John Gainsford: 'When you are young, sometimes you get confused by the headlines'

Peter Bills
Tuesday 07 July 2009 13:37 BST

Under the shade of a leafy tree, within a stone's throw of Newlands, his great old stamping ground, John Gainsford reflects on his life and times.

Yet one of the greats of South African rugby talks first not of the game but his religion. And he confronts me with two significant confessions about an era long ago when he was the golden boy of the game in this country, universally known and very much admired.

"I came to salvation at a very early age and a major regret I had for many years was that I was just going with the crowd, and not living my faith.

"When you are young, sometimes you get confused by the headlines, the fuss and the attention. In South Africa, you played for the Springboks and became a celebrity very quickly. You got invited out because of your name and I didn't realise that was what I needed to be careful of. What disappointed me subsequently so much was that I felt I didn't need God in my life at that time."

And there was another admission of personal failure. "The regret I have when I look back is that I never spent more time with my family. I fear Shona, my wife, carried a considerable burden and I feel guilty about that.

"Three weeks after Murray, our first, was born I went off on the 1965 Springbok tour to Ireland and Scotland. I returned home for five weeks and then left for New Zealand for five months. It was a selfish existence, an indulgence. I fear looking back, that yes, I did neglect my family."

John Gainsford, capped 33 times between 1960 and 1967, was an esteemed representative of the Springbok emblem. On the 1960/61 tour of Britain and Ireland, they sailed to England on the 'Pretoria Castle' and had to attend a black tie dinner each night, mixing with the captain and first class passengers. "We couldn't wait to finish the dinner to get down to join the normal people in the other sections of the ship" he said. Shades of the movie 'Titanic'?

Gainsford, who was just 21 on that tour, played in 26 of the 34 matches. His dashing threequarter play for Western Province and South Africa lit up Newlands and all the great Test grounds. But when rugby ends, when the boots are finally discarded and the jerseys stored away to get quietly old like their owner, a new life must be constructed. And when Gainsford came to that crossroads, he did not like what he saw in the young man.

"After I stopped playing rugby, that attitude I'd had, changed. I realised one day, I was not living the right life."

John Gainsford will be 71 next month. I ask this venerable figure who sits beside me to explain what his religion means to him. "It gives me peace of mind" he says, quietly and humbly. "For me, it is an understanding of what life is about. We were created by God to have a relationship with him. It is a fulfilment in life, an understanding. I cannot believe…..I find it very strange….the view that you are living this life and then it will just come to an end. I don't believe that. I believe I have a choice and Christ died for my sins, enabling me to have this relationship with God.

"I feel sorry for people who live like that but I don't condemn them. I realise that, there but for the grace of God, go I. Look, let me be clear: I am not a Holy Joe. I realise I have got failings, I am still a sinner. So I wouldn't point fingers at people that are failing. If I can help them, I will. I just try to live life the right way..."

John Leslie Gainsford played rugby in a different time. He smiles with that wonderful touch of humility and says simply "It was very difficult then if you were a young guy playing rugby, who had borrowed money to buy a business. You were enjoying your sport but the servicing of the loan was very difficult. We were going on tours to countries like New Zealand for five months, and this was very hard on the business.

"This forced me to make a decision. So I virtually stopped training. In 1967 I played three Test matches against France and captained Western Province yet I was totally unfit. I didn't deserve to play."

So J.L.Gainsford, the rugby man, became John Gainsford businessman. Together with Jan Pickard and Dave Stewart, his old Western Province and Springbok pals, they bought a company called 'Logan's Sports' in 1963 (today, it is known as 'The Sportsman's Warehouse'). Gainsford then went into the wine business, working for Bellingham Estate as International Director.

In the late 1970s/early '80s, this was no ordinary task. The world was increasingly rejecting apartheid and all things South African. Trying to sell South African wine to the international market was no easy task. "Nobody wanted to buy our wines. They liked them and also the price but people were boycotting South Africa."

They did what they could, bided their time. But when the boycott began to dissipate, business boomed. Gainsford would travel on 5-week overseas trips worldwide and wine shippers in places like Dublin would order container loads; there were markets too in Germany, Switzerland, the U.K. and Mauritius, with whom they did a tremendous business. "We controlled 28% of the total wine going into that country" he said.

But the apartheid stain meant profits initially were lean and Gainsford made little more through those years. "We didn't have much at all: it was costing a lot to do what we were doing. We were the first South African company to have a trial with Marks & Spencer in the U.K. but the supermarket group Waitrose were determined to buy our wines, even then which was tremendous for us."

Yet markets were limited. Shops in Holland advertising South African wine would often find their windows smashed. People would threaten to take their custom elsewhere. So any South African wine available had to be kept under the counter.

Tough times ? John Gainsford knew all about those from his youth; this was no surprise. His father had been forced to leave school without much education during the Depression. John, his two brothers and sister never exactly went hungry but in those times, a plate of soup was an entire meal to them. The family had no car, no telephone. But they were character forming days and they stood men like John Gainsford in good stead when they encountered difficult times in their own lives.

"Jan Pickard had a lot of guts and together we gradually built the business, although it was slow and frustrating for several years. But when the market began to open up in 1991, we started exporting serious amounts of wine. Our sales went straight up and it was incredible the volume we did."

In those times and still today, John Gainsford travelled widely. Spain, France, Switzerland, the UK…..he confesses he should be doing more travelling around South Africa, really. "Everybody raves about these places overseas but we have as much beauty in this country.

"But I sense a lot of uncertainty and confusion in South Africa at the present time. Many people doubt the leadership of this country: it appears to be inconsistent and rudderless. South Africa has changed out of all recognition in the sense that it is a country that can flourish. But there seems to be no delivery on the promises made about essentials like housing facilities required for normal living. And the inflation and interest rates and threatened increases in electricity charges will cause major problems for the poor. There is no way they can continue accepting these increases.

"We are constantly told that the indications are, we are on the right track and things will be sorted out. But I can't see that. How can you have 40 per cent unemployed and then say everything is in place for economic growth ?"

Things in his beloved old game trouble him, too. Transformation, yes, but with honour and merit, not by artificial means, he avows. "It is an insult to any game you play if you are picked because you are seen to be in for transformation. I understand transformation must take place but we have tried to transform from the top down, rather than the bottom up which it should be.

"No player wants to be a quota player or constantly reminded he is from a previously disadvantaged background. If you do that, you are insulting many of the players chosen.

And under this system, players have been forced into situations often to their own detriment. That has done more harm than good."

But these are not the thoughts of an angry, bitter man. At 71, John Gainsford is at peace with himself, with his conscience and with his God. Now, he prays that peace and prosperity may abound throughout this land.

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