Ellis leaves behind proud Bok history
Former loose-forward succumbs to cancer at 71
RUGBY fans will always remember one of South Africa’s greatest looseforwards, Jan Hendrik Ellis as a tall, fiery, red-head, always superfit and a fast flank who formed an outstanding loose-forward partnership with Piet Greyling.
They played together in 25 Tests. Greyling was the fetcher, playing a less spectacular role, while Ellis, often running with the ball in one hand, was the attacking one of the duo.
Sadly, Ellis died from cancer in a Pretoria hospice on February 8 at the age of 71.
The manner in which he and Greyling dominated the breakdowns was one of the primary reasons why the Springboks outplayed the 1970 All Blacks in South Africa.
During his career Ellis weighed 97.5kg and stood 1.85m tall. He was an obsessive trainer and his speed and fitness led him to score seven Test tries and a phenomenal 32 in the 74 appearances he made in all Springbok matches.
He made his final appearance in a 16-7 win over the 1976 All Blacks in Durban, equalling the great Frik du Preez’s record of 38 Springbok Test appearances.
However, his life after rugby was not all roses. In December 2000 Ellis was attacked during a botched armed robbery and shot. Not one to give up easily, he held onto his adversary with one hand, phoned the police with the other while losing a lot of blood. He never fully recovered from the incident.
Ellis was born in Brakpan, Johannesburg, but moved to South West Africa (now Namibia) at a young age, staying at a sheep and cattle farming town, Gobabis, close to the Botswana border. He later captained South West Africa (SWA) schools. He was a product of Wennie Du Plessis High School in Gobabis, and this is where he cut his teeth with the oval ball.
Barely out of his shorts, the rugby crazy Ellis would feature for the school’s rugby team in the morning, only to resurface with the town’s senior team in the afternoon.
As a young man he represented SWA at lock against the touring British Lions team of 1962 and after some good performances for SWA he was chosen to appear in the Springbok trials in 1965. He was selected as a flank for the tour to Australia and New Zealand. The other flanks chosen were Johan “Haas” Schoeman and Johannes “Lofty” Nel, a veteran of the 1960 All Blacks series, while Du Preez, selected as a lock, was also used as a flank.
Australia outplayed the Boks, winning 18-11 at Sydney and 12-8 at Brisbane, the fifth consecutive Test lost by South Africa during 1964-1965.
At Wellington he replaced Du Preez, who returned to lock the scrum with Jacobus “Tiny” Naude, but the Test was lost 6-3, as was the second Test at Dunedin when the score was 13-0, the Boks’ seventh Test loss in a row.
However, after being down 16-5 at halftime in the third Test at Christchurch, two tries to wing Gert Brynard and one to veteran centre John Gainsford and a lastgasp penalty goal by Naude allowed South Africa to sneak in with a 19-16 victory. The fourth Test was lost at Auckland, and the Boks had to virtually rebuild for the 1967 series with France.
A new and exciting, running fullback HO de Villiers replaced Lionel Wilson, Piet Visagie replaced Keith Oxlee at flyhalf, Albie de Waal took over from the injured Doug Hopwood at eighthman, and a new frontrow of Jacobus “Tiny” Neethling, Gys Pitzer and Gert Kotze became a handful for the French. Add elusive runner Eben Olivier at centre and Gawie Carelse at lock, and the Boks looked like world-beaters. They beat France 2-1 with one Test drawn.
In 1968 Ellis played in all four Tests against the touring British Isles team (SA won 3-0 with one drawn), and he went on a short tour to France later that year, with both Tests won. In 1969 all four Tests against Australia were won at home.
The 1969-1970 Springbok team to the British Isles became to be known as the “Demo” tour, with political demonstrations at virtually all the games. Ellis played in the Test against Scotland, which was lost 6-3, and was unable to play against England, who won 113. Alby Bates took his place and this was the first Test he had missed in a sequence of 19 matches. But he was back for the Tests against Ireland and Wales. Both of these Tests were drawn, giving the 1969-1970 team the worst record of any Bok Grand Slam touring team overseas.
In the last match of the tour on January 31 1970, Ellis scored two tries against a strong Barbarians side who were beaten 21-12.
His second try is described by rugby writer Chris Greyvensten: “Twelve minutes to go and the ball rolls loose 40 metres from the Barbarians’ goal. Swooping down on it is Jan Ellis, the red-haired flank from South West Africa. The ball is scooped up in one easyflowing, almost casual, movement and then he is off in that loping, long striding run of his. Two defenders are brushed aside with a flip of the shoulder and a sway of the hips. Another one is beaten with an all but imperceptible change of pace. Now the ball is clutched in one big, freckled hand and running with perfect balance on the soft green turf, Ellis sidesteps free of the cover defence with only Mike Gibson, Ireland’s outstanding centre, between him and the try-line. A feint as if to pass and Gibson goes the wrong way as Ellis thunders past him to score one of the greatest tries in the history of international rugby without a finger being laid on him on his weaving 40m run.”
Ellis and Greyling reached their peak against the 1970 All Blacks. Fit, fast and fearless, they controlled the loose ball and completely disrupted the All Blacks’ pattern, with the Springboks winning the series 3-1.
Between 1970 and 1974 Ellis was ever-present in the Bok Test team, also touring Australia in 1971. However, after missing the two Tests of the 1975 French tour at home, he played only one more Test, against New Zealand at Durban. He was replaced by Theuns Stofberg, who was equally at home at flank or lock.
Ellis’s seven Test tries equalled the record at the time of Ferdie Bergh (1931-1938) for a forward and this was beaten by lock Mark Andrews in 1997.
Interestingly, in the publication “The Chosen” a book that highlights the 50 greatest Springboks of all time, Ellis was ranked number 15 by joint authors Andy Colquhoun and Paul Dobson.
Ellis is survived by his wife Heila, a son and daughter and five grandchildren. He attended the wedding of one of his grandchildren the weekend before he died.