The Late, Great ‘Skonkwaan’

2011-04-02 00:00

JAMES Mervyn Nicholson (the Skonk came later) was born in Underberg, Kwa-Zulu-Natal, on February 6, 1917, and grew up on the family farm in that district. In due course, he was sent to the Durban Preparatory High School, from whence he proceeded to the Durban High School (DHS).

His father was a great friend of the legendary DHS Head Master, Mr A. S. “Madevu” Langley, and so young Mervyn was sent to DHS, rather than to Maritzburg College, which was also a family school.

He enjoyed a remarkably successful stint at DHS, and matriculated in 1935 in a blaze of glory — he was head prefect, captain of the first XV, the first XI and the athletics team, captain of the Natal Schools’ XV, and senior cadet officer.

It was as a young standard five (Grade 7) boarder at DPHS that he earned his famous nickname of “Skonk”. M. Bennett recognised young Nicholson’s spirited nature, referring to him as “Skonkwaan”, which was the name of a bull on the Bennett farm in Mooi River, meaning “tent-peg”. This was in due course shortened to “Skonk”, and so it remained.

Having completed his studies cum laude at the erstwhile Natal University College (NUC) in Pietermaritzburg, Skonk started out his academic teaching career at his alma mater, DHS, immediately before the Second World War broke out.

During the war, he served as an instructor (sergeant-major), before being demobilised out of the South African Army in 1944 due to injury. Much to the disappointment of the redoubtable headmaster of DHS, Col “Betsy” Martin MC (himself an old Collegian), Skonk was in that year sent by the Natal Education authorities to Maritzburg College, where for the next two generations, he taught geography and coached the First XV (1948 to 1982).

Indeed, in 1944 the youthful Skonk found himself the subject of a heated dispute between Col Martin and the equally pugnacious headmaster of College, the famous Mr J. W. “John-Willie” Hudson, who also wanted to enjoy the services of the talented young master. “Boy!” the redoubtable John-Willie boomed at the youthful schoolmaster, “you are staying at College.” And so it was.

Under Skonk’s leadership, College came to be one of the rugby powerhouses in South Africa, producing 10 unbeaten First XVs and a further 12 that lost only one match, and countless Natal and SA Schools’ players during his 35 seasons at the helm. Over the passage of years, Skonk coached many players who played provincial and international rugby, including at least 10 Natal flyhalves alone. These players include Keith Oxlee, Brian Irvine (captain of the Junior Springboks), Ormie Taylor and Andy van der Watt, and, after his formal retirement, Joel Stransky, Jeremy Thomson, Pieter Dixon, Butch James and Peter Grant.

Nearby to the Kent Pavilion at College, overlooking the school’s main rugby field, Goldstone’s, stands the Nicholson Arch, which was erected in 1982, the year of Skonk’s retirement. It is a cherished tradition for each First XV player, as he steams onto the pitch, to reach up and touch the apex of the arch, in mute tribute to College’s own “Mr Rugby”.

Skonk garnered many awards and tributes in the course of a long and distinguished career as a teacher and a sports coach, including the Gold Medal of the SA Geographical Society — for his outstanding contribution to geography — and civic honours by the Pietermaritzburg City Council — “for long and outstanding service to education and sport”.

Skonk died on February 27, 2011, only three weeks after his 94th birthday, and barely five weeks from the start of the festival that proudly carries his name.

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