KZN rugby salutes Wessels

2014-10-15 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL Rugby bid farewell to one of its most faithful servants last week as Tony Wessels died at 76 years old.

Wessels was held in high regard as a rugby man and his work on the field as a referee has not gone unnoticed.

Having attended Maritzburg College, where he represented both the first cricket and rugby teams, Wessels went on to play club rugby for the Wasp Wanderers as well as representing Natal on the cricket pitch in 1958-59.

His sons Gary, Michael and Keith, all followed in their father’s footsteps once he became involved in refereeing in Pietermaritzburg.

“He started reffing when he was coming to the end of his playing days — I think mostly to stay involved with the sport,” Gary (52) told The Witness.

His career spanned many years and he took charge of games around the province and many provincial fixtures.

“He also refereed the first match in what was the new Woodburn Stadium many years ago,” Gary said.

Wessels went on to be the chairperson of the Maritzburg Rugby Sub Union (MRSU) and Maritzburg Rugby Referees Union (MRRU). He was also named an honorary life vice-president of the Kwa-Zulu Natal Rugby Union and a life member of the MRSU.

His sons have followed in his footsteps becoming referees and have also been chairpersons of the MRSU as well as the MRRU in the past. Keith is currently chairperson of the MRSU.

“I think we all got involved in reffing after going with and watching our dad for many years. He really was held in high-esteem by many,” Gary said.

South African Rugby Union president Oregan Hoskins said he was saddened by the news. With his roots planted in Pietermaritzburg, Hoskins remembers Wessels’s contributions to promoting racial equality in rugby on a personal level.

“Tony was an unsung hero in rugby in PMB and KZN. When I heard of his passing on I immediately remembered the role he played in promoting non-racial rugby in a political era which resented it. Tony never got the accolades he deserved,” Hoskins told The Witness.

“In the seventies when the country teetered on civil war and racial animosity was at its height, Tony was talking to people in the Kings Sports Shop he managed in Church Street.

“I remember so many of us from the Young Lions club engaging Tony on the issue of breaking down the barriers in rugby. Young Lions had no opposition to play against in the non-racial fold and Tony was challenged to accept the club. He was the president of the MRSU at the time,” Hoskins said.

Wessels went on to invite the Lions into the MRSU structures. In 1976, history was made when the first team of colour played at Woodburn — the very same year the Soweto riots were taking place and racial tensions were at a boiling point.

“It was the old SA and a few games were played where racial tension turned into ugly confrontation of the worst kind. There was a particular game at Dalry Park that had to be abandoned and the local newspaper covered things in graphic detail. It was ugly and disappointing.

“Tony stepped in and ensured that incidents of this nature would never happen again under his watch. Not only was he president of the sub union but was also an accomplished referee. He made sure that he blew most of our games so that racial scenes were avoided at all costs.

“He was prepared to show leadership so that non-racial rugby would triumph over segregation. I have tried to take a leaf out of his book by tackling problem areas head-on and personally.

“Not only does Tony stand responsible for promoting rugby in all communities, but he also left a legacy for administrators to follow.”

Wessels is survived by his sons Gary, Keith and Michael and their mother Rose.

KZNRU CEO Pete Smith remembers Wessels

“I first had contact with Tony Wessels while playing Moor Cup rugby for Maritzburg Varsity in the late 1970s. Generally members of our team regarded him as a strict, but fair referee.

“I played a lot of club and provincial rugby in those days and the only time I was ever sent off the field was by Tony at Woodburn Stadium when playing against Wits University. Once again he was correct and fair in this decision.

“We got to know each other better after this incident and I like to think we became friends from then on. Being an honorary vice-president of the KZNRU, I had regular contact with Tony over the years and always admired what a gentleman he was and how his interest in and enthusiasm for the game of rugby never dwindled.

“A true and good rugby man who the KZNRU salutes for his outstanding contribution to the game in our province.”

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