the fight against HIV and Aids, a battle that must be won if his emerging African nation on the Atlantic seaboard is to have any future.

The latest estimates are that by 2006 more than 118,000 of Namibia's scattered 1.8 million population will be suffering from Aids. In the course of a normal surgery - 8 am to 4 pm - he estimates that 20 per cent of all ailments he treats are HIV-Aids related.

"Though I spend much of my working life dealing with the effects, prevention is the only way forward," Van Vuuren said. "Our government is doing its best to get the message out, but I don't expect to see the fruits of that for several years yet. We work very hard. We don't have the doctor-patient ratio of First World countries and it can be tough to keep up."

When he is not involved with HIV-Aids cases he increasingly finds himself delivering babies, averaging about 12 a month and many being home births under difficult circumstances. Van Vuuren is one of only four obstetricians in Windhoek and two of those are about to retire so, unless they can be replaced, his workload is about to double.

And then there is his other job, though he prefers to call it his passion. In tandem with his brother-in-law, Schalk van der Merwe, Namibia's fiery flanker who has also rearranged his annual holidays to travel to Australia, he helps to run a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals from Namibia's many game parks.

Their 25,000-acre farm is at Harnas, "just outside Windhoek" says Van Vuuren - which in Namibian terms actually means 200 miles down the road. They have 240 animals in their care and the demand is growing alarmingly.

"The cases vary from rare and valuable lions, who have been damaged in the normal course of their existence, to animals badly mutilated by poachers and to people who have kept small baby baboons as household pets and are then surprised when they grow up and start trashing their house.

"We are partly sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund but actually Schalk's family are the main backers. Over the years they have sold off six small farms to fund the project. When I married into the family, I was quickly recruited as a kind of quasi-vet. Its fantastic work, a privilege.

"How do I fit it all in? Heaven knows. I've never really thought about it. I suppose if I have one outstanding quality as a person it is time management. I can always hear the clock ticking.

"I get up at 5am every morning to fit in training - cricket or rugby depending on the season - before surgery starts. And then, unless there is an emergency, I hit the playing fields or gym again after surgery ends. Everything dovetails nicely. When I'm at work the prospect of a game of rugby that evening keeps me fresh and sharp and, when I'm doing my sport, I can relax away from the medical side of things and return to them with new energy.

"Only by being an amateur can I lead this lifestyle and for that I consider myself very lucky. As a sportsman I still have to pinch myself to believe that I played against Glenn McGrath in the World Cup in March and, all being well later this month, I might line up against George Gregan and Steve Larkham."

Australia proved a very tough day for Van Vuuren, going for a massive 92 runs off his 10 overs of medium pace, but he fared considerably better against India, taking two for 53 including the prized wicket of Sachin Tendulkar.

"I nearly got him with an absolute beauty when he was on six, it missed by this much," recalls Van Vuuren, indicating a hair's breadth with his index finger and thumb. "I got him in the end, though. Only trouble was he had 150 on the board at the time."

Such are the memories that keep Van Vuuren and his ilk going. Of course, it is a mismatch to line them up against full-time professionals. As he says: "I wouldn't expect Jonny Wilkinson to take my Aids clinic so how can I be expected to match him as a player and goal-kicker."

The International Rugby Board have got to tackle the problem head-on and establish semi-professionalism in such countries. In the meantime, however, let's not feel embarrassed for Van Vuuren. Instead, let's celebrate an extraordinary individual and his remarkable achievements, on and off the field.