Waratahs prop Benn Robinson returns Springboks jersey thought to have been lost for decades
- April 5, 2014
Chief Rugby Reporter
Benn Robinson could finally relax.
The Waratahs and Wallabies prop had been on edge for weeks, carrying around a precious piece of Australian and South African rugby history believed lost for decades.
It had brought him to a hotel lobby in Cape Town, where David Malan was waiting to receive the missing Springboks jersey his father, Abie Malan, had worn to captain South Africa against the Wallabies 51 years earlier.
The jersey had been in the back of a cupboard at the Mosman home of former Wallaby Jim Miller and was being returned to its homeland.
Robinson’s trip across the Indian Ocean with the Waratahs had been a chance to bring the story full circle.
“I got a phone call from an old bloke who didn’t know how to use the phone well and he said ‘mate I have a very special story with this jersey, can you take it to Africa for me’,” Robinson said.
The old bloke being Miller, of Millers Storage fame, who played seven Tests at second row or prop for Australia and turned 75 on Sunday.
He found the jersey while preparing to sell the family home, ‘Rona’, and move permanently to their beef cattle property in the Riverina.
“Jim told me he was really worried about sending it by post, so he asked me to bring it over,” Robinson said.
“So I’ve been holding on to this thing nervously for weeks. I packed it in my luggage and carried it over.”
More than half a century after Malan and Miller stood among their teammates at Newlands Stadium, in the shadow of Table Mountain, on Thursday David Malan finally touched his father’s No.2 jersey.
“I have had my dad’s collection of jerseys for the last 40 years, he gave it to me when I was 12 or so,” Malan said.
“I’ve always cherished them, but the jersey in which he was the Springboks captain –- which is quite different from his other ones –- that shirt was missing.”
Abie Malan was a hooker who played 18 Tests for the Springboks. He was rangy for a rake, by modern standards, standing 183 centimetres tall and weighing just 80 kilograms. He was one of the first ball-carrying hookers, known for his pace and athleticism as well as the traditional set-piece strengths.
South Africa had hosted the Wallabies for a four-month tour including four Test matches in Pretoria, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth.
The Wallabies drew the Test series with wins at Newlands Stadium and Ellis Park.
It would go down in Wallabies history as a very special tour. It was the first time any touring side had beaten the Springboks in two consecutive Test matches since the Lions of 1896.
It was also the last time the Wallabies would record a win on the highveld for 47 years. The hoodoo was only broken when Kurtley Beale’s penalty goal sealed a 41-39 victory at Bloemfontein in 2010.
Documented in the book, Springbok Saga, by Chris Greyvenstein, the 1963 Wallabies were described as a side that busted the stereotype of Australia’s exciting but mercurial style of running rugby.
“Gone was the unpredictability, and flair which used to impress [South Africans] so much that we always wanted to follow suit and frequently came to grief as a result,” Greyvenstein wrote.
“In its place was a new approach; the 1963 Wallabies rarely took risks, their backs were defenders first and foremost and unless they received the ball quickly and cleanly they did not attempt to attack.”
It was a successful strategy, incorporating the best of the Australians’ handling and running skills with structure and starch up front.
Miller played the first Test of the series. Malan captained the side for the first two Tests, was dropped for the third and reinstated for the final Test, which the Springboks comfortably won 22-6 in Port Elizabeth.
Nineteen of those Wallabies were alive to mark the 50th anniversary of the historic tour last year.
A group of 10 returned to Cape Town to watch the Springboks steamroll the Ewen McKenzie-coached Wallabies 28-8 in September.
Abie Malan’s son-in-law Thys Lombard met the group and took them to the stadium.
“I remember walking with some of the Wallabies onto the Newlands pitch on the Thursday evening. They had tears in their eyes from the memories after 50 years,” Lombard said.
It was that tour that prompted David Malan to search for his father’s missing jersey. He put feelers out that month but did not hear anything until a 3am email in February.
“That’s where it all started, it took six weeks from then but it felt like six years,” Malan said.
Abie Malan, 78, is still farming grapes for raisin production on the family’s property outside Upington in the Northern Cape, the largest and most sparsely populated of South Africa’s provinces, which also includes part of the Kalahari Desert.
Miller, after selling ‘Rona’ for more than $8 million last month, is living full-time on the land too, running Coolac Cattle Company outside Jugiong.
David Malan and Lombard called Abie Malan when they met with Robinson on Thursday to tell him they were holding the jersey.
Too nervous to speak in English, but eager to prove old sporting rivalries are never forgotten, he told Robinson in Afrikaans: “Tell [Miller] he can keep the jersey, I’d rather have the house in Sydney”.