Entertainment Books

Monday 21 October 2019

Review: 20th Century all-rounder by Clive van Ryneveld

Pretext Capetown, £15
Sporting hero who thwarted only priest to play rugby for Ireland recalls a world long gone, writes Charles Lysaght

Charles Lysaght

NINETEEN-fortynine was the second of two seasons when, after a gap of almost 50 years, Ireland won Rugby's Triple Crown. Initially, the team included Tom Gavin the only serving Catholic priest ever to have played for Ireland.

He had been ordained in the diocese of Coventry, having been born in England of Irish parents and educated at Cambridge. In later life he became a monsignor and, shortly before his death in 2009, was one of the principal organisers of the papal visit to England.

Gavin, who played at centre three-quarter, was dropped after the first of the triple crown matches when Ireland defeated England 14-5 at Lansdowne Road. It became the stuff of legend that he was dropped because John Charles McQuaid did not approve of God's anointed being mauled on the rugby pitch and intervened. Like many a good yarn it enjoyed the oxygen of being in character. But in reality Gavin was dropped because his deficiencies as a centre had been cruelly exposed when he allowed England to go into an early lead failing to prevent a brilliant try by his English opposite number Clive Van Ryneveld.

Van Ryneveld, a South African Rhodes scholar at Oxford University and also a cricket blue, later became a test cricketer for his native South Africa. In 1951, on their tour of England, he returned to Dublin and was their most effective bowler when they trounced the Irish team, then described quaintly as the Gentlemen of Ireland. In those days, Ireland was no match for test teams.

Subsequently, Van Ryneveld captained South Africa and performed usefully both as a batsman and bowler on a team that could hold its own against England and Australia in the first rank of test cricket.

Although he had an Afrikaner name, he was part of the English speaking community. A lawyer by profession, he was in 1957 elected a member of parliament for the United Party whose support came from that community. He joined the rump of the United Party who defected in 1959 to form a progressive party opposed to the apartheid policies of the Afrikaner government. In company with all the other progressives, except the remarkable Helen Suzman, he lost his seat in 1961.

Returning to his profession, he acted as defence counsel in prosecutions of those who demonstrated against apartheid. He did worthy work promoting improved facilities for black cricketers and the elimination of apartheid in the sport. He was disappointed by cricketing boycotts of South Africa, feeling that it punished only the English speaking community -- the politically dominant Afrikaner community had never taken to cricket as they had to rugby.

This memoir, with its evocative photographs, recalls a more charming era in sport before it became professionalised and gives an insight into the English speaking community in South Africa, of which the Irish there were a part, members of which may have been well-intentioned but were powerless without Afrikaner support to make the concessions necessary to create a multi-racial South Africa.

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