Doc Moss: Bok who jabbed Madiba

Rob Houwing (File)
Rob Houwing (File)

The modesty shines through so evidently in his memoir, published some five years ago (he was a devoted “Varsity” man) by the UCT Rugby Football Club.

“I wish to emphasise in no uncertain terms that I was very much the junior anaesthetist in this epoch event; I made no decisions and merely carried out instructions given to me by the senior cardiac anaesthetist Dr Joseph Ozinsky, known as Dr Oz.”

Yet it also an indelible fact that former Springbok coach, manager and player Dr Cecil Moss, who died on Friday at the age of 92, was part of the pioneering, world-revered first human heart transplant team - Louis Washkansky the recipient, who lived for a further 18 days before his body rejected the foreign organ - headed by Professor Chris Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1967.

He also, without even fully appreciating at the time the magnitude of who he was dealing with, anaesthetised (“a minor procedure I had forgotten”) Nelson Mandela, while still a political prisoner on Robben Island, 12 years later.

Moss’s long-time friend John le Roux much later alerted him to him to a brief extract from the late South African president’s Conversations with Myself:  “19 November 1979 ... POP (plaster of paris) and stitches removed by Sgt Kaminga. Rather large ossicle removed from right heel by Dr Breitenbach. Anaesthetic Dr C Moss.”

“I’m not a political animal,” Dr Moss confessed, “and would never have imagined then that Mandela would go on to become our president ... (but) he was a charming patient”.

That was Doc Moss for you: more than content to be portrayed as some sort of afterthought, even if his life was really the very antithesis of that.

He has an operating theatre dedicated to him - The Doc Cecil Moss Theatre - at the Sports Science Orthopaedic Day Centre in Cape Town, at the initiative of former UCT No 8 and leading surgeon Willem van der Merwe.

To sport seismic personal moments of that magnitude in your - medical - life would be enough for most people.

But oh yes … Riversdale-born Moss wasn’t half bad at rugby, and coaching and management within it, too.

He played just four times for South Africa, aged 24, but what a quartet of caps those turned out to be for the diminutive wing: a 4-0 sweep of the 1949 All Blacks, with successive victories at Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban and Port Elizabeth.

That was a degree of results dominance in a single series over the old foes never achieved to that extent before, or subsequently.

It would be a lie to say I knew him “well” in his later years, when he became a cerebral coach of both WP (1972-73) and then the national side - played 12, won 10 - in a period (1982-89) leading up to their more broadly-approved return to the Test arena in 1992.

It wasn’t quite that ... although he was one of those rare people from whom even fleeting dealings left a palpably pleasing and rewarding impression on the other.

But he was always likely to have a bit of time for someone who had been an apprentice in the sports journalism world of AC Parker, and so we chatted amicably about “Ace” - a late doyen of South African typewriter-era scribes on rugby - at Moss’s 2012 book launch at Newlands, an event I was hugely glad to attend.

He autographed my copy of Doc Moss: My Life in Rugby and I read it in not substantially more than one sitting, so heaving was it, even in its modestly-produced way, of endearing vignettes and recollections of personalities from pre-professional rugby times, the late period of which coincided with my teeth-cutting days in the newspaper trade.

There was still such an enthusiastic twinkle in Doc’s eyes, even as he was understandably that bit more stooped in appearance - already at 87 then - than I remembered whilst a young, run-around reporter getting the occasional routine soundbite from him, often at Parker’s request, while Moss was Western Province manager in their landmark-setting, golden years of 1982 to 1986 (Currie Cup winners every time).

At a time when rugby teams didn’t have a legion of behind-the-scenes assistants in varying capacities, as the more pampered pro souls do now, Moss was an almost necessarily pedantic, precise manager and he was affectionately nicknamed “Oumatjie” by many of the WP players.

He clearly treasured, and enduringly kept, his friends: the last time I ever saw him, albeit at a distance and probably around four years ago, he was lunching convivially on the terrace of the Vineyard Hotel (for so long the WP team’s “night before” base as a big home match loomed).

At his table on that sunny day, among others, were Dr Augie Cohen, long-time WP and Springbok team doctor (he died in 2014) and Gert Smal, a player during that WP heyday and nowadays director of rugby at Newlands.

You only had to have passing associations with Doc Moss to appreciate the deep humanism in him.

A particularly touching part of his memoir was his faithful presence at the hospital bedside of Chris Burger, the WP fullback who died after breaking his neck in a 1980 Currie Cup match in Bloemfontein.

“Chris was conscious and calm but his condition was slowly deteriorating. I was allowed to stay with him and I sat next to the bed holding his hand. He faced death with great courage and dignity.

“He said to me: ‘Ek ken my God. Ek is gereed om te gaan’ (I know my God, I am ready to go). He died peacefully of respiratory failure early that Sunday morning.”

Dr Moss had many decades of dealings with Dr Danie Craven, South Africa’s widely-perceived “Mr Rugby” of an era past, not least because Craven was coach of those triumphant 1949 Boks Moss represented against New Zealand.

“You are an Ikey, but I like you,” he would apparently tell Moss reasonably often, an extraordinary tribute from the ultra-loyal custodian of Stellenbosch rugby.

“Once I was in his company,” Moss wrote amusingly in his book, “and after a match he called a young Stellenbosch student into his office.

“The player had played very badly and when questioned said to Dr Craven: ‘I did my best, sir’, to which the reply came very quickly ‘Well, don’t ever do your best again’.”

Cecil Moss, whose own “best” in life was indisputably rather good, leaves his wife of well over 60 years, Jill, and children Jaime and Tessa.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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