Acclaimed @rugby365com writer Paul Dobson takes us back in a time of
soldiers and rugby players.
surprising number of top rugby players were involved in the South African
War that ended with the Treaty of Vereeniging in 1902. Included in their
number are two Irishmen awarded the Victoria Cross.
was even a future Springbok who learnt to play rugby when a British
prisoner of war in the South African War.
The two Irishmen played for the Wanderers club in Dublin, then for Ireland.
They were in the 1896 touring team, not yet called the British &
Irish Lions but often referred to as such for convenience’ sake.
After the tour, on which Dr Tommy Crean was the big character, the two
settled in Johannesburg and played for Transvaal. At the outbreak of
the South African War, they both joined the Imperial Light Horse to
fight the Boers, even though most Irishmen sided with the Boers, Both
were awarded VCs – both at the Battle of Elandslaagte.
in that team was the first South African to play for the B&I Lions
– Cuth Mullins, an Old Boy of St Andrew’s in Grahamstown
who was a medic in the South African War. His brother Charles was also
awarded a VC in the war.
member of the team, who stayed on in South Africa was Walter Carey who
became the Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein. He wrote of Crean: “He
was the most Irish, the most inconsequent, the most gallant, the most
lovable personality one could ever imagine and he made the centre of
the whole tour.”
(real name Arthur) Larard, an Englishman who had come to South Africa
in 1888 to join the army, was also in the Imperial Light horse in the
South African War, but his 1896 experience was different from that of
the two Irish VCs. Larard was playing for Diggers and Transvaal, and
was chosen at halfback for South Africa to play against the Lions –
in days when halfbacks played left and right, rather than scrumhalf
and flyhalf. In the third Test at Newlands he scored the only try of
the match, and South Africa won 5-0 – the first time they had
won a Test. South Africa lost the series. The next time they lost a
home series was in 1958.
was something of the civil war in the South African War. But the British
certainly regarded the Cape and Natal as British. If a man in the Cape
supported the Boers he was liable to be accused of treason and executed
were others active in the war who had played international rugby or
were going to.
the side of the Boers: Japie Louw (1891) and Paul de Waal (1896), whose
son Pieter was born in a cave in the Maluti mountains, whence his wife
had filed for fear of being put in a concentration camp. Then there
were the Morkel brothers. Veldcornet Andrew Morkel (1903), whose wife
Grace had a tough time in a concentration camp. Their daughter, Mary
Lyall-Watson, was a founder member of the Black Sash, the anti-apartheid
women’s movement. Sommie Morkel (1906) was in the Boer force that
besieged Ladysmith and was with General Dew la Rey on a trek from Ladysmith
to Paardekraal when he was taken prisoner by the British at Abrahamskraal.
He was a prisoner of war on St Helena where he organised rugby matches.
Boetie McHardy (1912-13) became the first Free Stater to become a Springbok
and the first Springbok to score a hat-trick in a Test match –
against Ireland in 1912.
Scots internationals came out, stayed and played for South Africa during
the reconciliation tour of 1903. William McEwan (1903) of Edinburgh
Accies, nicknamed Saxon, played 16 times for Scotland then came to South
Africa to fight in 1900 and stayed to play against the Lions, in a winning
South African team that won a series for the first time.
Alexander Frew played three times for Scotland in 1901 and then came
to South Africa to help the suffering inmates of concentration camps
between Prieska and Bloemfontein. He settled in Johannesburg and, like
McEwan, played for Transvaal. He not only played for South Africa in
1903 but captained in the drawn first Test of the series, that after
captaining Transvaal to a victory over them. McEwan died in Cape Town,
Frew at his home in Hout Bay.
Frew’s team was a Welshman – Lieutenant JEC Partridge of
the Welch Regiment. Nicknamed Birdie, he stayed on for a while, played
for Pretoria Harlequins and Transvaal, and also in that third Test in
1903. He went back to Wales and died in Newport at the age of 86.
were men from the Cape who had immediate British connections and who
fought for the British – Jimmy Sinclair (1903), who was a Boer
prisoner of war, Charles Brown (1903), Allan Beswick (1896) of Queenstown,
George Merry (1891), the Marsberg brothers, Arthur (1906-07) and Archie
(1910), of Kimberley.
Powell (1891-1903), also of Kimberley, also fought for the British.
His parents had migrated to Kimberley as his father Stephen, a carpenter,
had a job on the mines. Jackie’s mother was about to give birth
and they waited in Cape Town till the son was born. Baby Jackie was
so weak that he was expected to die and the family stayed on in Cape
Town but after six months their money ran out and they set off by mule
train for Kimberley. At one overnight stop, an “Afrikaner lady”
suggested that they feed the baby boy donkey’s milk because it
is the nearest to human milk. Luckily there was a donkey in milk on
the trek, and they did what the lady suggested. Jackie Powell survived
Millar (1906-13) was a schoolboy at SACS. He ran away to join the Cycling
Corps in the South African War. He was wounded and nearly lost arm.
He worked as a labourer to strengthen his arm and went on to captain
South Africa on their Grand Slam tour of 1912-13, the first team to
beat England at Twickenham.
– and the prisoner of war who learnt rugby and played for South
Africa? Koot Reyneke was 18 years of age when captured by the British
near Fauriesburg in the Eastern Free State and sent to a prisoner-of-war
camp in Ceylon (now SriLanka). It was there that he learnt to play rugby.
He then played for Maties when a theological student and then for Western
Province and then for the Free State. In 1910, a 28-year-old Matie,
he played in the third test against the Lions at Newlands – and
scored a try in South Africa’s 18-5 victory. He had to break his
studies to earn money, eventually graduating at the age of 30. He was
a dominee in Vrede in the Orange Free State and became a farmer after
retiring. He was 88 when he died in 1970.
South African War ended in 1902, and in 1903 the B&I Lions came
on a tour of 22 matches, including three Tests. It was very much a tour
of reconciliation, an aspect emphasised by Paul Roos on the first Springbok
tour of 1906-07.
is a process, and there were many South African situations which have
been in need of reconciliation in a most diverse nation. The process
still exists to this very day, and rugby is certainly playing its part
in trying to get people with differences – sometimes angry, hurtful
difference – to get on in a friendly and helpful way. The differences
are numerous – racial, economic, linguistic, religious, geographic,
historical. South Africa is a rich breeding ground for animosity, but
then think of the wonders of recent years – the election of 1994,
the World Cup of 1995 and, most recently, the World Cup of 2019, and
you know that rugby football can play a leading role in reconciliation,
and you think about great men who have wanted to play their part in
reconciliation through rugby, from Paul Roos to Danie Craven and on
to Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar and on to Siya Kolisi.
Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. Sport
can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful
than government in breaking down racial barriers.”