Chris Pope: Ikey, Western Province and Springbok rugby legend
We recently came across an article written for an Afrikaans newspaper about Chris Pope and decided to contact him to do a similar Ikey related Q&A.
Chris is famously remembered for scoring the winning try for Western Province against the All Blacks at Newlands in 1976. To the Ikeys he is also remembered for captaining the Ikeys in 1976 to a 10 – 3 Intervarsity win over the Matie’s, for the first time in 15 years!
Q) We believe you are based in Maine, US? How long have you been there? What is it like? Do you miss SA?
I have lived in Maine since Dec 12th, 1989. While working at Yale, I visited Maine on numerous occasions to ski, white water canoe and to winter camp and climb Mt. Katahdin, the tallest peak in Maine, about half as high as Table Mountain. But which is covered in snow and ice during the often-severe Maine winter. Maine has many spectacular outdoor recreational opportunities. And an extensive unspoiled coastline that provides boating, beaches and lovely views, much like the Cape in South Africa. Why did I choose to settle in Maine? The similarity to the region I grew up in RSA, and the population density. When I first visited Maine I was struck by the unspoiled outdoors and the fact that as one drove across the State at night, separate towns were obvious as there were stretches of countryside without lights. This is in contrast to the stretch between Boston and Washington DC where a long-connected series of streetlights are seen, and the town signposts often are the only way one knows you have left a town.
Do I miss RSA? Of course. You can take the boy out of Cape Town and Hermanus (where I grew up until 13 years old), but you cannot take Hermanus and Cape Town out of the boy!
But of course, there are also many things to love living in Maine and the USA at present. We live in an era that is an amazing time, with technology at our finger tips, more computer power in our mobile phones that used to run the NASA moon landing program and all having access to a pair of binoculars, half of which is stronger than Galileo’s telescope used to observe Jupiter’s moons, an event that changed mankind’s understanding of the Universe. And for less than $20, we can read about basic science like quarks, the fundamental building blocks of atoms.
Q) We know you qualified as a medical doctor; are you still practicing?
After qualifying as a Medical Doctor at University of Cape Town December 1978, I spent 2 years at Edendale Hospital near Pietermaritzburg, Natal completing my internship and a year of speciality training in Medicine and General Surgery. I then left South Africa in April 1981 to work in London, UK until August 12th, 1982 when I moved to the USA to take up a 1-year research fellowship at Yale University, in New Haven Connecticut. I explored the diagnostic utility of using radionuclide labeled autologous platelets to diagnose deep vein thrombosis with a research group in the Cardiology department.
I stayed on at Yale, from 1982 to 1989, where I studied Radiology (Fellowships in Nuclear Medicine, Body CT scanning and MRI), eventually becoming an Assistant Professor in Radiology Faculty. During this time, I was part of a research group working on one of the first MRI machines in the USA under the leadership of Professor John Gore Ph.D., writing scientiﬁc papers, book chapters and teaching students.
I moved to Maine to join a 16-person Radiology Physician Group at the Main Medical Center in Portland Maine at the end of 1989. Practiced clinical Radiology, taught students and was involved in creating a multi-specialty physician group of radiologists, radiation oncologists, anesthesiologists and pathologists now called Spectrum Healthcare Partners. Served as its founding President. Initially 90 members, now over 500 clinicians and service providers, the largest private medical physician group in the State of Maine. Served as President of the
Maine Medical Center Medical Staﬀ. Fully retired from clinical practice in about 2015 while now still continuing to work in an administrative and business role to the present.
Q) You were born in Stellenbosch; did you also grow up there?
My paternal grandparents had lived in Stellenbosch for some years after moving from Kimberley, although my grandfather died before my parents were married. My parents after being married had been living in George, and then moved to Hermanus just before I was born. As there was no hospital in the town of Hermanus and with a hospital in Stellenbosch and my grandmother living there as was my mother’s married sister, it must have been a natural choice. When released from hospital, I was moved to Hermanus, living in a house that a Hermanus school friend now currently lives in. Thus I grew up in Hermanus, going to school until Standard 5 (now Grade 7) and then I went to Rondebosch Boys High school in the Cape Town area staying in the boarding house.
Q) When & how did you start playing rugby?
As you will know, as a South African boy, if you can run, catch a ball and were reasonably coordinated, you played rugby. I think this started for me at 9 or 10 years old at the Hermanus Primary School. Barefoot, rural ﬁelds all in the local Boland school system. Young kids running around having fun. We lived a golden age of no cell phones or TV, so being outdoors, playing games, climbing trees, the mountain, Hoy’s Koppie and on the beach were the usual past- times. I had 2 brothers, another ‘brother from another mother’ and with other friends from school we were always playing sports. When we were not trying to ﬁgure out what girls were about. The girls that were not our sisters of cousins. Took a long time to gain the understanding now in view. This also is outside the view of this article I am quite sure.
Q) How did you experience your years at Rondebosch?
Going to boarding school introduced me to a whole new experience. The learning of independence, self-reliance and teamwork all were a part of the menu. I was lucky to have Prof. Tinkie Heyns as my U 14 team rugby coach and my ﬁrst house master at the Mason House boarding house. Many will know his track and ﬁeld successes, his international rugby referee career, his role as the Professor of the Department of Education at University of Cape Town (UCT). Those who also experienced his dedication to mentoring and teaching school students saw the full range of his skills as he motivated and nurturing foolish schoolboys to explore their full potential on the sports ﬁelds and in their academic endeavors while not taking themselves too seriously. The school poem is “If” by Rudyard Kipling, and this captures much of the ethos we were exposed to as Rondebosch schoolboys.
And another of my mentors was Tickie de Jager, a math’s teacher with extraordinary talent. During my 5 years at Rondebosch, he was my rugby coach, pole vault coach, hurdles coach, sprinting coach and mentor in countless ways. Tickie was the place-kicking coach for Ian McCallum, a famous Rondebosch old boy Springbok in the 1970s. I was lucky to play for UCT with him as my captain in 1972. Tickie introduced me to the physics of the world, allowing me to see the underlying processes at play in nature. He had an accident in his teens where he lost his sight in one eye. How he adapted his loss of binocular vision to be able to catch a high ‘up and under’ is quite remarkable. He was able to explain these complex items using terms understandable to schoolboys. His mastery of various thinking tools, his awareness of how he felt ‘seen’ by his father as they worked together as a young boy was quite life changing. He
was a giant in education, choosing to change the lives of Rondebosch students rather than gain fame in other ﬁelds of work he could quite easily have attained. It was his calling. We learned from his exacting standards, often left in no doubt when our inattentive moments did not comply with his expectations. He, like so many of the Rondebosch teachers, taught curiosity and how to beneﬁt from asking the how and why questions, teaching the 5 Rs of learning: Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Reasoning and Awareness.
And that rugby is a game to be played with honor and integrity, respecting the rules and your opponents, so providing one the beneﬁts of experiencing being a part of a high-performance team.
Q) and then it was oﬀ to UCT – to study medicine?
First 9 months in the army, compulsory military service, the Engineering Corps. Starting in Bethlehem OFS, then to Pretoria NTvl with the Landsurveying unit housed at DHQ. There I played for Northern Transvaal U – 20 with Wynand Claassen (Wynand I believe was the captain of this u-20 team but I did not play with him in a Springbok team), Moaner van Heerden, and others ( I think there might have other future boks in this team?).ꢀ
I started at UCT in 1972 in the Civil Engineering faculty, then when I wanted to switch to Medicine, I spent a year in the science faculty, studying Biology, Organic Chemistry that were a necessity for Medicine and also Physics to ﬁll up my academic day. Then into the faculty of Medicine in my 3rd year until graduation in 1978.
I Played for UCT First V in 1972, had a bad left ankle injury on the last day of the season (on my birthday!) which required reconstructive surgery. Due to this I was unable to play again until the 1974 season. In my 1972 year at UCT, I met Cecil Moss for the ﬁrst as my coach. He joined my school aged list of mentors, becoming almost like a father to me. Cecil had played rugby at UCT in the
1940’s with my father after they both returned from WW2. And was in my Mother’s medical school class. They all graduated in 1948. Cecil guided my rugby career and played a signiﬁcant role in my development as a human being and helped getting my acceptance into Medical School. Without his help I would surely have languished on the back benches. He was a giant of a man, humble and a listener who was hugely successful in motivating players, deeply knowledgeable about the game as he proved later as a successful coach at all levels including Internationally. Players respected him and his 1949 Springbok series against the All Blacks which they won, with him rising to be the vice-captain, are just small part of this gentleman, a hero to many. He had a much higher IQ than he would admit, had advanced skills in emotional intelligence EQ, but his EarQ (listening skills) was his most developed strength. He was able to see how players thought and could look as the player.
Q) Who had major inﬂuences on your rugby career & why?
Tinkie Heyns, Tickie de Jager and Cecil Moss and many of my teammates. The three coaches I have mentioned above. The players are many but in particular Morne du Plessis, Peter Whipp and all my UCT teammates who taught me to love the game, experience what it like to be a member of a high performance team and with Cecil Moss, never to believe what the press writes about you. There is no I in the word Team. We are only as good as our support for every member of the team. And that winning isn’t everything. The outcome of games fade, but how you played remains. Of course, if you don’t win some, it can be easy to feel you are a loser, but that’s where your teammates and excellent coaches play their all-important role?
And of course, my parents are the ones who did the most for me. With their sacriﬁces, their tolerance of all the stupid and idiotic things one does trying follow your dreams, and the enduring lessons I learned from their lives, I became who I have ended up. I think it is fair to say that all the blemishes in my story are my own doing. I have lived a fairytale life, both from a point of view of nature and nurture.
Q) You made your Bok debut at 21 v 1974 Lions; baptisms of ﬁre don’t come any tougher than that, do they?
I deﬁnitely felt extremely naive and inexperienced but with the support of my mentors and friends was able to stumble my way through those moments. Being able to focus entirely on the game, drop into the zone and remain in the present moment made it possible to survive what undoubtedly was a very tough assignment. We were up against a very talented and professionally trained and coached team. Our Springbok coaching staﬀ and the players had been out of competitive international rugby for some years. We had a very tough challenge in all the test matches, the Lions team being very skilled at intimidation of players and also local referees. ꢀ
I consider myself very lucky to have played in all four tests, joining Hannes Marais and Jan Ellis in a three-some who did. I did feel out of place as these two were legends of the game. And coming oﬀ the injury that put me on the sidelines for the entire prior season, I felt I was living a dream. Thanks to Cecil and my friends, they played a huge role in keeping my feet on the ground.
Q) Tell us about the controversy surrounding that ‘try’ in the 4th test at Ellis Park?
Poor Max Blaise was unsighted when I touched the ball down behind the scrum, but the intimidation tactics the Lions worked, and he awarded the try. He did not have the beneﬁt of the touch judge opinion, or TV referee, we all now know is vital to adjudicate such diﬃcult plays. Unfortunately for Max, some photos of the exact moment were published that with great clarity showed my hand on the ball, the ball in contact with ground and Uttley’s hand still above my hand so clearly not a try. I think we did well to draw this game considering that these Lions points were an error. ‘We was Robbed’ as some were yelling. It’s the nature of competitive sports. Gone were the times when players could call an error on themselves? Maybe now only in golf? However, we all know examples where this also is not true. How does this aﬀect our integrity? Too much I think for this writing to discuss fully.
Q) If you had to choose, which was more memorable: the try v France in 1975 or your match-winning try for WP v All Blacks in 1976? Why?
The one I remember most is the try against the All Blacks. They were World Champions, unbeaten until Robbie Blair converted this try. Their feelings about whether they would win the series must have taken a major knock! I am sure that my memory of the try was partly due to the Olympics advertising poster. And the video that I acquired many years later showing the sequence. It is notable however, that even though I scored the try, Morne had options, including Bossie Clarke on his right. The person who really made that try possible was Dawie Snyman when he gathered the ball on the full sprint to start the ﬁnal stretch to the try line line. I was of course very happy to get the score! The way I threw the ball into the air afterwards makes this quite clear.
And many years later I was in Tucson Arizona, USA taking my daughters to a horse-riding ranch and I met a NZ guy who was there with his family. When we introduced ourselves, he immediately knew who I was. I was the Springbok who scored the try that lost the All Blacks their unbeaten status! He was 8 years old at the time and was listening on the radio! I was amazed! Provided me with some insight how seriously some took their rugby.
Q) The last test v NZ in 1976 was your last – at 23… Why? Did you stop playing?
I had reached the stage of ﬁnalizing my Medical degree. As you can imagine playing international rugby and being a top-class student was not easy. I believe I had not played for WP that year in the ﬁrst 6 months of the season as I was writing a notoriously diﬃcult exam in June, Chemical Pathology, an exam that a number of rugby players had struggled with. And I was Captain of the UCT First XV. Being away for WP games, the captain of the team and the exam, I decided to not be available for WP selection until completing the exam. I like to think this played into my not being selected for the 1st Test against the All Blacks. Of course, there likely were other reasons, including that I had lost some speed due to repeated hamstring injuries.
But the deciding event that led me to stop playing was that during the end of the 1976 season I experienced some inﬂammatory nodules on my legs and feet. A biopsy raised the possibility of some serious diseases. Inﬂammatory vasculitis of the arteries and superﬁcial veins when you are in your early 20s is something to avoid! Although a deﬁnite diagnosis was not possible, as an impressionable medical student, my decision was to stop playing for a while as some specialists thought this might be related the cold weather and a blood condition. Once the
1977 season was underway, with the escalating studying demands, this was the end for me in the ﬁrst class rugby arena. I did play some Sunday league games with some friends including Broadness Cona and Thomson Mxala (Proteas prop and Leopards lock – members of these 2 international teams). Thompson worked in the heart transplant animal unit and Broadness worked in the blood bank related to Groote Schuur Hospital and UCT Medical School. But my last serious game I played was in Madrid at the end of our UCT tour to Israel, Italy and Spain at the end of 1976 into 1977. Later, while I was at Edendale Hospital in Natal in 1979 doing my internship, I played in a single informal game. Ironically, I fractured a metacarpal of my left hand. This was the end of my rugby. One needed both hands to be a surgeon.
Q) Who were a couple of the real characters of the game that you played with? Any humorous incidents that you can recall?
Hol kaas: This type of cheese was aptly named by our captain while we were in France in 1974. As anyone who has been in France will know of the cheeses that have a strong and distinctive aroma. Further explanations of the nature of this metaphor will likely only get me into trouble?
De Bruin glass eye: Johann DeBruin, a gentle giant of a man, with ﬁngers like bananas, and a glass eye, was involved with an incident while we toured in France at the end of 1974. As was characteristic of some of the smaller French players at the time, they used their boots to attempt injury to their opponents when there was a scuﬄe. The scrum half came running around the melee of players, saw Johann kneeling down and looking at the grass. He prepared to take a kick him, when Johann looked up at him. As his glass eye had fallen out on the grass, French player was suddenly faced with this one-eyed person. It scared the hell out of him prompting him to scurry away in a most fearful and amusing manner!
Blerrie Kommunis: The week before a WP practice at Coetzenberg, Stellenbosch, I had participated in a lunch time demonstration in Cape Town to register our opposition to imprisonment without trial, a political topic of the moment. Not surprisingly one of the daily Cape Town newspapers used a photo of this Springbok rugby player on the back page. So, a week later while we were warming up for the WP practice, suddenly a half ﬁlled beer can landed close to me, and these words came right behind this missile …. “Jou blerrie Kommunis!” Morne du Plessis (captain and graduate of Stellenbosch University) was close by and as usual he provided me with useful advice: “Just ignore them but stay away from the edge of the ﬁeld”.
The Truth on tour: What happens in the team environment stays with the team. Of course, we all know where the bodies are buried, who they are and who buried them. I can reassure anyone who was there that they are not going to be unmasked, and to all the readers of this short story, that if one of their loved ones was on a tour with me or played in a game with me, they for sure did nothing to embarrass themselves or those of you left behind at home.
Q) Do you still follow the game over in the US?
I have followed the game over the years, being back at Newlands rugby ground a couple times and the World Cup in England when Nick Mallet was the coach. Most recently I watched the World Cup 2019. My daughter Ali was in Turks & Caicos (South Caicos Island) doing a semester abroad in Marine biology. I was going to be there for the ﬁnal but was recording the game at home to see it on my return. That was not to be. One of the faculty members of the research institute where my daughter was studying had played rugby at Alabama University and subsequently also in diﬀerent places in the USA. The chef at the resort I was staying at was a South African, now living in Toronto but at the resort for over a year. They invited me to join them at 5 am and we watched the most amazing game as the Springboks destroyed England!
Q: What are your fondest memories of lkeys rugby? What does the Club mean to you?
My special memories are of experiencing being part of a team that supported each other every moment, were on the field to enjoy themselves, and tried their individual best, helping each other achieve the same. Being in flow on the field and off the field not taking ourselves too seriously. As Cecil Moss always said, never believe a word you read about yourself in the newspaper. The connections we made at the time and also being able to share this experience with many others who also played for Varsity in a different era.
Over the years I have lost touch with the Club, although regularly heard the news via the email newsletter and my close relationship with Cecil Moss until his passing.
Q: Are you still In touch with any lkeys from your era?
Over the years we have had a couple of reunions centered around the 1976 Inter varsity win against Stellenbosch which were great fun. Thanks to Butch Deuchar for his organizational work. Living in the USA of course makes close contact difficult. Sporadic meetings with Peter Whipp, Dugald MacDonald, Ian & Roy Mccallum, Dirk Hoffman, David Zietsman and others have been much appreciated.
Q: Do You Still Follow UCT Rugby
As much as I can from the Varsity newsletter, but there is no TV coverage available here in the USA.