Obituary: Danie Craven
Tuesday 05 January 1993
DANIE CRAVEN'S crowning moments came with the South Africa rugby union team's re-entry into world rugby last year in swift succession against New Zealand, Australia, France and England. After the era of sporting boycott, which had sometimes seemed both unending and unendable, the feeling of simple acceptance was sweet even if the results were as disappointing as he had expected rather than as good as he hoped.
Whether this should be taken also to be Craven's crowning achievement is another matter, since by the time the Springboks - as everyone in rugby, and especially Craven himself, persisted in calling them - returned, there were many other strands working towards the same end. Political settlement was more important for rugby than anything rugby itself could do within its small (though in white South Africa disproportionately significant) sphere.
The fact remains that it was Craven who kept the South African Rugby Board's toe in the international water through its continued membership of the International Rugby Board, of which he was a long-serving member. There were times, however, when the grand old man's unrequited stand on behalf of South African rugby, and ipso facto against the South African government, appeared
As long as an unreconstructed white supremacist like P W Botha held sway even Craven's massive authority, established as a player and coach long before he came to lead the South African board, was of little use.
Then came F W de Klerk, and political progress inevitably meant sporting progress. Rugby came under one united governing body; the African National Congress, which Craven first encountered in a mould-breaking meeting in Harare in 1988, gave its blessing; De Klerk, who as sports minister had roundly condemned Craven for talking with the ANC, continued his reforms.
For many years Craven had portrayed himself as an apolitical liberal determined to use rugby to overthrow apartheid, yet when the boycott did finally end he rejected the more emollient approach of his cricketing counterparts, angrily refusing to dispense with 'Springboks' as a nickname and reacting disdainfully when the powerful National Sports Congress threatened to undermine last autumn's tour of France and England.
Even so, for the octogenarian who would not despair, the achievement was formidable and Craven, president of the South African Rugby Board (SARB) since 1956 and joint president of the South African Rugby Football Union since its inception last year, would have had his ultimate fulfilment had he lived to preside over the 1995 World Cup in South Africa.
Now that really would have been a triumph of his enlightenment. To point out that it was not ever thus is not to be churlish but to note that somewhere along the way he underwent a conversion. It was South African rugby's calamity that the government for so long did not. For instance, Craven once said non-whites would become Springboks 'over my dead body', a widely quoted remark he later claimed not to have made. So he changed. And he was revered (not too strong a word) in rugby even when his personal power waned with the years.
When Craven talked to the ANC in 1988, it was still a proscribed organisation and he was unceremoniously slapped down by the SARB committee, which forced an undertaking from him that it would not happen again. At one time they would not have dared - and in the end he was vindicated; contact between the SARFU and the ANC is now routine.
Craven was born on a farm at Lindley in the Orange Free State. This lies somewhere near the heart of Afrikanerdom but Craven was never so easily labelled. In fact his grandfather was a Yorkshireman who emigrated to prospect for diamonds.
He came late to rugby; barefoot on the farm, Craven played soccer as a boy and did not turn to the oval ball until he was 13. But he became one of the most versatile international players there has been, making his name as a dive-passing scrum- half but also playing for South Africa at centre, outside-half and No 8: the four different positions in four games against Australia in 1933.
Craven had attended the celebrated rugby nursery at the University of Stellenbosch, where for a time he was a theology student, and, unusually, was a Springbok before playing provincial rugby (which he eventually did for Western Province, Eastern Province and Northern Transvaal). As a 20-year-old, he was a surprise choice for the tour to the British Isles in 1931-32, going on to win 16 caps, the four as captain including his last three against the 1938 Lions before the Second World War terminated his playing career.
Craven subsequently became a respected, innovative coach, returning to Britain with the 1951 Springboks and touring Australia and New Zealand as manager in 1956. His biography was published as long ago as 1949; his coaching manual Rugby Handbook (1970) is a standard. Rugby reference books uniformly call him 'SA's Mr Rugby'.
Craven above all others was responsible for sustaining South Africa's relationship with the rest of the rugby world at a time when hardly anyone was willing actually to play them - not on an official level anyway. Until November, no Springbok team had visited Britain since the winter of 1969-70, and none has been to New Zealand since 1981. As for incoming tours, until New Zealand and Australia were there five months ago the most recent official visitors had been England in 1984.
In the meantime there had been some murky business. For instance, when the International Board was celebrating its centenary in 1986 Craven impatiently denied that an unofficial All Black tour was about to take place. Within days the New Zealand Cavaliers played their first game in Johannesburg and, lo and behold, there was Craven in the grandstand to watch it.
Now everything is above board and the world's leading rugby countries desperately want to beat their path to South Africa. France, England, Argentina, New Zealand, the British Isles, Australia, Ireland and Scotland are scheduled visitors before the turn of the century, not forgetting the biggest prize of the lot, the next World Cup. How Danie Craven would have loved to see them all.
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