Rugby Union: Craven leaves vacuum: Steve Bale on the difficulty South African rugby union faces in finding a new leader after the loss of its elder statesman

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The Independent Online
DANIE CRAVEN, a towering figure of world rugby during the 20th century, died yesterday at his home in Stellenbosch, South Africa, at the age of 82. He had suffered a heart attack.

Craven, who played for, coached and managed South Africa and was South African Rugby Board president from 1956 until it merged with the South African Rugby Union to form the South African Rugby Football Union last year, had lived long enough to witness the Springboks' return to international rugby during his final months.

Although his absolute power in South African rugby had waned with the years, he remained a figure of immense authority who was prepared to throw his weight around when he thought it right. Craven's refusal to countenance a non-international as coach meant that John Williams, coach on the recent tour of France and England, had Ian Kirkpatrick foisted on him as assistant rather than his own preference, Eugene van Wyk.

Craven's death leaves a vacuum in the leadership of the SARFU which those who have been patiently waiting will probably not be big enough to fill. Craven was joint president of the SARFU with Ebrahim Patel, representing the former SARU, and when the union's management committee meets on Saturday it is unlikely a successor will be nominated.

Instead, the decision is likely to be left until the SARFU annual meeting in March 1994 when open elections will end the present temporary arrangements giving the former SARB and SARU 50-50 representation on the 20-man executive.

Ultimately, the Craven baton may pass outside the present committee altogether. Morne du Plessis, a distinguished former Springbok captain and high-profile proponent of the new liberalism, is under considerable pressure to stand for the next SARFU executive. He is sufficiently talented and far-sighted to emerge as the dominant figure.

However, Du Plessis, 43, has placed two conditions on his involvement: the first that, initially at least, it must be low key, and second that it has to be the ex-SARU rather than ex-SARB people who put him forward. Du Plessis would also bring the benefit of being well connected within the National Sports Congress, the powerful body which withdrew its support from the Springboks while they were in France in October.

One thing is certain, though: not even Du Plessis would have the authority to get rid of the Springboks fitness advisor simply because she was a woman. After the August matches against New Zealand and Australia, Craven decided that having Eugene Shaw in the dressing-room was unacceptable and replaced her for the subsequent tour with Bokkie Blauw, who happened to be from his old university, Stellenbosch.

Yesterday, the tributes flowed thick and fast from around the world. Steve Tshwete, the African National Congress's sports spokesman, who has not been seeing eye to eye with Craven lately, generously called him 'a great visionary'. To Patel, his co-president, he was 'a rugby genius'.

Tshwete and Ali Bacher, chief executive of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, joined the South African and Indian players on the field for a minute's silence before the resumption of the fourth Test in Cape Town.

Albert Ferrasse, the former president of the French rugby federation, best expressed a wider apprehension at the implications of the loss of Craven. 'I am afraid South African rugby may never recover,' he said. 'Behind Danie there were a lot of ambitious people. He was the only one capable of taming them.'

Craven obituary, page 23