100 years of South African rugby: Part two

(IRB.COM) Friday 10 November 2006

On the eve of the Springboks' opening 2006 UK and Ireland tour match, we bring you the second of Chris Thau's three-part series celebrating South African rugby's centenary year, including accounts of the 1906 tour 100 years ago and the first ever Springbok captain, Paul Roos.

On his return from the 1903 tour, captain Mark Morrison let it be known to the Home Unions just how far South African rugby had come and suggested that a team was invited to tour the British Isles. He received support from his predecessor John Hammond and an invitation was extended to the South Africans to tour in 1906. The invitation was enthusiastically accepted and the South African Rugby Board decided to use the Currie Cup tournament, already established as the leading domestic competition, as a trial to pick the touring side.

The 28-strong touring party announced on the last day of the tournament - on the screen at the Empire Theatre - was largely dominated by players from the Western Province, which was at the time by far the strongest of the leading South African provincial outfits: No fewer than 14 of the eventual tourists, including captain Paul Roos and vice captain Paddy Carolin, were from the Western Province with six from Transvaal, five from Griqualand West, three from the Border and one - J.G.Hirsh - representing Eastern Province. Stellenbosch and Western Province forward Paul Roos was the only man not to take part in the trial, his presence regarded as a certainty.

The team assembled in Cape Town at the end of August and after playing two warm up games against two Western Province sides and embarked on the Union-Castle boat ‘Gascon’ for the long trip to Southampton. Aware of the divisions between players, generated by years of war and strife, Roos addressed his men with some memorable words:  …’I would like to make absolutely clear at the outset we are not English-speaking or Afrikaans- speaking, but a band of happy South African,” he said.

His words were poignant indeed: Some members of the team had fought in the Boer War; some had fought on the side of the “rebel” republics of Transvaal and Orange Free State, as well as on the side of the “loyal” Cape and Natal provinces; South Africa was still administered by four separate governments and the divisions in the aftermath of the bloody war were deep and painful.

“South Africa is disunited about every subject under the sun, but in hearty agreement when supporting our rugby team,” wrote Pretoria News. Prophetic words indeed as the 1906 tour announced to the world the birth of one of the great rugby nations. Ninety years later, similar words were uttered in the streets of Cape Town, Johannesburg, Soweto and Port Elisabeth, as President Nelson Mandela presented the winning Springboks captain Francois Pienaar with the William Webb Ellis trophy.

The team arrived in Southampton amid great expectation and excitement. The previous year’s All Black tour, was still vivid in people’s memories and both visitors and hosts wondered what was in store. “How would we fare? How would we acquit ourselves under entirely novel circumstances?” wrote Carolin. The team started training straight away after their arrival in London, first on the Merchant Taylor’s School pitch, then eventually at Richmond, where they set up their London base camp. By the time the first match arrived - against Eastern Counties in Northampton - the team became known to the public and press as the Springboks in recognition of the new badge that adorned their green jerseys.

Until the last test of the1903 series, the South African team, donned either white jerseys, or jerseys in the colours of the Union/club hosting the match and had no badge on their jerseys and, in fact, white is even today South Africa’s alternative kit. However, before the third and final test at Newlands the then South African captain Barry H. Heatlie was asked by an unnamed official to consider changing the habit, with the view of giving South Africa a permanent jersey.

Heatley, one of the greats of South Africa’s pioneering period, recalled the moment green was adopted as the jersey colour: “At the time I had on hand a supply of dark green jerseys, the colours of the defunct Old Diocesan’s Club. It was decided to wear those jerseys at Newlands, and ever since South African fifteens have been clad in green.”

Although there is evidence that green jerseys were used by SA athletes attending international competitions before 1900, it is unclear why green remained the Springbok colour. Knowing the idiosyncratic nature of the rugby player, it may well have been the successful outcome of the match and the series - the first ever won by South Africa - which secured the long term future of the green jersey. The same is valid about the Springbok badge. It is said that the first to use a Springbok badge was a South African athletic and cycling team attending events in Britain and USA in 1894. However, suffice to say that when the Springboks arrived in the UK, the newspapers were clearly aware of their colours and emblem.

Regarding the Springbok badge, the manager of the 1906 tour John.Cecil “Daddy” Carden, observed that it existed when the team left South Africa. In a letter to the author of the history of SA Rugby Ivor Difford, Carden quoted an article published by the London Daily Mail on September 20, 1906, as follows: “The team’s colours will be myrtle green jerseys with gold collar. They would wear dark blue shorts and dark blue stockings and the jersey would have been embroidered in mouse-coloured silk on the left breast a springbok, a small African antelope…” 

The name Springboks, an anglicised version of the Afrikaans word Springbokken, was the brainchild of skipper Roos, vice-captain Carolin and manager Carden, as the latter recalled: “No uniforms or blazers had been provided and we were a motley turn-out at practice at Richmond. That evening, I spoke to Roos and Carolin and pointed out that the witty London Press would invent some funny name for us, if we did not invent one ourselves. We thereupon agreed to call ourselves ‘Springboks’, and to tell pressmen that we desired to be so named… I at once ordered the dark green, gold-edged blazers and still have the first Springbok pocket badge that was made”.