Unsung rugby hero

2013-09-04 00:00

HE is one of the province’s unsung rugby heroes, yet statistics do not lie and those of Rob Hankinson (56) prove how faithful a servant to the game he was.

He pulled the No. 2 (hooker) black-and-white Natal jersey over his head 110 times from 1981 to 1988, missing only three matches in that time — two to injury and one for his wedding. He played in a time when rugby in these parts was not a major force, Natal embedded in the B section of the Currie Cup and tending to fall short at every season’s promotion-relegation match, doomed to another season out of the limelight.

Yet he soldiered on, mixing it with some of the country’s best players and, although small in stature, he never backed down from a challenge, the badger in the team, ready to defend anyone posing a threat to himself and his teammates.

“It started at prep school, Clifton, Durban, where I played flank and captained the first team in standard six. The coaches of that team were Rex Greyling, a Natal centre, and Terry Mehrtens, father of All Black flyhalf Andy Mehrtens,” said Hankinson.

From there, Hankinson furthered his career at Michaelhouse, moving from flank to hooker at U14 level. “I played in the U15A side and went straight from there into the first team. It was a different level and I remember one of my first matches was against Voortrekker where I was literally buckled and bent,” said Hankinson. “They had four Natal Schools players in their tight five and we were pressing near their line, with our whole team pushing the scrum, and I just popped out.”

Hankinson played two years in the firsts, making the Natal and SA Schools teams in 1974. “The SA side went on tour to Italy and France at the end of that year. We had players such as Lee Barnard and Nick Mallett in the team, and next year is our 40th reunion,” he said.

Before doing his compulsory two years of army service, Hankinson turned out for the Natal U20 side, playing his club rugby at Rovers. In the army, he played for the SA Combined Forces side and made the SA U19 side. “We had a strong side with many players going on to Springbok honours. I was on a team sheet that included the likes of Naas Botha, Danie Gerber, David Smith and De Villiers Visser, to name a few,” said Hankinson.

With such endurance in his rugby career, it’s frightening to think Hankinson’s career could have been curtailed just as he was starting to break into the big league. “I broke two bones in my back playing against Northerns U20 and was told to spend six weeks on my back. Then I was called up to trials for the SA U19 side and off I went,” said Hankinson. “I played in the curtain-raiser to the 1976 Currie Cup final and the following week, we played the SA Schools side. I survived and just carried on.”

Rugby bursaries to the universities of Potchefstroom and Free State were offered but Hankinson was not keen. He was encouraged to write to Doc Danie Craven in Stellenbosch and was awarded a four-year bursary, studying a bachelor of economics degree.

“In my first year, I played U20 rugby and only played a couple of games for Stellenbosch’s first side, which was strong in those days. They always won the Easter Club champs in Durban and after my time was up there, I returned to Durban and joined Collegians.”

At the end of his first year back in Durban, Hankinson made his debut for Natal, replacing injured hooker Don Spiers in a promotion-relegation match against Eastern Transvaal in Springs. “In those days, there were only two reserves on the bench and I was joined by Craig Jamieson. We had to be prepared to play in any position, depending on who got injured,” said Hankinson.

It was the beginning of a phenomenal journey by Hankinson. He was never dropped and called it a day in 1988, aged 32, “to concentrate on the more important issues in life, such as my wife, family and business career”.

Hankinson admits it was disappointing to play in the B section then, but he maintains the players were tougher and the grounds at the little towns he visited and played in were as hard as concrete, Kimberley and Olen Park (Potchefstroom) the hardest.

“Nineteen eighty-four was my highlight. Back then, the top two sides in the Currie Cup A and B sections took each other on in the semi-finals of the Currie Cup,” said Hankinson. “We met Free State in Durban and beat them 26-15. The next week, we were off to Newlands to meet Province in the final, where we put up a hell of a fight in going down 19-9.”

That same year, Hankinson was called up for Springbok trials for the scheduled All Blacks tour, which never happened. Hankinson has no regrets, saying, “What happened off the field was beyond my control. I enjoyed my years, was fortunate to play so many games and forged friendships that remain part of my life today.

“Every time I go to Cape Town, I stay on Hempies du Toit’s wine farm and was there for his 60th birthday a few weeks back. This is what counts for me. The friendships and the laughs we have when we return to those days when we played a game, and were paid R10 for our efforts. When Wynand Claasen took over as Natal captain, he organised a 100% increase and we were over the moon to get R20.”

Would Hankinson enjoy today’s professional era? “Absolutely. It’s hard, tough rugby week in and out, but the money is great and travelling is a bonus. I only got to visit some of the country’s forgotten towns, but the spirit of the game was different then. You could give someone a slap on the field and joke about it later.”

For his contribution to Natal rugby, Hankinson gets two season tickets every season for life. It’s a small token for his tremendous service to the game and his province. “They were great years and I never tire of talking about them, and sharing stories from the battlefield.”

Indeed, he doesn’t. The sparkle in his eye and his enthusiasm as he speaks of those days will see him remembered as one of Natal Rugby’s favourite sons.


• He plays 4th division league squash for Rovers.

He has done the Argus and Amashova cycle races, plus one Dusi.

• Cricket and golf are other sports enjoyed, playing gold off a 15 handicap.

• Cooking is not really a strong point but he makes a mean braai and breakfast.

• He has done beekeeping.

• Music is a great love and he is known as DJ Rob. Music from the 60s, 70s and 80s, plus Neil Diamond and Johnny Clegg goes down well.

• He learnt piano and recorder but rugby took over.

• Newspapers are a great read and comedies, especially British humour, are his preferred movie choice.

• Beer and wine are favourites.


• Best hooker he played against was Uli Schmidt.

• Roger Gardiner was a great scrum coach, instilling a technique that enabled the small Natal pack to take on the bigger unions.

• Murray Dawson and the late Graham “Basher” Downes were great props. Downes took the knocks on the field for all the trouble caused by Hankinson and Dawson.

• In the Natal v New Zealand Cavaliers match in 1984, referee Steve Strydom let a fight between the teams go on for 10 minutes, thinking the players would eventually sort it out.

• Frustrated at being hit repeatedly by Eastern Province lock Adri Geldenhuys in a match and the referee doing nothing about it, Hankinson struck back, having to jump off the ground to take a swing at his tall adversary.

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