This picture says an awful lot about the beautiful but sometimes sad game of rugby

This picture says an awful lot about the beautiful but sometimes sad game of rugby

28 February 2015

I love this old picture. There is so much about it that has come down the years. And on a personal level when I saw it as a kid I was first drawn to it by seeing our 'family name' on the advertising hoarding in the background.

The shot was taken late in the first test of the 1955 test series between South Africa and the touring British Isles. The British Lions were leading by one point and a successful kick would have won the game for the Springboks. Alas the kicker, the South African fullback Jack van der Schyff, sent the ball wide and the Lions won minutes later by 23-22.

See the disappointment in his body language but see also that the miss was a shock to others in the huge crowd - certainly to the keeper of the scoreboard in the background! He had left a slot open to put a new successful new total in for South Africa WHEN the kick went over!

On the Lions side there was apparently deep relief; the great Welshman Cliff Morgan reckoned that one of his teammates said out loud when he saw the ball fly wide, 'Hey boys! Thank goodness we all went to Chapel last Sunday!'

Recently I found out a lot more about Jack van der Schyff. And it is quite a story. In those dark days of South Africa's apartheid policies he was a man of colour. And the missed kick here seemed to play a role in his future life. And concerning THAT kick; though he had landed four other successful shots at goal in the same game, the miss cost him his place in the Springbok story. He never pulled on the South African colours again.

This from the writings of great Danie Craven; "Jack van der Schyff was undoubtedly badly treated by the selectors. He first came to my attention in Kimberley where I commanded a physical training battalion during the war. I had seen him playing for Kimberley Boys High against C.B.C. and other schools in the area and I saw him land kick after kick from the halfway line and further out.

One day he walked into my office wanting to join the battalion. I told him: "Jack, you can play for any first rugby team in Kimberley but I have on my staff a man named Ronnie Ackerman who has played for England. You will not be able to take his place in our first team." But Jack played on with us and with the retirement of Ackerman he moved up to the first XV. Jack was so good he eventually made the Springboks for all four tests against the All Blacks in 1949."

This from another writer; "Jack was part-black, sufficient enough that rugby officials (and obviously the South African government when it introduced the Group Areas Act and other assorted apartheid legislation from 1948 onwards) looked the other way. The fact that he had so called Bantu heritage but could still play for the Springboks in the 50's tells you all you need to know about the absurdity and pointlessness of apartheid. It was a ridiculous and an inhumane farce masquerading as social policy."

Jack van der Schyff died in 2001.

In one published obituary his missed kick and its aftermath - and the photograph - was recalled.

"The big, running fullback who played his provincial rugby for Griquas, Western Transvaal and Rhodesia, will be buried on Thursday.

Van der Schyff, who died at the weekend, had a bypass operation several years ago and his health remained poor.

His worst moment in rugby was captured in a photograph from in front of the posts showing the kicker in the foreground turning away, his head bowed in disappointment. The ball in the famous photograph is passing to the left of the uprights.

As a result of the missed conversion the British Lions won the 1955 Ellis Park test by one point, 23-22, and the kicker, Jack van der Schyff, after this match never wore the green-and-gold jersey again.

Van der Schyff played all four tests against the 1949 All Blacks in South Africa but soon after that he was involved in a mine accident and headed north, spending time in Kitwe in Northern Rhodesia, on what was to become the Zambian Copper Belt.

There he indulged his passion for hunting big game, including crocodiles and elephant.

According to his good friend Daan du Toit who employed him in later life, Van der Schyff met Joan whom he later married while working in Zambia.

In 1954 the two returned to South Africa to get married and in 1955 Van der Schyff was chosen out of the blue to face Robin Thompson's Lions in the first of four tests.

The Ellis Park test aroused phenomenal interest, sales on the black market flourished and a crowd of between 90 000 and 100 000 watched the match.

"I remember him telling me that just before he took that kick he was involved in a terrific tackle," says Du Toit. "One guy got him round the shoulders and another player around the ankles and he was dizzy.

"He told Stephen Fry, the Springbok captain, that he didn't want to take the kick, but Fry said: 'No, you must kick'. He took the kick and we all know what happened after that."

According to Tommy Gentles, the scrumhalf who kept the ball steady before Van der Schyff attempted that fateful conversion, he remembers no such incident, although he didn't say that it never happened. "I just remember that match as a marvellous game of rugby," said Gentles.

"Jack always used to say that I held the ball skew and I used to tell him that it was his kicking that was at fault!"

Despite being shunned by the national selectors after that, Van der Schyff continued playing provincial and club rugby. "I played with him in his last game of club rugby, for the Old Waterpan club in Randfontein," says Du Toit.

"We were in the second team together. I was just a donkey in the front row, but old Jack was a fine player. Earlier in his career they wanted to play him on the flank. He would clap his hands for the ball sometimes when his team was putting the ball into the scrum. The scrumhalf would pass straight to him at fullback and he would drop it over the posts."

After his international rugby career Van der Schyff worked as a shift-boss on the Deelkraal mine in Carletonville. Later Du Toit employed him as a driver.

[ adds - see elsewhere on this 'Favourite Photos' website how I loved seeing the location of the famous shot  for myself - The perfect advertising brand placement was still in place when i visited the Ellis Park ground as a young reporter in 1976, 21 years after the famous photograph.




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