What about Keith Oxlee?

2011-11-19 00:00

BONEY M and the Village People are lurking, Christmas is coming and it is a time of reflection and bonhomie. And coughing up.

American actress Bette Davis, of all people, described nostalgia as recalling the fun without reliving the pain, and Cape Town-based rugby writers Andy Colquhoun and Paul Dobson have plugged into that mood with their book The Chosen: The 50 Greatest Springboks of All Time.

This well-written and thoroughly researched book was first published in 2003, but the authors have updated their list, following on the winning of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and the emergence of new generation of sporting heroes.

Eight members of the class of 2007 now feature in the new publication. They are Fourie du Preez, Victor Matfield, Bryan Habana, Jaque Fourie, Juan Smith, John Smit, Schalk Burger and Percy Montgomery.

Scrumhalf Fourie du Preez is the highest rated of the newcomers, slotting in at number four behind Danie Gerber at the top, Frik du Preez and Hennie Muller. Matfield is at seven, Bryan Habana at 16 and John Smit at number 26 (although one of the authors told me he thought they had erred in not placing him far higher).

The Boks did not lose a series between 1896 and 1956 — unofficial world champions for half-a-century? — and 15 players in that period are in the top 50.

Among the eight dropped from the original squad of 50 in the first edition are Gary Teichmann, Francois Pienaar and Errol Tobias.

Teichmann, incidentally, should be used to being overlooked. Ignored by Kitch Christie for the World Cup in 1995, he was then dropped on the eve of the 1999 RWC. The two disappointments sandwiched Teichmann’s achievement in inspiring the Boks to a record number of successive victories.

It is just one of the many arguments this book will provoke.

Of course, comparing players of different eras is a largely futile exercise (though it is fun). The rugby laws have changed drastically and so has the ball, which travels vast distances even in the wet. Players are bigger, stronger, faster (but not necessarily more skilful). Theories and analysis, experts and coaches, prevail and individuality has suffered.

The demands have changed radically and the ball is in play for far longer. There was a time when a hard, low tackle would bring play to an abrupt halt. Play would stutter from scrum to lineout. The ball could be kicked directly to touch — and usually was because lineouts (without any lifting) were a bunfight. Tight forwards would stick to the straight and narrow.

Today players set up the tackle to introduce the next phase of play as they attempt to manipulate and break down modern defences. Tight forwards litter the field, bashing up the ball to create the next phase and scrambling about in defence.

And how can one compare the professional of today with the amateur of a bygone era? The moderns, the daily gym-and-energy-drink brigade, are involved for 10 months of the year; the amateurs saw action in winter months, played a dozen provincial games and were force-fed beer.

But of course the great players of any era would adapt, bulk up and flourish in different circumstances and this has allowed the authors and their panel of experts to compare apples and pears and even name their first XV:

HO de Villiers, Bryan Habana, Danie Gerber, Japie Krige, Carel du Plessis, Naas Botha, Fourie du Preez, Doug Hopwood, Jan Ellis, Hennie Muller (c), Frik du Preez, Victor Matfield, Boy Louw, Jan Lotz and Os du Randt.

Certainly a player like Frik du Preez, a robust, mobile lock, would have taken to the modern game, though he would have been selected at loose forward. The versatile lock, who “gedrop [from inside his own half] geplace en gescore” in the same game was 6 ft 2 in and 212 lb and that is exactly the same size, can you believe, as Sharks flank Keegan Daniel who is widely considered too light and short (at 1,88 metres and 96 kg) for the modern international game.

Of course, you can argue long and hard about just who should be on the list.

If we can take a parochial line here, where on earth is Keith Oxlee?

In The Chosen he is referred to as a “famous kicker”, but he was far more than that. Oxlee was a running, passing, creative flyhalf who played a pivotal role in Natal’s most exciting years (1960-63) when the Currie Cup was unfortunately not up for grabs. They drew 6-6 with the 1960 All Blacks and lost just one game in 1961 when they were voted South Africa’s team of the year. In 1963 they were unbeaten in 10 games and downed the touring Wallabies 14-13 in Durban.

But it was their style in an era of conservative, often grim rugby that captured the imagination. The unorthodox became the norm. Moves were launched from deep defensive positions and Oxlee, adept at involving fast loose forwards and busy, roving wings in exciting thrusts, kept pulling the strings. Sleight-of-hand passing, constant switches of direction and astute tactical kicking were features of the Oxlee game, and far more physical, talented teams were exposed by this twinkle-toed approach. A Natal style of rugby, based on a mobile pack, sure handling and ambitious running was born.

Keith Parkinson, the former president of the Natal Rugby Union, describes Oxlee as a “Natal legend, without any doubt the greatest I played with or against”.

Oxlee went on to play 19 times for the Springboks, though one sensed that his tricks for Natal and his non-conformity both on and off the field were held against him by the conservative South African rugby hierarchy.

He was at his peak in 1962 when he became the most prolific flyhalf in South African rugby and dominated the series against the British Lions, scoring all the Springboks’ points in the second Test (won 3-0) and the third (won 8-3) and then 16 points in the fourth (34-14).

Bok centre John Gainsford, who features strongly at 11th on the list, played outside Oxlee in all 19 of his internationals

“He took the knocks and never gave me anything but clean ball,” said Gainsford. “That is a mark of greatness in a Test flyhalf …”

Of course there are many others who could have made the list, but that is one of the objectives of the authors — to prompt debate and discussion and revive warm memories.

Bette Davis would approve. The Chosen is about remembering the fun hours and, for a while anyway, forgetting the pain caused by blind New Zealand referees and unlikely defeats.

The Chosen by Andy Colquhoun and Paul Dobson (Don Nelson, Cape Town).

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