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Michaelhouse ’86: a loaded team, quarantine and the first overseas tour
With Covid-19 having wreaked havoc with sport all around the world, including, of course, the schools’ rugby season, we’re taking a look back at some past teams and, on this occasion, we’ll focus mostly on the Michaelhouse 1st XV of 1986, which also had its own issues with quarantine. The side’s captain, Bruce Herbert, chatted with KZN10.com’s Brad Morgan.
Shortly after the start of the 1986 season, an outbreak of hepatitis saw the Michaelhouse 1st XV quarantined to the school sanatorium for three weeks, (the rest of the school continued to function normally) undermining the form of a very talented side, which produced five Natal Schools’ players, including Bruce Herbert (prop), Philip King (hooker), John Pool (lock), Richard Firth (flank) and Murray Collins (scrumhalf). That was, at the time, a Michaelhouse record.
Bruce started in the 1st XV in 1985, having made the move straight from under-15 A after the departure of Mike Reilly, which opened up a place at tighthead prop. He was still 15 when he made his debut on a pre-season tour to East London against Selborne College. Up against players three or four years older than he was, it was no surprise he termed it “a massive baptism of fire”.
Michaelhouse were captained by Wayne Witherspoon, who was an excellent mentor, said Bruce. He used the lessons he learnt from Wayne when he was appointed captain the following year.
Captain Ben Parham tells how Michaelhouse 1st XV 1996-97 beat Hilton three times in a row
The 1985 Michaelhouse 1st XV, captained by Wayne Witherspoon. Bruce Herbert is directly behind him.
He also mentioned some standout memories of the 1985 season:
Facing Glenwood at Glenwood, ‘House were 3-6 down, but they had a penalty right in front of the uprights to draw level. Victor Anderson, the fullback, who played Natal Schools in both 1985 and 1986, duly slotted the ball between the posts to make it 6-6. But… The referee ruled that Richard Firth had been in front of Anderson and the successful kick was disallowed.
“Richard was next to me and we were definitely behind the kicker,” Bruce reckoned.
There was a late escape against Kearsney in a match played in Botha’s Hill. Down by a few points, Michaelhouse faced a 22m drop out from the home side. The kick didn’t gain much height and lock Sean Stringer plucked it out of the air before racing through to score to win the game for ‘House.
Then there was a game against Maritzburg College, a team that had lowered the colours of Grey College that year in a hugely anticipated showdown. Bruce reflected: “I remember thinking how small the College side looked before we ran on, a schoolboy error. I guess I was expecting much larger guys but, don’t get me wrong, they were tough. The loose head I scrummed against looked like a third year varsity student! Just remember, I was 16 years old.”
Michaelhouse won the first of the Hilton/Michaelhouse derbies when Victor Anderson scored all of the red and white hoops’ points in the last minutes of the contest. Hilton reversed the result in the second clash, claiming a 12-6 win in an ill-tempered affair.
It was tough for a 16-year-old Bruce Herbert in 1985, but it was excellent preparation for 1986, even though he remained young, turning 17 in April.
To put it into context, Bruce was born in Eshowe hospital on 11 April 1969. Pete Smith, who attended Maritzburg College, was born in the same hospital the day before Bruce. Yet Bruce captained Michaelhouse in 1986 and Pete captained College in 1988, two years later! By then Bruce had played for two years for the Natal and SA Air Force under-20 teams.
Fortunately for Bruce, during his time at Michaelhouse he captained some very strong teams at age group level. He led the under-14 A team in 1983, the under-15 A side in 1984, and then moved up to the 1st XV the following year, culminating in him captaining the team in 1986.
The under-14 A team lost just one match in ’83, going down to DHS away from home, while the under-15 A side fell in their last game of the season only, going down to Hilton at home. “Methinks a bit of complacency crept in,” he ruefully admitted.
Along the way, though, there were wins over the always-strong Maritzburg College at both under-14 A and under-15 A level, as well as victories over the big government schools: Westville, DHS and Glenwood.
Bruce attributed much of that success to the under-14 A coach, Gordon Paterson, who put together five excellent seasons while in charge of the team, with winning percentages of 92% in 1977, 85% in 1978, 100% in 1979, 80% in 1982 and 92% in 1983. He missed out on the 1980 and 1981 seasons because he was busy with his PhD at Stellenbosch University.
So, on to the 1986 1st XV. Statistically, it was the most successful Michaelhouse team of the 1980s, winning 14 and losing five games for a 74 percent winning mark. With four Natal Schools’ players in the pack and the Natal Schools’ scrumhalf, it was a powerhouse up front. But hepatitis likely cost them an even better record.
A win that stood out was a 52-32 defeat of the Old Crocks, who were loaded with former Natal provincial players, including former Springbok eighth-man and Natal skipper Tommy Bedford. That Old Crocks’ team included Tommy Bedford (c), Tim Cocks, Gary Joubert, Laurie Sharp, Tubby Hannaford, Robbie Savage, Garth Giles, Peter Ripley-Evans, Rodger Bond, Brian van Rooyen, Wally Watt, Dave Coleman, Brian van Zyl, Dick Cocks, and Matt Taylor.
The clashes with DHS and Marizburg College were undermined by illness. College flyhalf Udo Goedeke, in an interview with KZN10’s Jono Cook in 2018, said Michaelhouse were favourites to win their showdown.
“I think they sensed victory and all their regulars were keen to play. Injury and illness meant quite a few had to pass late fitness tests.
“It was very close at halftime. We led 9-6. The second half was incredible. [SA Schools’ centre] Jeremy Thomson really turned it on for us. It turned into the Jeremy Thomson Show; he ripped their defence apart.
“The College team’s contribution was awesome. It was a massive second half for us. To be fair, I think the Michaelhouse injury and illness concerns pre-game were a contributing factor. They faded badly in that second half.”
The game ended 40-6 in College’s favour, which was testament to just how much the hepatitis had hit ‘House. The following week, the DHS game was a very close affair with the Durbanites edging it 12-10.
Later in the season, Michaelhouse showed their true colours in a narrow defeat to Bishops at the Private Schools Rugby Festival at Hilton. Bishops were very much the Cape Town equivalent of College in those years and renowned for the flowing, attractive rugby they played under the legendary coach Basil Bey. To put it into perspective, the Bishops’ side was unbeaten in 1986, beating the likes of Paarl Gym, Paarl Boys High and Paul Roos (they didn’t play Grey College), as well as all the Cape’s southern suburbs schools. (SACS, Rondebosch, Wynberg etc.)
“We were unlucky to lose 13-18 to Bishops,” Bruce Herbert said. “We knocked on the ball over their line! As they say, could have, should have, would have.”
The Natal Witness carried a report on the Michaelhouse versus Bishops thriller.
At the same tournament, though, ‘House dominated Saint John’s 22-4 (remember tries were worth four points back then) and Saint Stithian’s 30-3.
They finished their season with narrow wins over Glenwood (18-15) and Hilton (19-17), but went down to Westville (18-29). “Westville had a really good game against us. We hammered them up front. However, they ran us off our feet with some really good speed and handling,” Bruce commented.
It was a remarkably closely contested season among Natal Schools: Michaelhouse beat Hilton twice, Hilton beat College on College Old Boys’ Day, College beat Michaelhouse, Glenwood beat College, College beat Glenwood, Michaelhouse beat Glenwood. The Kearsney vs Michaelhouse game was called off due to the hepatitis quarantine.
That same year, Natal, coached by Dave Dell, and with six College boys, five from Michaelhouse, three from Westville, two from Hilton, one from Kearsney, one from Estcourt, one from Linpark and one from Glenwood enjoyed a strong showing at the Craven Week in Graaff-Reinet.
Michaelhouse’s Natal Schools’ representatives of 1986 with MHS masters: Bruce Herbert, Philip King, Rich Firth, Mr Gordon Paterson, John Pool, Murray Collins, and Mr Richard Aitchison.
The one player from Kearsney was Nkululeko “Skweegee” Skweyiya, the first ever black player to be selected for the Natal Craven Week team.
They opened their tournament against the always strong Northern Transvaal and after a tremendous tussle came away with a win, which was clinched through a penalty try after a late tackle on Jeremy Thomson. They followed that up with a narrow 4-6 loss to Eastern Province before beating Far North.
The Natal Schools’ team that competed in the 1986 Craven Week in Graaff-Reinet:
Back row: Warren Wilson (Maritzburg College), Richard Firth (Michaelhouse), Richard Dolbey (Maritzburg College), John Pool (Michaelhouse), Sean Platford (Westville), Brenton Catterall (Maritzburg College), Sean Fry (Westville), Trevor Labuschagne (Glenwood).
Middle row: Murray Collins (Michaelhouse), Dallas Harris (Hilton College), Philip King (Michaelhouse), Udo Goedeke (Maritzburg College), Joe Fernandez (Linpark), Nkululeko Skweyiya (Kearsney), Leon van Rooyen (Escourt), Alastair Hawley (Westville).
Front row: Bruce Herbert, Dave Dell (coach), Anthony Gilson (Maritzburg College, captain), L. Kirkland (Manager), Carl Jankowitz, (Hilton College) Rod Blamey (chairman), Jeremy Thomson (Maritzburg College).
Jeremy Thomson and Leon van Rooyen (Estcourt) were selected for the South African Schools team. Bruce shared a story which Jeremy Thomson told him about the SA Schools’ team photo. Back then, of course, there were no digital cameras, so everything was done on film. Imagine the horror felt by the photographer when, after photographing the side for their official team shot, he went to develop the photos and discovered that he had failed to put any film in his camera!
Unsurprisingly, Bruce has particularly vivid memories of the Hilton vs Michaelhouse derbies in 1985 and 1986. “They were generally where the underdog often pulled off a remarkable win, like was the case in the first match at Michaelhouse in 1985,” he said. “The news coming from Hilton was that they were going to put 50 past us. Hilton had a good team and had had a successful season so far. As things turned out Victor Anderson scored all our points, scoring 13 points in the last eight minutes. I think we won 13-7.
“Etienne De Villiers who had been a teacher/coach at Michaelhouse for 16 years said that in all his time of watching Hilton/Michaelhouse matches this ’85 match was the best one that he had ever seen.”
Hilton wanted pay back and they got it in the rematch at Hilton, winning 12-6. “Both our Natal Schools Players, James Wilson (scrum half) and Victor Anderson (full back), got injured in the first 15 minutes and had to leave the field,” Bruce recalled. “The late tackle on Victor was so late that the video cameras had moved on and didn’t pick it up. James got a finger in his eye. I remember it being an ill-tempered match. I think the ref lost control to some extent. Quite a lot was said about the match for some time.”
In 1986, the first Hilton/Michaelhouse was played in front of television cameras and a massive crowd at Hilton. Bruce recalled: “As the Michaelhouse 1st XV got off the bus I was called to one side and interviewed on TV. My interview was never screened, only [Hilton captain] Dallas Harris’ interview was aired, much to the amusement of my mates and family. I don’t think I spoke clearly enough and/or maybe mumbled too much?
“Anyway, we did the business on the day, winning 9-7. Rowan Varner, the Hilton eighth-man (and SA Schools’ fast bowler) missed a penalty in the last seconds of the match, just skimming the left upright.
The second match at Michaelhouse was a particularly memorable clash because of a stunning fightback from the home side. They were 0-14 down at the break (remembering that tries were worth four points at that time) and Hilton had crossed for three tries.
“I gave the team a serious bollocking at half time and to their credit we bounced back, winning 19-17. I think there were plenty Hilton parents and Hilton supporters that struggled to put the corks back into their champagne bottles as the final whistle sounded!” Bruce said. “Mike Jeffery scored two magnificent tries within minutes of each other.”
Sadly, Mike lost his life shortly afterwards in a car crash while travelling to Johannesburg.
Michaelhouse 36-3 Sandringham
Michaelhouse 16-4 Richards Bay
Michaelhouse 37-9 John Ross College
Michaelhouse vs Kearsney College – cancelled
Michaelhouse 29-15 Linpark
Michaelhouse 52-32 Old Crocks
Michaelhouse 22-9 Estcourt
Michaelhouse 18-30 Old Boys
Michaelhouse 40-0 Weston
Michaelhouse 6-40 Maritzburg College
Michaelhouse 10-12 DHS
Michaelhouse 15-0 Voortrekker
Michaelhouse 9-7 Hilton College
Michaelhouse 29-3 Alexandra
Michaelhouse 22-4 Saint John’s College
Michaelhouse 30-3 Saint Stithians College
Michaelhouse 13-18 Bishops
Michaelhouse 18-15 Glenwood
Michaelhouse 16-29 Westville Boys’ High
Michaelhouse 19-17 Hilton College
Played 19, won 14, lost 5
Points for: 437, points against: 250
At the end of November, Michaelhouse toured abroad for the first time. With final exams being written at the time, the side was afforded only seven Sundays of practice before their departure. It was a challenge, especially since the South African season had ended some months earlier.
Due to the sporting isolation of South Africa at the time, the team travelled in civvies.
The 1986 Michaelhouse 1st rugby team overseas touring party. Bruce Herbert is front and centre.
They played two matches, beating the Welsh side Pontarddulais 8-6 and then Sherbourne School of Dorset, one of England’s top school teams at that time, which included two England under-19 players in their ranks, 12-8.
But then the Michaelhouse team arrived back at their hotel to discover that the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) had overruled the Welsh Youth Rugby Union (WYRU) and declared in the press that the tour unacceptable.
The WYRU encouraged ‘House to continue with their tour but, Bruce remarked: “Effectively, we now became a team on the run.”
On 7 December, the match against Haverford West went ahead, but it was undone by the failure of the referee to arrive. A local coach took over the whistle and refereed in his Wellington boots! His blowing left a lot to be desired.
“No matter what we did, we were penalised out of the game and lost 6-8,” Bruce said. That match was followed by “a strange affair”, a 35 minute practice game against Monmouth, a local independent school, which ended with Michaelhouse 8-5 to the good.
Next up was a visit to Sophia Gardens for an outing against a Cardiff Invitation XV on 14 December. A strong showing from Michaelhouse produced a good 22-8 victory, which was followed by a splendid function arranged by the hosts.
The next day, though, matters took a turn for the worse. BBC TV arrived at their hotel and asked to speak with the team. They had been advised not to talk to the media because no matter what they said their words would be turned against them. That evening they were on the 18:00 news.
“We became aware of a little red car tailing us when we were travelling in our two minibuses,” Bruce remembered. “Once or twice we were able to give the driver the slip. On one occasion we forced him onto an off ramp that we weren’t taking. As it sped past in its attempt to find an on-ramp, the driver received a wave and a cheer from all of us on the bus. We did not in any way feel threatened as this surveillance was proving to be a nuisance only.”
Questionable refereeing blighted Michaelhouse’s sixth match against a Monmouth Invitation XV, which saw ‘House beaten 12-4; the man who arranged the game also refereed it and had his son playing in the Invitation side.
Eight of the side then headed to Seefeld in Austria for two weeks of skiing, while the rest of the touring party flew back to South Africa from Heathrow.
Bruce Herbert concluded: “In summary, and I quote from Gordon Paterson’s Book, there is Genius in Passion, ‘While we had achieved a number of excellent results, we had not performed consistently to the full potential of the team during the first part of the season. To my mind the hepatitis had been a major factor that caused an early season glitch in our progress. Again, this is typical of life itself and the true test is the capacity to come back when you have been knocked down. I believe that they were revealing the skill, fitness, tenacity and sportsmanship that we wished to see as the example set by the first fifteen.'”