With the news this week that Springbok great, Jan Ellis, passed away at the age of 71, I just had to write this tribute to Jan.
Jan Ellis personifies Springbok rugby for me. It has been said that as humans we think in pictures. When we think of something we see a picture of some sorts and this picture can differ from one person to the next, which is why we sometimes voice the same words but come up with different understanding or meaning. The best communicators are those who can create clear and vivid pictures in the mind of his listeners.
When I think of Springbok rugby I see Jan Ellis. Hard, uncompromising, fast with a touch of artistic moodiness and flair but with relentless motivation to succeed based on a staunch work ethic and absolute conviction of what is right and wrong – that is Jan Ellis in a nutshell, for me.
So, I don’t see all that, I just see pictures of Jan Ellis flashing through my mind.
The analogy between the Springboks and Jan Ellis, for me, came along probably because I had so many pictures of Jan Ellis when I started with my sampling of rugby pictures in 1970. I was born in Windhoek, South West Africa (now Namibia) and Jan was SWA’s second Springbok, the first being Sias Swart.
Jan was bigger than life in South West Africa and could do nothing wrong in our eyes. In fact when he was dropped by the national selectors after 11 years and 38 consecutive Test matches in 1976 my father stopped supporting the Springboks in the series against the All Blacks. “I hope they lose so that those damn selectors can put Jan Ellis back in the team” was his exact words.
Jan was not perfect, he had some flaws like all of us. His biggest flaw probably his temper. ‘Vuilgat’ (dirty) Jan was so re-knowned for his short fuse that film-maker Jamie Uys even pulled a candid camera prank on Jan while Ellis was still living in Namibia in the early 70′s. The camera crew mounted a car hooter against the pavement just a few paces from a traffic light which ‘Rooi Jan’ frequented daily on his way to work. Patiently they waited about 5 days for a red light to force Jan to stop long enough for a car to pull-up behind him. Three hoots had Jan looking annoyed and angrily over his shoulder at the innocent victim in the car behind. It took two more hoots to see Jan storming out of his car, plucking the surprised little fellow out of his car and threaten him with a raised fist. Jan was on the brink of shoving his huge right paw down the little fellow’s throat when the film crew intervened to save the poor man who was pleading innocence at the top of his voice.
Jan didn’t think it was funny and was not prepared to laugh about it – as most of us will. Realising what transpired he turned around got in his car and drove off without saying a word.
There was also an incident during the 1969 / 1970 End Of Year Tour when Jan could’nt take old Avril Malan’s insults and whinging anymore (the team was struggling and Malan was giving it to them calling them gutless and what not). He packed his bags, got into the train heading for the airport. It took some convincing and a promise by some senior players that they’ll keep Malan away from him to stop a fired-up Jan Ellis not to board a plane back to South Africa.
Jan was a reserved, quiet and fiercely private man who did not suffer fools lightly. In 1976 there was an attempt to use him for window dressing by having him captaining a multiracial South African XV team against New Zealand. Jan declined the invitation to captain a side consisting of 11 whites, 2 coloureds and 2 blacks on the bases that he had flue. However, a few hours after the match had been played the media honed in on a story that Jan had declined on racial reasons. A scoop on the story was keenly sought after and media men from every imaginable newspaper, magazine as well as radio and television station started to pester Ellis and his wife at home. Goaded, Rooi Jan exploded. He had, he said, nothing more to say. In his mind the situation was ‘finished and klaar’ and that was the end of it.
In a pure rugby sense, Jan is remembered for the way he carried the ball in one hand as can be seen in the picture below, which was taken when he played for Transvaal against the 1976 All Blacks.
Jan is also remembered for his partnership with Piet Greyling. Some scribes have argued over the years that the way he and Greyling dominated the breakdowns was one of the primary reasons why the Sprinboks won the 1970 series against the All Blacks.
Ellis is also remembered for his work ethic and his contrasting running styles when he chased and ran with the ball. Stories are told of Jan’s training regime, with rocks in the mountains and storm water ravines surrounding Windhoek. His fitness, agility, speed and his arm and leg strength is alleged to be a consequence of running up and down the mountain slopes carrying sizable rocks during the heat of the day. During the 1965 tour the New Zealand rugby scribes were all much impressed with his speed and commitment to training while admitting that he was still very much a newbie in the process of getting the hang of tactical plays and demands of defensive play of loose forwards. Jan was a quick learner though and by the end of that tour he had cemented his place in the Springbok side and by 1970 he had learned enough to influence the outcome of that series with his defensive and tactical endeavours around the park.
Such was his natural strength though that when he got robbed and shot at age 58, he seized the gun bearer and carried him something like fifteen metres to the his garage office and held onto him while phoning the police and kept him down on the ground while bleeding profusely until the police arrived.
Ellis had a distinctive forward leaning running style (see picture below) when chasing and was deceptively fast on the chase with those long forward-leaning loping strides.
When carrying the ball he was more upright and on his toes. This upright style and his natural speed off the mark provided him with a devastating sidestep that could send the South African fans into a frenzied overenthusiastic applause that baffled some of the international scribes on occasion. During the last match of the 1969 / 1970 End Of Year Tour, Ellis used this sidestep with good effect against the Barbarians to score two brilliant tries. The picture below shows Jan Ellis on his toes just before he started sidestepping his way through and past the ring of defenders surrounding him in the photograph to score his second try in that match. This try is described by Chris Greyvenstein as follows:
‘Twelve minutes to go and the ball rolls loose 40 metres from the Barbarian’s goal. Swooping down on it is Jan Ellis, the red haired flank from South West Africa. The ball is scooped up in one easy-flowing, almost casual movement and then he is off in that loping, long striding run of his. Two defenders are brushed aside with a flip of the shoulder and a sway of the hips. Another one is beaten with an all but imperceptible change of pace. Now the ball is clutched in one big, freckled hand and running with perfect balance on the soft green turf, Ellis sidesteps free of the cover defence with only Mike Gibson, Ireland’s outstanding centre, between him and the try-line. A feint as if to pass and Gibson goes the wrong way as Ellis thunders past him to score one of the greatest tries in the history of international rugby without a finger being laid on him on his weaving 40 meter run.’
He didn’t shy away from the rough stuff and many a picture shows him with a bruised cheekbone if not a black eye (See picture below).
He was a prolific try scorer and one of the top try scorers in the team during the 1971 tour to Australia, notching up seven tries. He notched up 10 tries during the 1965 tour to Australia and New Zealand and 6 tries during the 1969 / 1970 End Of Year Tour to the United Kingdom. Jan Ellis scored 32 tries for the Springboks in 74 matches (7 tries in 38 tests).
Jan could strum a lively piece on the piano and knock out a lively tune on the mouth-organ.
Rest in Peace big fella, I will always remember you with fondness.