Great Springbok Captains of the Amateur Era

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Morne du Plessis

Willem Frost writes a brief history on some of the best Springbok captains of the amateur era

For much of the twentieth century the Springboks dominated world rugby, much like the All Blacks are doing these days.  Not only did South Africa produce some phenomenal rugby players and teams, but the leadership on and off the field was usually exemplary. Unfortunately international matches were not as common as today and some of our greatest players and captains played only a handful of test matches. Some of them played fewer tests during their career than today’s Springboks will play in a single season.

This should however not take anything away from their greatness. It is also interesting that in the pre-World War II years, it seldom happened that anyone captained the Springboks for more than one series. Great captains like Paul Roos, Phil Mostert and Bennie Osler had only one season at the helm. The reasons are not clear, but the infrequent tours to and from South Africa might have something to do with it.

Here is my list of South Africa’s greatest rugby captains during the amateur era.

Barry Heatlie

Heatlie was not only a great player, but also a much respected captain. He had an exceptional understanding of the game and was inspiring leader of men. He played only six tests for South Africa and captained the side in three of those. He played in three series against the British Lions: 1891, 1896 and 1903 – two tests in each series. He led the side in the last test of the 1896 series  – South Africa’s first win over an international team.

In 1903 he led his country to a first series win, again against the British Isles. It must be remembered that in those days the home union hosting the test match was responsible for selecting the national team to play on the day. This was largely a shambles with preference being given to local players. So, Heatlie should have played a few more internationals. In 1905 he left for Argentina and was not available for the 1906/7 tour to Britain. Had he been available he might well have captained South Africa again.

Barry Heatlie
Barry Heatlie

Paul Roos

The 1906/7 team members elected Paul Roos as captain for the tour – an articulate man with a strong personality, impeccable integrity and excellent all round leadership qualities. He was certainly someone that everybody looked up to. He made his test debut in the last test of 1903 against the British Lions and played his last test in 1907 against England. Paul Roos is also remembered for giving the South African team the name ‘Springboks’.

Paul Roos
Paul Roos

Boy Morkel

Morkel was not only one of South Africa’s finest forwards, but also a very good captain. He made his debut for the Springboks against the 1910 British Lions and on the 1912/13 tour to the UK he was so impressive that the British press named him the “Prince of Forwards”. In 1921 the selectors recalled him at the age of 35 for the first ever Springbok tour to New Zealand. Although Theo Pienaar was tour captain, Morkel led the Boks in all three internationals and excelled in the captain’s role.

Boy Morkel
Boy Morkel

Phil Mostert

Mostert was selected as an unknown youngster for the 1921 tour but returned with the reputation as South Africa’s best forward. For the remainder of his international career he was an automatic choice for the Springbok pack. He was not only as strong as an ox, but had great all round rugby skills including a deep understanding of the game. He had very good hands and feet, exceptional pace for such a big and strong forward, could kick with the best, and had brilliant rugby brain.

Phil Mostert was called the “Gentle Giant” because, although he was a man of steel, he was never known to hit or kick an opponent, something that was rather common in those days. His concentration on the game was quite phenomenal. In 1928 he captained South Africa against the All Blacks who still rated him as South Africa’s best forward. He was favoured to lead the Springboks on the 1931/2 tour to Britain, even though he was already 33, but the job was given to another great leader of men, Bennie Osler. This was a nevertheless somewhat of a surprise to many rugby followers.

Although he was getting on in years, Mostert was an experienced and acknowledged leader and his form was as good as ever. Even when Mostert was not captain, the younger players in the team looked up to him for inspiration and leadership. Truly a great man and a great leader.

Phil Mostert
Phil Mostert

Bennie Osler

Bennie Osler is still today regarded as one of South Africa’s greatest Springboks and match winners. In his day he dominated the South African rugby scene like few others since. He was a brilliant flyhalf who had great speed of the mark, very good hands and a phenomenal appreciation of tactics on the field. He could kick the ball with pin point accuracy and was the first flyhalf to really master the art of tactical kicking behind an awesome pack of forwards.

His arsenal of tactical attacking kicks was something to behold and his line kicking was phenomenal for consistent length and accuracy. In addition, he could break the line when the opportunity presented itself. In the first test in Durban against the 1928 All Blacks, he was at his brilliant best and scored two drop goals, two penalty goals and he also created Jack Slater’s try for a final score of 17 – 0. That test match became known as Bennie Osler’s Test.

He then captained the Springboks very successfully on the 1931/2 tour to the UK, but lost the captaincy to Philip Nel for the 1933 series against the Wallabies probably because he kicked too much on the UK tour and because he had fixed ideas about how the game should be played. Like Naas Botha, many years later, he was subjected to much criticism for kicking too much, but there can be no doubt that he was a tactical genius and a great leader of men on a rugby field.

Bennie Osler
Bennie Osler

Philip Nel

Nel was only a school boy when he was first selected to play for Natal. He went on to play in all four tests against the 1928 All Blacks, all four tests on the 1931/32 tour to the UK, and took over the captaincy from Bennie Osler for 1933 series against the Wallabies. He missed the second test through injury, but led the Boks in the remaining tests to a series victory.

In 1937, at the age of 34, he captained the Springboks again on the famous tour to Australia and New Zealand. This is still the only Springbok team to win a series in New Zealand and is regarded by some as the best Springbok team ever.  He was a big, hard, powerful lock forward, but a real gentleman who never played dirty. He believed in open running rugby which made the 1937 Springboks very popular in New Zealand.

Nel was a key member of the South African pack from 1928 to 1937 – an era when the Springbok forwards simply dominated everything in their path. The 1931/32 pack is regarded by many as the best Springbok pack in history, even better than that of the 1937 team, but the 1937 back line was in a class of its own.

Hennie Muller

Hennie Muller played from 1949 to 1953 for South Africa – 13 tests in which captained the side 9 times. He was probably the greatest number eight the world has ever seen; as hard as they come and the fastest and fittest Springbok in his era. Not even Chum Ochse or Tjol Lategan could out sprint him. He is remembered for his bone crushing tackles, exceptional fitness, speed around the field and his unwavering commitment to Springbok rugby.

He had such a dramatic impact on the 1949 series against the All Blacks (which the Boks won 4 – 0) that the International Rugby Board wanted to change the laws of the game in order to curtail the devastation caused by Muller! Basil Kenyon was appointed as captain of the 1951/2 tour to Britain but a serious eye injury soon ruled him out of the tour. Hennie Muller took over as captain and was a huge success.

In 1953 he also captained South Africa against the Wallabies and then retired. The Boks lost only one of the nine tests in which Muller was captain; the second test against the Wallabies. It was also the only test lost during Muller’s Springbok career. The Boks won the first test against the Wallabies with ease, 25 – 3, but then the selectors dropped the aging Hannes Brewis for the second test in favour of Ian Kirkpatrick. The latter did not have a good game and the rhythm was gone in the back line. Not even Hennie Muller could save the test and Boks went down 14 – 18.

The combination of Hennie Muller and coach Danie Craven undoubtedly played a significant role in the Springbok successes during the Hennie Muller era. On the field Muller always led from the front, setting an example for the Springboks to dominate in all facets of the game, uncompromising and totally committed.

Dawie de Villiers

Dawie de Villiers burst into the international rugby theatre in 1962 when, as an unknown Matie who had played only two games for Western Province,  he was selected for the Junior Springboks to play the British Lions at Loftus Versfeld. He had such a brilliant game that he was immediately included in the Springbok team for the second test. He played in the second and third tests and then suffered a very serious knee injury. It was feared his rugby days were over.

Doc Danie Craven took young De Villiers under his wing and over the next two years worked relentlessly to heal and strengthen the knee. Early in the 1965 season Dawie de Villiers had recovered sufficiently to be included as vice-captain in Avril Malan’s team on a short tour to Scotland and Ireland. The tour was a complete disaster and Avril Malan retired on the team’s return to South Africa. But now a team had to be put together for a tour to Australia and New Zealand.

Not surprisingly the captaincy was given to 24 year old Dawie de Villiers and he retained the captaincy until the end of the 1970 season when he retired. If ever there was an inspirational leader of the Springboks it was Dawie de Villiers. 1965 was one disastrous year for the Springboks with only one win in eight test matches. Thereafter SA rugby embarked on an operation “regruk” to restore former Springbok glory.

Dawie de Villiers played a very significant role in this process and led South Africa to series victories over the French (1967 and 1968), the Lions (1968), the Wallabies (1969) and the All Blacks (1970). He also led the Springboks on the demonstration ridden tour to the UK in 1969/70 when a section of the British public, organised by one despicable Peter Hain, terrorised the Springboks relentlessly, day and night, in an attempt to disrupt the tour by any means possible. This was certainly one of the low points in British history and Hain became the most hated man in South Africa.

The Springboks found it difficult to adjust to the daily disruption, but refused to cancel the tour and eventually came home with their dignity intact although they lost two test matches and drew the other two.  The leadership by Dawie de Villiers on this tour was outstanding and he gained much respect as a true sportsman, a gentleman and an ambassador for his country. The South African rugby public carried him on their hands.

Following the debacle in the UK, the 1970 All Blacks arrived in South Africa as hot favourites to win the series – the first time an All Black team would achieve this in South Africa. There can be no doubt that the 1970 All Blacks was one of the best teams ever to tour South Africa. After all, they were unbeaten for five years. One paper they certainly looked a better team than the Springboks. However, the inspiring leadership of Dawie de Villiers, perhaps most of all, saw the Springboks home to a hard fought 3 – 1 series win.

During his Springbok career Dawie de Villiers only missed test matches due to injury; a fit Dawie was always an automatic choice at scrumhalf. From 1965 onward he was also an automatic choice as captain. He had the confidence, steel, determination, intelligence, philosophic outlook on life, and firm resolve to lead the Springboks in their quest to regain the title as world rugby champs.

Dawie De Villiers
Dawie De Villiers

Morne du Plessis

Morne was a very successful Springbok captain. He became captain in 1975 against France and led the Springboks to 13 victories in the 15 tests when he was captain – a remarkable winning percentage. He also captained Western Province to victory in 103 of his 112 provincial games. His father, Felix du Plessis, captained the Springboks in the first three tests of 1949 and his mother was a Springbok hockey captain. So, he was a born leader and leadership came naturally to him, on and off the field.

However, Du Plessis was also controversial, especially early in his career when he was involved in a number of punch-ups and when he was the subject of contemptuous jokes and references to his lankiness. In the north of the country he had nicknames like “Gironkie” and “the scrum inspector”. His rather liberal political views were also disliked. But when he knocked a Free State player out cold with a good right, he was at last regarded as being tough enough to play for South Africa.

Morne du Plessis matured into a much respected captain; once he became Springbok captain he was never really challenged for his position or captaincy. The second test against the 1976 All Blacks in Bloemfontein was not one of Morne du Plessis’s best days. In fact he played poorly, as he did in the first test in Durban, and must have been close to being dropped from the team. There was however no logical alternative and he was retained for the crucial third test at Newlands. At Newlands he was at his brilliant best. It was a game almost as brutal and hard as the second test against the 1970 All Blacks. Morne du Plessis was massive on defence and took everything that the All Blacks dished out. This great performance, at last, resulted in his general acceptance across the country as a great player and captain.

He also had a remarkable ability to defuse a hot situation with his diplomacy and all-round dignity as well as an ability to handle the media like a true professional diplomat. For example: in the opening minute of the first test against the 1980 Lions, the Welshman Derek Quinnell hit Du Plessis with a mighty right in the eye which the French referee let go unpunished. Rather than waste time and energy on reprisal, Du Plessis and the Springboks kept their focus on the game and produced some of the most scintillating attacking rugby ever seen at Newlands to beat the Lions more convincingly than the 26 – 22 scoreboard suggested.

After the match Du Plessis, sporting a lovely shiner, simply said “It was worth it. Look at the scoreboard.” Through sheer tenacity, an iron will and silent confidence Morne du Plessis triumphed over unfair criticism and malice to emerge as a great player and a great Springbok captain. He was manager of the 1995 World Cup winning Springboks and it is most unfortunate that he did not feature more prominently in rugby administration thereafter. He would, for instance, have been an excellent president of SA Rugby.

At the time of writing Dawie de Villiers and Morne du Plessis are the only ones on the above list that is still alive.

Morne du Plessis
Morne du Plessis

The unlucky ones

There are a few more Springbok captains that could perhaps also have made the list above were it not for happenings beyond their control.

Johan Claassen is rated as one of the best lock forwards that this country ever produced. He became a Springbok in 1955 against the Lions and was immediately a huge success. The next year in New Zealand he was superb and was voted as one of New Zealand’s rugby players of the year.

In 1958 he captained the Springboks at home in the two test series against the unorthodox French. The series was lost (the first time during the 20th century the the Boks lost at home) and it cost Claassen the captaincy.

Johan Claassen
Johan Claassen

 

For the first two tests against the 1960 All Blacks the captaincy was given to fullback Roy Dryburgh, but when the second test was lost he was dropped from the team and the captaincy given to Claassen’s lock partner, the 23 year old Avril Malan – the youngest Springbok captain ever.  He was a very successful and well-liked captain and did a splendid job leading the Boks on their 1960/61 tour to UK and France.

Avril Malan had a bad knee injury in 1961 and could not play, and the captaincy went back to Claassen who led the Boks to victory over respectively the Irish and the Wallabies and the 1962 Lions when Avril was fit again. For the first test against the 1963 Wallabies a new captain was appointed in the person of hooker Abe Malan – Johan Claassen now having retired. Abe Malan retained the captaincy for the second test, but when this game was lost the captaincy went back to Avril Malan. For the fourth test Avril was dropped and the captaincy went back to Abe Malan. Avril Malan only played for South Africa again in 1965 when he took a Springbok team on a short tour to Scotland and Ireland. His side failed to win a match and on their return Malan retired at the age of only 28.

Both Johan Claassen and Avril were outstanding leaders, better than the messing around by the selectors would suggest. Claassen, a professor of biblical studies, carried an aura of wisdom with him. He was a sincere man of conservative principles, smoked a pipe, always spoke very thoughtfully, probably never lost his temper, and always had his emotions under firm control. His friendly disposition masked a grim determination though. In later years he served SA rugby splendidly as a selector, Springbok coach and Springbok manager although some critics regarded him as too nice a gentleman for the world of international rugby politics.

Avril Malan was not a big forward (at only 1,87 m and 95 kg he would today probably be regarded as too small to play anywhere among the forwards), but he was highly respected for his mobility, dedication and self-discipline. He also regularly out jumped much bigger locks in the line outs. When Danie Craven was asked to pick his best Springbok team ever, Avril Malan was the one lock. He coached the Springboks on the notorious 1969/70 tour and was criticised for being too hard and restrictive on the players. He warned the SA Rugby Board that British rugby was much stronger than believed in South Africa, but he was not taken seriously – until South Africa got a rude awakening in 1972 and 1974.

So, who was South Africa’s best captain? This is a question without an answer as it is impossible today to judge players and leadership over a period of more than a century. However, there are a few that stand out. Dawie de Villiers had absolutely everything that one would expect of a great leader, but so did Hennie Muller, Philip Nel, Phil Mostert and Paul Roos.

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