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Six rugby players feared drowned in South Africa


The South African rugby fraternity is in mourning today after one player was confirmed dead and hopes faded for five of his team mates, who were also feared to have drowned after being caught in rip current on a beach near Port Elizabeth.

Motherwell Rugby Football Club manager Mncedisi Mazomba appealled to British rugby fans ''to make something good come from this''. Mr Mazomba said: ''We are an amateur club and we play on an open field. Nothing can replace our players but we have heard we have a namesake club in Scotland. Maybe their hearts will be touched.''

Seventeen Motherwell players were among 21 people who were swept to sea from Bluewater Bay beach yesterday, sparking a sea rescue operation that is still under way tonight.

Lifeguards picked up 15 people immediately. The volunteer National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) said one Motherwell player died after being brought to shore.

NSRI spokesman Craig Lambinon said: ''An air force helicopter with two swimmers joined a police dive unit and Bluewater Bay rescuers at first light on Monday. At this stage we hope to recover bodies but there is no guarantee.''

Rip currents are a phenomenon whereby the sea turns back on itself when the shoreline cannot cushion the waves. Powerful channels of water flowing seaward can carry swimmers with them at a rate of up to 2 metres per second.

One of the lifesavers involved in the rescue yesterday said it was ''incredibly traumatic''. Brendon Helm told Die Burger newspaper: “It is something I will always remember. Only eight of us and 21 desperate people with wide open eyes begging to come out.”

Mr Helm said the players had been jogging on the beach and had only been in the water for about 10 minutes. “Everything was peaceful, the sea was calm and they were up to their chests in the water. The next moment we just saw arms and hands in the air.''

Before yesterday's tragedy, the Eastern Cape had seen six drownings this month - an unusually high number. But tourism officials said Bluewater bay was considered one of Port Elizabeth's safest beaches.

The South African Rugby Union (SARU) sent its condolensces to the club, which is 20 years old and based in a township on a hill above Port Elizabeth. "These young men were preparing to compete in a SARU Easter tournament in Cape Town in a fortnight and were enjoying a carefree day on the beach," said SARU president Oregan Hoskins.

Mr Mazomba said the dead men would be named only after the search has been called off. He said most of the team's players were unemployed men in their 20s and some students in their late teens.