Bennie’s boot ensured ‘boring Boks’ reigned supreme

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May 29, 2022, 10:31

Durban - When Bennie Osler led the Springboks to 23 wins on a tour of the UK and Ireland in 1931/2, with just one defeat, he did so with a pouch of Table Mountain sand stitched into his shorts for all but one game.

And that one match in which he did not have his lucky charm, he broke three ribs and he would have wryly remembered the words of the Cape Malay Imam (holy man) who gave him the pouch of sand gathered from a sacred enclave on the Mountain.

He had been reassured that as long as he wore it he would not get injured.

At this time, Osler was regarded as one of the greatest rugby players on the planet and is still regarded as one of the finest ever Springboks.

The 1920s and ’30s are known as “The Osler Era” and over that period the Boks never lost a series and in the 17 Tests in which Osler was the flyhalf, only four were lost.

Also, Western Province won the Currie Cup every single year of Osler’s career.

He was, though, a controversial rugby figure, mostly because he was ahead of his time in that he was rugby’s first Naas Botha.

When Naas was in his heyday in the 1980s, the public ignorantly trumpeted him as the greatest ever kicker of a rugby ball but the truth is that it had all been done 50 years before and it was, in fact, Osler who invented 10-man rugby, although like Naas, when he wanted to he could unleash his backs with deadly effect.

In fact, the question often comes up - was Bennie Osler the first Naas Botha or was Naas Botha the second Bennie Osler.

Many said Osler was a genius who perpetually guided his team to the winner's circle but others wanted him out of the Bok side because they were boring with Osler at 10.

But even Osler’s critics understood that he had virtually invented tactical kicking, was a masterful drop goal kicker and that he was a perpetual match-winner. Before Osler, flyhalves mostly kicked simply to clear the ball to touch.

But Osler used the ball to gain a territorial advantage by means of cross kicks into space, up-and-unders (skyscrapers as they were then known), and one of his most potent weapons was the kick-pass to his wings.

He is even credited with inventing the grubber, a kick he came up with during a Test match against the All Blacks at a flooded, muddy Newlands in 1928.

Newlands … it was Osler’s second home. An attorney in Cape Town, every day after work he would go to Newlands and practice his full array of kicking skills. He would always have faithful observers — Malays who worshipped his skills and he had a strong bond with these supporters until he died.

In the 30s, the full horror of apartheid was still distant and Osler often felt more at home socialising in the markets of Cape Town’s District Six or Bo-Kaap by day and fraternising with murky characters there at night — he was a keen card player and lover of jazz music.

In places like District Six he could be himself and was not regarded as “The Great Dictator” that he had been nicknamed because of how he controlled games.

Great Dictator or not, Osler won game after game playing Osler rugby until one day he decided to teach the naysayers a lesson.

The background had been the ungrateful public’s criticism of the Boks’ kicking game during their tour of the UK and Ireland in 1931/1932 which had seen Osler steer the Boks to a Grand Slam of victories over England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

A year after that Grand Slam tour, the 1933 Wallabies were in South Africa and after the Boks had won the first Test 17-3 the public resumed banging the old “Boring Boks” drum.

Osler was incensed when an official of the SA Rugby Board said in a newspaper that he hoped the Boks “for the good of the game will adopt the same (running) strategy as the Australians for the rest of the series.”

Danie Craven, Osler’s scrumhalf, tells the story: “There was a huge outcry after that first Test with much complaining that we were not playing the running game and that we were depending too much on Bennie’s boot, despite the fact that we had scored four tries.

“Then before the second Test, Bennie said to me: ‘Danie they want us to run the ball so we will do so and let’s see what happens.

“I won’t kick unless it is absolutely necessary.’ That day we got a hiding, a hell of a hiding, 21-6.

“Bennie was blamed, of course — he was blamed for everything. But Bennie never squealed — he was never a squealer.”

Osler returned to his match-winning tactics in the next Test and the Boks won 12-3, and the series clinched the following week, 11-0, in what was Osler’s international swansong.

After he retired, Osler made a profound comment about the furore over his style of play: “It was the atmosphere of exaggerated praise, unfair criticism and constant argument about me that depressed me most of all.”

Perhaps Osler’s greatest personal triumph was in 1928 in the first match on South African soil between the Boks and the All Blacks.

The two nations had met for the first time in 1921 in New Zealand when the home team had won the first Test and the Boks had won the second (and final) one.

Now the All Blacks were coming to South Africa.

The first Test was at Kingsmead and the mighty Kiwis were crushed 17-0. Osler had nailed 14 of them via two drop goals and two penalties, a tally that was a world record.

Osler played in the remaining three Tests and the series was eventually drawn 2-2; just as the 1921 series had been locked at 1-1.

Osler retired from rugby after that series with the Australians in 1933, at age 31. Six years later, World War Two broke out and he volunteered for the British army that was fighting Germany in East Africa. Before he left, his Malay friends in the Cape had a farewell function for him and presented him with a ring and told him that if he wore it while he was away, he would return safely.

Osler, in fact, had a serious brush with death when he contracted both malaria and amoebic dysentery. The army doctor in East Africa said it was a miracle he survived and he returned home safely to Cape Town.

The illness did perhaps take its toll, though, and might have had something to do with the great Springbok hero dying at just 60 years of age.

In 2007, Benjamin Osler was inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

His commendation carried the words of the world-renowned Craven:

“I cannot do justice to Bennie Osler. Whatever I have to say must be amplified a thousand times to do true justice to this rugby genius.”

May 29, 2022, 12:18

Is this some cop out for being crap at rugby? like you know the shyte you lot put out is not going to hold up. once upon a time it was okay to be crappy kicking. I bet little bennie kicked more accurately and the article says he was a flyhalf not a scrummie. 

May 30, 2022, 03:14

Red Rose consider my response a favour.

I'm assuming you're from the UK? And I'm also assuming you're an expat South African who's taken it upon himself to be a nuisance factor. 

To cut to the chase, tell me, this fantastic rugby you mouth off about, played by your adopted many WC trophies has it won your lot?

Yes we know:'(.........South Africa has 3.

May 30, 2022, 03:42

Was Stanley Osler Bennie,s brother or son? He also played for the Boks.

May 30, 2022, 03:48

Not sure myself but perhaps there's someone who's more familiar with that era who can.

May 30, 2022, 04:01

A triumphant day for Osler was made all the more memorable because the centre alongside him was his brother Stanley and, as it turned out, that would be the only Test they played together. Osler played in the remaining three Tests and the series was eventually drawn 2–2; just as the 1921 series had been locked at 1-1.2 days ago

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