The Smallest Test Rugby Player Ever?

The Smallest Test Rugby Player Ever?

Was there ever a smaller test rugby player than this man? Yet he played in one of the toughest test series ever!

9 January 2015

Browsing through rugby things in the New Zealand summer (as you do!) I found this amazing shot of Tommy Gentles a Springbok test halfback from 1955-58. (see attached photo) Get a look at how teeny this man was!  The records show that he stood 1.60metres tall (that's about five feet 3 inches. His weight was a little over 57kgs = 9 stone. The photo was taken before a rugby test match in 1955 when Tommy made his debut against the touring British Isles team. Dare I suggest rather than in the dressing room as the caption for the photograph suggested it was taken perhaps in a studio before the official team photograph. But I met this man...

In 1996 I was the tour TV commentator to South Africa with Sean Fitzpatrick's All Blacks. My host commentator friend from SuperSport as we went from game to game was the great Hugh Bladen. Right from the start of the tour Hugh gently badgered me to speak at the famous Wanderers Club in Johannesburg's pre-test function later that month. This I agreed to do and it was a truly splendid event - and an honour to be at.

When I rose to speak I tried to touch on what the resumption of a full test series between the All Blacks and the Springboks meant (the two nations not having met in a series since 1981) - especially to New Zealanders who would be watching my call on TV of the 1996 fourth test over the following weekend back at home. I harked back to watching the Springboks play the All Blacks as a kid in Wellington in 1956 in the second test - that was 40 years earlier. I tied my speech into the fact that at 5am on the morning of the second test, as an eight year old, I had crept into a place in the queue on the footpath outside the ground, kept for me overnight by my oldest brother George and his mate Bob Gregory. We wanted only the best place to watch the test, and that would be on the Athletic Park embankment which you had to really commit to get in those far-off days.

At the 1996 luncheon I felt quite emotional re-telling that story, as going to that game and feeling the excitement it and that whole tour engendered, and later listening on the radio to the vital fourth test in Auckland, had had a massive influence on how I wanted my future life's direction to go.

Is it too much to tell you that when I finished speaking and stood back from the podium the Wanderer's crowd of 600 gave me a standing ovation. I was very proud I can tell you - and I can still feel the strength's of Hughie hug when I got off the stage!

All of us then stood around - as you do at rugby lunches and yarned away. I must have shaken the hands of 100 smiling South African men (no women there as I recall!) who came up and chatted. It was fun to be at.

But the best part was when a stranger in the crowd said to me,"I bet you don't know who this?' and I turned and immediately recognised his friend. It was Tommy Gentles. Well, at his height and with his distinctive bespectacled look how could I ever have forgotten him? He had played in that game I had queued to see!

It was lovely to meet him and we had quite chat. Of course I marveled at how short he was and all that - but at the same time my admiration for him grew as I tried to put into perspective his size as he stood next to me, while remembering what a brutal game that second test had been at Wellington. The Springboks had won by 8-3. (George, Bob and I had stumped home in a very gloomy mood afterwards.)

After our chat and it came time for Tommy and I to part he said the loveliest thing, 'Nice to meet you Quinn,' he said, 'You made me cry here today.'

I have never forgotten the outright thrill of such a compliment.

But really, when you think of it memories of the old days should do that for all of us when we hark back to the games we saw and played in the good old days - when there was room in the game for huge men who wore the big shirts - but also for little guys too - who proved they too had big hearts.

[Footnote I; Tommy Gentles played 6 tests for the Springboks between 1955-58. He also, believe it or not, played professional rugby league for a time for Wigan in England. He died in 2011]

[Footnote II;My brother George and his friend Bob Gregory are still mates and are in regular touch. Bob is one of my best friends too. Bob and I were at TWO lunches before Christmas this year. Both men are distinguished academics with the title of 'Professor' ahead of their names; George in Canberra and Bob at in Wellington and Hong Kong. Bob played representative rugby for Wellington in the 1960s.]

[Footnote III; Hugh Bladen is hugely popular still at the microphone in South Africa. His distinctive TV calls are heard regularly all over the world I love the guy.]


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