How Boer War camps brought a new breed to the game
BRITISH Prisoner of War camps on St Helena in the mid-Atlantic and even more so in Sri Lanka played a surprisingly big role in the development of South African rugby.
Before the Second Boer War (18991902) rugby in southern Africa was very much the game of the Englishspeaking settlers on the coast in Cape Town and Durban, and the Boer elite in the thriving gold city of Johannesburg. It was not played in rural Boer areas and was virtually unknown in the Free State.
Come the conflict and the Boer militia was comprised mainly of those rural settlers from Transvaal and the Free State, and 24,000 of them were captured and sent to British POW camps, notably at St Helena and Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon).
At the two camps on St Helena, Deadwood and Broadbottom, rugby fanatic Sommie Morkel – who was to tour Britain and France with the 1906-7 Springboks – was one of the prisoners and, once a Dutch Red Cross consignment had arrived, including eight rugby balls, he set about teaching his many non-rugby playing compatriots the game.
With no chance of escape from the remote island, the Boers were allowed plenty of leisure time and quickly took to the physicality of the game and before long weekly inter-camp games and matches against the garrison were being organised.
As the Boer War intensified and the number of prisoners increased, St Helena became overcrowded and the British started transporting Boer prisoners to camps in India and Sri Lanka. It was in the latter, with a longer wet season and more turf to play on, that rugby was again adopted as the game of choice in the five camps.
The epi centre of the rugby revolution was the large camp at Diyatalawa, with its 4,000 ‘residents’ where there were matches six days a week with regular ‘Test’ matches between Transvaal and the Free State becoming a regular feature of camp life attracting crowds of more than 1,500 spectators, while there were also challenge matches against the garrison regiment, the Gloucester’s.
It was as a teenager at the Diyatalawa that future Springbok Koot Reynecke, previously a stranger to the game, learnt how to play rugby.
Within months of the war ending and the prisoners returning, new clubs were being formed in Bloemfontein and throughout the Free State and when Mark Morrison’s Lions of 1903 arrived they found the opposition much tougher in the Afrikaaner heartlands, losing twice to Transvaal and scraping a 17-16 win against Orange River County in Bloemfontein.
POW camps had exposed rugby to a rugged breed of South Africans who quickly made the Springboks into one of the most powerful rugby nations on earth.