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Obituary: Keith Oxlee

KEITH OXLEE was one of the men who led South African rugby out of the doldrums at the end of the Fifties and helped to re-establish the Springboks as the top side in the world.

Having drawn the Test series with the 1955 British Lions 2-2, the Springboks were beaten 3-1 in New Zealand in 1956. Two years later they lost a home series for the first time in their history, 1-0 with a game drawn, against the French.

By the time Wilson Whineray's All Blacks landed in the Republic in 1960 an upsurge in fortunes was being demanded of the home side. The reaction from the selectors was to pick 10 new caps for the one-off match against Scotland and then a further six for the first of four internationals against the All Blacks.

Among the second wave of new recruits was a 23-year-old outside half from Natal with a reputation for being an attacking genius. By the end of his 19 cap, record-breaking career, Oxlee had also become renowned for his goalkicking exploits.

The Springboks were facing an unprecedented fixture list at the start of the Sixties with four Tests against the All Blacks and then five more internationals on a 34 match tour of the UK, Ireland and France, all within eight months. It was make or break time for the Springboks. The team came through with flying colours, winning two and drawing one of the four Tests against New Zealand and then beating the Home Countries before drawing with France. Oxlee established himself as a master tactician and one of the best outside halves in the world.

Perhaps the best player to assess Oxlee's abilities is John Gainsford, the man who played alongside him at centre for the Springboks in all his 19 international appearances. "People have always associated Keith with the running game and the magnificent part he played in fostering it. I disagree with them to a point," Gainsford said.

Where Keith showed his true value and greatness was when the going was tough and his side was under pressure. You would see them coming for you, and you knew it was going to be rough. But when you had Keith there as your outside half you knew that all would be well. I played next to him in all his Tests and I can vouch for his courage and commitment. He took the knocks and he never gave me anything but clean ball. He would rather take the heat than pass it on to his team-mates. That for me was the mark of greatness. He was the finest I ever played with."

Oxlee scored two of his then record five tries for a South African outside half in that 1960 series victory over the All Blacks. At that stage of his career the man who revolutionised Natal Collegians and Natal sides with his thrilling, daring style was not seen as a recognised goalkicker.

All that changed later in the year when he found himself pressed into emergency duty at a rain-soaked Cardiff Arms Park against Wales. With his regular kicker Dick Locyker ruled out through injury, the Springbok captain Avril Malan tossed the ball to Oxlee and hoped for the best.

Amid 50 mph gales, he missed with his opening two kicks before landing his third shortly before half-time. It proved to be the only score of the game and helped to launch a whitewash of Home Unions in the Test series.

Over the next five years Oxlee hoisted his Test points tally to 88 to smash Gerry Brand's record of 55 that had stood for 24 years from 1928. Even today he lies in fifth place on the Springboks all-time scoring list.

In 1962, Oxlee broke the Springboks' record for the number of points in a match, as well as the hearts of Arthur Smith's British Lions, when he kicked five conversions and two penalties - earning 16 points - in the fourth Test as the tourists were beaten 34-14 in Bloemfontein. That record stood until 1981 when Naas Botha scored 20 points against New Zealand in Wellington.

But many remember Oxlee's feats against the Wallabies at Ellis Park in 1961 as his finest hour. Some 60,000 fans gave the master a rousing standing ovation when ambulance men helped him from the field after a spectacular final-minute try that bumped the home score up to a record-breaking 28- 3.

Oxlee had taken a succession of heavy knocks but had refused to leave the field. He received stiches as early as the fourth minute for a nasty gash above his eye and towards the end of the match was in such a daze that he had to move to centre. Lesser players would have hampered their team's cause by remaining on the field in such a mess but Oxlee's instinctive genius prevailed throughout the match and he was the architect of wave after wave of creative attacks.

Keith Oxlee was a supremely fit sportsman throughout his life. Following a rugby career spanning 1955 to 1971, in which he made 102 appearances for Natal, he went on to complete two Comrades Marathons - 52 miles from Durban to Pietermaritzberg - and became an accomplished lawn bowler.

Rob Coles

Keith Oxlee, rugby player and chemical salesman: born Johannesburg 17 December 1934; married (one son, one daughter); died 31 August 1998.