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Mister Rugby’s century


Dr. Danie Craven was born 100 years ago today, and Boertjie pays a short tribute to the man who was rightly referred to as Mister Rugby.

A lot has been said and written about Doc – inter alia that he once said something to the effect that no non-white will ever wear the Springbok colours in his lifetime.

I searched hard to establish this, but the search came to nought. A journo friend was twice present when this was mentioned in conversation, but neither speaker could confirm where they heard or read it and what their source was.

Be that as it may, in difficult days Craven fought relentlessly for the rights of persons of colour – including taking on the stern prime minister John Vorster. He was also at the Harare conference with the ANC in 1988, much to the ire of the regime.

Digging into the political facts is not the aim of this piece. I rather want to start by repeating a story told by the ex-Springbok Ian Kirkpatrick:

Kirky was part of the squad when Craven lead a coaching session in Williston, a one horse town in the Northern Cape.

After proceedings they all went to the hotel – only to find that the doors were closed for “non-whites”.  Craven got on the phone to some high-ranking government officials, and minutes later the hotel had received “international status” – as was the ruling then.

The hotel owner said okay, they may enter the hotel, but not the bar. In weighs Craven. Okay, they may visit the bar, but they may not order drinks. More Craven. Okay, they may order drinks, but they may not dance.

And since there was no music in the bar, Craven agreed to the last obstacle . . .

According to Kirky, the hotel’s status remained “international” and it doubled it’s takings.

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Rugby was the great love in his life – he wrote 27 books on the game for which he never pocketed a cent (amateur rules).

His big hates, if one can call it that, was the National Party, the Broederbond (who often tried their utmost to double cross him on various fronts and within the administration of rugby) and the NG Kerk. During World War II Craven attended a church service in uniform, and was requested to leave the church “because people in uniform upsets the congregation.”  He never forgot this.Dok

He played his games in the Bok jersey (16 tests)between 1931 and 1938 when the Boks were the undisputed  “world champions”. And “die manne was rof in die oudae” as David Kramer phrased it in his hit song Blokkies Joubert.

Craven told the story of how an All Black flanker continuously stamped on his fingers during a test in the 1937 series.

(Remember, he was famous for his dive pass.)

He complained  to Ferdie Bergh (lock) and was promised that a stop will be put to it.

After the next scrum Bergh complained to Craven: “Danie, I pulled him in and I was ready to fix him, but then Boy Louw hit him clean out of my reach!”

He was often asked which was the best team ever to leave the shores op New Zealand, and his (tongue in cheek?) answer was: “The Springboks of 1937.” (The only team to win a series in the Land of the Long White Cloud.)

Craven coached the Boks in the series of 1949 (All Black whitewash), 1951-52 (on the victorious tour in Britain and France), 1953 Wallabies, 1955 British Lions and the 1956 tour to New Zealand.

The Boks lost only one match (London Counties 9-11) on the ’51 tour, which is also famous for the 44-0 drubbing of Scotland – the test of which a Scot afterwards would have said: “And we wurr lucky tae get the nil!” (The Boks scored nine tries, and under the modern points system would have won 62-0).

Hennie Muller, who took over the captaincy from the injured Basil Kenyon in 1951, said Craven’s biggest value was in his relationship with his players.

“He knew them so well – their strengths and weaknesses, their fears and their innermost thoughts. He could put himself into the shoes of the player.”

In 1955 the Boks lost the first test 22-23 against the Lions, and the second test just had to be won. This is how Wilf Rosenberg remembers it:

“Just as the whistle sounded to get us into the tunnel, Craven grabbed Johan Claassen and Jaap Bekker and we all went into a huddle, I swear I could feel the vibrations, like an electric shock, going through us as Doc spoke, pleaded, threatened, encouraged. He couldn’t have spoken for more than a minute but he supercharged us. We tore into the Lions from the kick-off in kamikaze frenzy. They didn’t have a chance.”

(Final score 25-9).

Danie Craven no doubt also had many enemies and he posessed many of the characteristics of a dictator. But one must add that he was also the typical example of the enlightened and benevolent despot: an autocrat that applied his knowledge and powers for the best of all, rather than striving for his own interest.

Here are a few known and lesser known quotes  by Dr Daniël Hartman Craven:

► “There is not something like a good loser. Good losers soon make a habit of losing.”

“I never praise a player. When I praise him, there is nothing left I can do for him. Then he is no more the philosopher seeking the truth, but a fool that thinks he knows everything.”

►”The tragedy is that there is no rugby in heaven. There are many Springboks, but no referees, and unfortunately the game needs them.”

“Don’t make a fuss when you score a try. Pretend that you are used to scoring.”

No need to translate this one:

“Jy kry verskillende soorte skoppe: die lynskop, die hangskop, die rolskop. En dan kry jy die k―k skop.”

I was privileged to know Doc, and I would like to end this article by quoting from erstwhile colleagues of mine.

Dan Retief:

“What I loved best about him was that he was the man in charge of SA Rugby – you could phone him about any subject, the Springboks, team selection, professionalism, foul play, the laws, administration, television rights or politics, and Doc would give you an answer. Sometimes he would take you into his confidence and ask you to be circumspect, but he never shied away from his public duties as today’s officials do.”

Herman le Roux, who knew Doc for 37 years:

“Doc was a sport writer’s dream. What he said, was news, and you could phone him at any time, day or night. He was always prepared to talk about rugby. It was his life.”

Norman Canale, sports doyen:

He could be tough as biltong and gentle as a mother, reasonable and obstinate beyond reason, generous and thoughtful and independent and altogether lovable. Nobody ever questioned his courage. He even took on the granite former Prime Minister John Vorster.”

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