Skonk

2011-03-01 00:00

SKONK Nicholson, the iconic figure of schoolboy rugby in Pietermaritzburg and South Africa, has died.

James Mervyn Nicholson, known as Skonk to generations of Maritzburg College schoolboys, teachers, parents and rugby followers, was a highly respected coach and teacher.

Nicholson coached the first team at Maritzburg College for 35 years, turning the school into a vibrant rugby nursery for South African rugby and nurturing a steady stream of provincial and international players.

College produced 14 unbeaten First XVs during Nicholson’s tenure and his reputation as a coach was so admired that senior Springboks were on occasion sent to Pietermaritzburg to undergo a Skonk Nicholson crash course.

But he also made a significant contribution in the academic field and was an innovative teacher of geography at College. Along with fellow College teacher Gordon “Cheese” Morton, he co-authored Man’s Environment, the series of geography text books used by generations of primary and high school pupils in the province, and followed this with the successful Working with Maps.

He was awarded the Gold Medal of the South African Geographical Society for his outstanding contribution and Dr Owen McGee, who was associate professor of geography at Maritzburg Varsity, said he was one of many inspired by Nicholson in the classroom.

“I remember Skonk’s lessons vividly. He was an innovative, exciting teacher, full of humorous anecdotes. Although a firm disciplinarian, his warm and friendly manner endeared him to the boys,” said McGee.

Nicholson, born in Underberg on February 6, 1917, was raised on the nearby family farm. He attended DHS where he matriculated in 1935 as head prefect, captain of both the First XV and the First XI, captain of the Natal Schools’ XV — and earned his nickname. The discerning head prefect, one M. Bennett, admiring young Nicholson’s willing spirit in his Grade 8 year, referred to him as “Skonkwaan” — a tent peg in Zulu but the name of an ox on the family farm — and this was subsequently shortened to “Skonk”.

Injury cut short Nicholson’s rugby career but he delighted in the story of how, as a youngster, he became the official South African record-holder for the 1 000 yards and could claim his time would never be bettered. He was right. Shortly after his run the event was abandoned by the South African Athletics Union.

On leaving school he read for a BA degree at Natal University, Pietermaritzburg, majoring in history and geography, and graduating cum laude in both subjects. After serving with the South African forces as an instructor in World War 2, and in spite of vehement objections from DHS who wanted him back at his old school, he was posted to Maritzburg College in 1944. He was to serve the school loyally for close to 40 years as a permanent staff member and for another two decades on an informal basis.

And, because of his chosen vocation, he made an indelible impression on many thousands of young lives, both on the sporting field and in the class room.

On his arrival at College, and because he was a Zulu linguist, he was immediately placed in charge of administering the school’s labour force. He acted as a mentor and adviser, and this relationship continued until he retired in 1982. There were 34 official farewells for Nicholson when he took his pension but the simple, moving ceremony arranged by the Zulu staff on his last day of school was said to be the most poignant.

Nicholson’s interests varied widely. He was a keen student of yoga — and some of the exercises were inflicted on his first-team players — an enthusiastic and widely read historian, and he had a profound knowledge of the Zulu people and their traditions.

A man of natural charm and humour, he earned the deep respect of pupils, players and fellow teachers. His command of language, the twinkling eye, the anecdote, often punctuated with Zulu expressions, succeeded when others relied on raised voices or dire threats.

“Nancy”, the beautiful (if fictitious) Girls’ High schoolgirl who watched every College boy play rugby, was used to motivate and cajole. Nicholson, above all else, knew the way to the schoolboy’s heart. He knew how to grab attention and keep it.

His success as a rugby coach was astonishing as he combined a deep understanding of the game with an ability to impart that knowledge, to teach and to mould young minds and bodies.

Springbok and Natal flyhalf Keith Oxlee, arguably his most distinguished protégé, spoke of Nicholson’s skill in identifying and nurturing young talent.

“Skonk had a wonderful ability to find players languishing in the lower teams and develop them from virtually nothing, changing their positions and having them, in a short time, emerging as stars.

“He had a unique ability to spot potential. He was also dedicated, and this resulted in total motivation from the boys — his enthusiasm engendered a similar feeling in the boys.”

Apart from Oxlee, a number of other internationals, Brian Irvine (captain of the Junior Springboks), Ormond Taylor and Andy van der Watt, and, since his official retirement, Joel Stransky, Jeremy Thomson, Pieter Dixon and Butch James benefited from his guidance, while 10 of his College flyhalves went on to play for Natal.

His close friend and former Springbok and Natal coach Ian McIntosh said yesterday that Nicholson had “been like a father to so many of us”.

“Humble and wise, he was a real gentleman and he set a remarkable example. Skonk influenced thousands of lives and they will carry the qualities he taught to their graves. I can only imagine how wonderful it was to be coached by him as a schoolboy.”

McIntosh said that Nicholson’s wealth of knowledge was phenomenal — “and I’m not just talking rugby here. He was one of the most wonderful characters I have met in rugby.”

Ironically, while Nicholson will be largely remembered as a charismatic schoolboy rugby coach, he always regarded himself first and foremost as a teacher.

“Any successes I have achieved out of the classroom are really incidental to my job,” he once said. “I was, after all, primarily employed to teach geography.”

McIntosh, in contrast, believes not enough was made of Nicholson the rugby coach.

“I spent many, many hours with him at clinics, coaching conferences and at Craven Week. He was unquestionably the most underrated coach I have ever met.

“Unfortunately, he was pigeonholed as a schoolboy coach. He could have done so much for so many at the very highest level had his horizons been expanded.”

McIntosh tried to involve him and sent many players, among them Springbok scrumhalves Robert du Preez and Joost van der Westhuizen, to Pietermaritzburg to see Nicholson.

“And they all came back and applauded Skonk,” says McIntosh.

Nicholson maintained his close ties to College right to the end, driving to the school in one of his two sixties Ford Valiants, helping with coaching long after his official retirement and later working in the school archives.

In spite of his remarkable success as a teacher and a coach, Nicholson did have his regrets and at the very top of the list was that he was never officially appointed headmaster at Maritzburg College, although he did serve as deputy from 1958 to 1982.

On Goldstone’s stands is the Nicholson Arch, erected in 1982, the year of Nicholson’s retirement, and players leaving the dressing room en route to the field reach up and touch the apex of the arch in tribute to their most famous coach.

Nicholson lost Dorothy, his wife of 60 years, in 2000 and leaves three daughters, Margaret, Ruth and Diana — and many thousands of schoolboys.

Nicholson, who had just turned 94 when he died, was loved and respected for his kindness, his wisdom and his manner.

Skonk Nicholson spoke softly but he never needed that big stick.

Alma Mater

WALK along the top of Barns ground, go past the sentry box, and sit on the terraces; pay your respect to the honoured dead on our war memorials, look at the ancient brick buildings that have housed so many of us and have mellowed and grown corpulent with expansion, and wander through the dormitories in Clark House; gaze down on the boarders’ quadrangle and the Crystal Palace, stroll through the Victoria Hall, and take a look at the gymnasium and the commons block; then walk across the playing fields, and memories of the flash and fire of College rugby will come vividly to mind, and you will recall the straw bashers going sky high near Basher Ridge and the old war-cry, “Jimeloyo-Ji!”, ringing out over the ground.

Do all or some of these things and a strange restfulness will come over you.

The years will slip away, and ghostly memories will become very real. The masters, the Pater Noster of assembly, and the Benedictus Benedicat of grace before meals, all of long ago, will live again, and you will remember the days when we, as brothers, were very young, in our beloved College. - J. M. “SKONK” NICHOLSON

They remember:

"I REMEMBER SKONK’S LESSONS VIVIDLY. HE WAS AN INNOVATIVE, EXCITING TEACHER, FULL OF HUMOROUS ANECDOTES. ALTHOUGH A FIRM DISCIPLINARIAN, HIS WARM AND FRIENDLY MANNER ENDEARED HIM TO THE BOYS." - Dr Owen McGee,associate professor of geography at Maritzburg Varsity

"SKONK HAD A WONDERFUL ABILITY TO FIND PLAYERS LANGUISHING IN THE LOWER TEAMS AND DEVELOP THEM FROM VIRTUALLY NOTHING, CHANGING THEIR POSITIONS AND HAVING THEM, IN A SHORT TIME, EMERGING AS STARS." - Keith Oxlee, Springbok and Natal flyhalf

"HUMBLE AND WISE, HE WAS A REAL GENTLEMAN AND HE SET A REMARKABLE EXAMPLE. SKONK INFLUENCED THOUSANDS OF LIVES AND THEY WILL CARRY THE QUALITIES HE TAUGHT TO THEIR GRAVES. I CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW WONDERFUL IT WAS TO BE COACHED BY HIM AS A SCHOOLBOY." - Ian McIntosh, former Springbok and Natal coach

Related post: Death of PMB rugby icon Skonk Nicholson

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