Tribute to a gentleman

2011-03-08 00:00

“SO where do you fit in, young man?” he asked with genuine interest.

“I’m the grandson of NMR ‘Bun’ Evans, Mr Nicholson. Tight-head prop of College in 1934.”

“Ah, yes, he married Margaret Ferguson — a glorious creature. I recall playing mixed doubles tennis with her in the thirties. In fact, we won the mixed doubles in Underberg one year.”

This was my introduction, as a young schoolmaster at Maritzburg College, to this larger-than-life man who always asked about your health and family before you had a chance to ask him. My gran always speaks of him as being this marvellously caring man, even in his youth. For this reason, many an Old Collegian, rugby enthusiast and the many, many folk whom he touched so warmly descended on Maritzburg College for his funeral service this past Friday.

I was certainly not the first to be astounded by the amazing recollection of this consummate gentleman who strode the Maritzburg College corridors for so many years as a renowned teacher of geography (most of us would have passed matric geography using his textbook, Man’s Environment), deputy headmaster of 25 years and legendary rugby coach from 1948 to 1982. Skonk Nicholson’s recall and genuine interest was well known and he could describe the intricate web of families in the East Griqualand with ease. He could also name the many teams that he coached, correctly naming try scorers and even how those tries were built through the forwards and then briskly through the backs who were continuously drilled, with a stopwatch, to pass from scrum half to wing in three seconds. He would often flabbergast Old Collegians returning to their beloved Goldstones field with his amazing memory. He would recognise them immediately and recount their College exploits despite their current ruddy hue and “follically challenged” pates.

With his record of 403 wins in 504 matches, with 49 draws and 52 losses, one might assume that he might bask in the glory of the achievement of his charges. The exact opposite was true. He would talk about how the boys had kept to the game plan, failing to add that this had been established through his meticulous planning and clinical insight. The boys were willing to die for him with “Donsa, Pansi, Shooooooovvve......!” ringing in their ears at practice or “Faka emgodeni” (put him in a hole/make it difficult for him) and “Vutha usatana” (play with fire) on match day. Many will tell you that some of the hardest matches were Thursday practice between the first and second­ XV. Such was his ability to motivate the young mind without resorting to threats or bully tactics.

There are those who would say that Skonk meant to Maritzburg College what his friend, Doc Craven­, meant to Stellenbosch. Skonk was a South African schools’ selector and coach and was used by Craven to develop rugby in Chile. He also took a South African U18 team to Wales.

Another legendary coach who attended the funeral service was dear friend and equally fanatical rugby man, Ian McIntosh. He described his first meeting with Skonk as “one of the most enlightening days of my rugby life”. He added that “Skonk’s knowledge of the game was extraordinary and our ideas from that very first day just seemed to gel. I would unquestionably say he was the most underrated coach I ever met.”

Skonk had turned 94 the week prior to his death and, once the news began to spread, condolences were received from all corners of the globe. The true worth of the man became palpably obvious by the many who travelled to pay their last respects at his funeral.

Hamba khale, Mnumzane.

• Graham Bennetts is head of marketing at Maritzburg College.

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