Doug Hopwood

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The Independent Online

Douglas John Hopwood, rugby player: born Cape Town 3 June 1934; married (one son, two daughters); died Cape Town 10 January 2002.

Ask a South African rugby fan who was the greatest player of all time and two names come to mind – the lock Frik du Preez and the No 8 Doug Hopwood.

In a land where forwards are gods, Hopwood achieved cult status in 1961, at the age of 26, when he helped the Springboks to sweep through the UK on a Grand Slam tour that saw them lose only their final match against the Barbarians.

Their Test victories over both Wales and England were attributable to Hopwood's indomitable spirit, skill and tenacity. The game against Wales was played in torrential rain on a mudbath at the old Cardiff Arms Park. A single penalty goal separated the two teams, but it was the magnificent Hopwood who dictated the course of events as he picked up the ball and drove into the heart of the Welsh defence.

As John Billot, author of Springboks in Wales (1974), put it: "No forward of any country had ever played more selflessly." His performance came at a price, however. While his team mates moved on after the game, Hopwood, spent three days in hospital recovering from a long-standing back problem. Nevertheless, he recovered quickly enough to score the only try of the game in the victory over England at Twickenham and was a try scorer again in the triumph over the Scots at Murrayfield. The Springboks drew with France in Paris before completing their Grand Slam of the Home Countries in Ireland.

Born in Cape Town in 1934, Douglas John Hopwood was a revolutionary back-row forward in the days when the northern hemisphere nations were still calling a player in that position a lock in a 3-2-3 scrum, while the southern hemisphere were calling him the eighth man in a 3-4-1 scrum. Having been schooled at Wynberg High, Hopwood trained as a mechanic, and played for False Bay and the well-known Villagers club in Cape Town. He played provincial rugby for Western Province from 1957 to 1965, skippering the side in his latter years.

His first taste of international honours came in 1959 when he toured Argentina with the Junior Springboks. His first Test was against Scotland in 1960, when he needed painkillers to take the field because of his back problems.

The problems with his back started at a young age when he felt something "pop" in his back while he was lifting weights at the home of his schoolboy friend, Martin van Diggelen, son of the famous body-builder Tromp van Diggelen.

That moment dogged him throughout his career. In addition to the painkillers he regularly took before matches, and the three days he spent in hospital in Wales, he spent the early days of the Springboks' 1965 tour to New Zealand in a wheelchair. As if that wasn't bad enough, in Christchurch a specialist found a chip of bone floating in Hopwood's knee. Yet he amazed everyone by regaining fitness to play in the third and fourth Tests of that series.

He made an immediate impact on his return, helping the South Africans to win the third Test after falling behind 2-0 in the series. The fourth Test went to the All Blacks and was Hopwood's 22nd and final international appearance.

Although the selectors voted 4-1 to make him captain for that tour to New Zealand, and he was certainly the people's choice, the man who was his manager on the Junior Springboks tour six years earlier, Kobus Louw, used his power as a vice-president of the South African Rugby Board to overturn the decision.

Hopwood scored five tries in his 22 tests and enjoyed 15 victories and three draws. Included among his successes was a Test series victory over Arthur Smith's 1962 British and Irish Lions.

After he retired from rugby, he worked for South African Breweries.

Robert Cole