Tribute Series to Ikey Legend, Basil Bey.
Part 2 (Feature): The Essence of Varsity Rugby
Written by Basil Bey
On Saturday evening in Smuts Hall (Men’s Res, as some still called it), during winter, there would all of a sudden break out a racket, a hideous, smashing cacophony of insistent drumming in the dining hall. The cause? It was suppertime and the First XV had won its game at Newlands; those members of the team living in Smuts were being celebrated. The newmen, as was the custom, had lifted to shoulder height the First XV members as they sat in their chairs at dinner, while the rest of the residents, wearing their undergraduate gowns, repeatedly smashed their flattened dessert spoons on the pocked tables. The noise was deafening and the effect, at first stunning and frightening, was, once one became accustomed to it, emotionally uplifting. Smuts Hall was proud; the University was proud. As I say, all the dessert spoons were flat after many years of such treatment, much to the rage of the matron in the kitchen. Yet, the kitchen staff and the serving staff, especially the maitre d’, Jock, splendid in his white uniform and distinguishing diagonal red sash, accepted it as part of the tradition of the residence and loved it as we did. Some of the lesser mortals would flick water from their flattened spoons at the self-conscious players precariously balanced in their chairs on the broad shoulders of the newmen.
This was part of the ethos of the University of Cape Town; rugby was part of its life’s blood; there were some professors and lecturers who did not enjoy the sway rugby held, but there were those who understood what the game meant and had meant, from the early days, to this great establishment, and we players and students knew who they were – it was good. We respected them and were grateful.
Then, too, we were blessed in the Rugby Club with coaches of the calibre of Dr Louis Babrow, Dr Tom Hugo-Hamman, Dr Porky Wells and, after my time, Dr Cecil Moss. Louis had taken over First XV coaching reins from the great Boy Louw. These were special men, as were their predecessors. Most of them had played rugby for UCT and so coached us in its ways. The Club in those days was run by the students but guided by wonderful men such as these.
The 1961 UCT Intervarsity 1st XV winning team.
Fitness, Team Spirit and Loyalty
My generation arrived at the University just after the ex-servicemen era, a very successful one for UCT. Heaven knows, we have had our ups and downs; in 1954 Dr Louis Babrow announced at the AGM that the golden era had passed. He said: “The last of the ex-servicemen have now left and we will struggle. What we want are three things: fitness, team spirit and loyalty to carry us on.” Sure enough, at the end of that season we were second last on the Grand Challenge log – but in the following year clambered to fifth position. In 1956, with the late Basil Holmes as captain, we lost to Stellenbosch by 14 points to eight and, as a result, ended second on the log. The 1957 season was one of the worst in our history. All our stars had left us, but, as always, the sky was not completely empty of sparkle. 1958 was another poor season by our standards, but at the end of that year we undertook a tour of East Africa, including in our side five Stellenbosch players, who became our greatest friends. The tour was a wonderful success; the manager/ coach was Tom Hugo-Hamman.
It was Tom, who turned things around for UCT Rugby in 1959 (which started poorly). He came into the dressing room before a match at Newlands and in his normal guff and rather abrupt way said to us that he did not know why we bothered to play rugby; he felt that we did not enjoy it at all. Certainly, from the way we played, we appeared to be rather miserable. Our rugby was lacklustre and lacked pretty much everything else. He exhorted us to go on to the field on that particular day, to throw the ball around, to have fun and to stop worrying about the results. Well, things fizzed, the corpse twitched, came alive, was vibrant and Varsity was robust again.
At the end of that season, we were down three points to 12 with eight minutes to go, playing Stellenbosch at Newlands. Swys Coetzee, that wonderful Matie, who had accompanied us to East Africa, was taking another penalty kick at our posts. We were behind our own line waiting for the inevitable (Swys missed little on that day – he had been successful with two penalties and a drop). One of the players turned to the others to say: “We can win this game!”. We believed him and we did win! We ran from this one missed kick, the length of the field, cutting Stellenbosch to pieces, and scored. We ran some more and scored again. Zed Tomes dotted down the final try (or perhaps it was Gert Liebenberg – he also scored one of the tries); the kick was far out and Zed had to convert it for us to win. It was one of those moments that happen rarely in a game – we knew he would put it over. We had such belief! He did of course and we won the game 13 to 12.
1966 Combined Past and Present UCT XV vs. Maties Past and Present XV
That, of course, was only the beginning. Over the next two years the University of Cape Town played exhilarating rugby, ending up on top of the log in both years.
Talk about the Varsity spirit! We were invited by Pretoria University to play them at Loftus (they were having a wonderful season; we were flown up and accommodated by them, no expense spared). They wanted to play us. They wanted to beat us, because now we had a reputation again. The game was a thrilling one; it moved from one side of the field to another throughout. We were down with minutes to go inside our own 25. Given a penalty after an injury, we took a tap kick and ran. John Benn, flyhalf, fed Maxie Marr on the left wing. He scuttled away beating player after player, passing back to Benn and receiving the ball again from him to score after a run of 80 to 90 metres. Charles Fortune was the commentator; he could not contain himself. “Best game this summer!”, he gasped as he came into our dressing room. It was glorious, but it happened because we believed and we played with trust, the way we knew best. We took what most other teams would have called chances, but to us they were not chances, they were opportunities and we were skilful enough to use them.
Of course, we all still talk of that game at Stellenbosch in the old Matie Stadium (most of us are still alive) in the 1961 Intervarsity. Just before half time we were even, one penalty each; then, as Maties wheeled their scrum in front of their posts, UCT scrumhalf Dave Barrow sniped in on their ball, whipping it out to Gillies who transferred to Olivier thence to Holmes who drew and passed to Olivier, who had gone round on Holmes’s outside to accept the pass and score a brilliant try. We missed the kick and led six to three at halftime. The second half was played at a frenetic pace; the defences were fearsome. John Benn dropped for goal: the ball wobbled, bounced on the crossbar and slunk over. Nine to three, but we were under pressure. I have never known determination like that shown by Varsity on that day. They would not relent despite attack after attack. Eventually one of our East African Maties, Johan Fechter, a fine wing, raced over for a Matie try in the corner and the kick was missed. We won nine to six.
I could go on forever about my glorious times at UCT. One more story. On the way to winning the Grand Challenge in 1960, we were top of the log and played Somerset West, bottom of the log, at Somerset West. We played badly, they played well. We were three points down with time up when we were given a penalty almost in front of their posts. The easy penalty would give us a draw and one point, but we chose to tap and run. We were tackled inches short of the line. The whistle went, we lost. We shared the Grand Challenge Cup in that year instead of winning it outright, probably because of that decision. I say probably, but how many other games had we won through that same approach? Many. You live by the sword you die by the sword and have no complaints. Tom Hugo-Hamman’s words resonated in our souls. We played for the thrill of it, for the excitement of it, for the adventure and so we succeeded. That is the Varsity spirit, the Varsity ethos.
The country teams in those days were strong, physical and aggressive. We were always beaten for size and physical strength. It did not pay us to mix it so we played with skill and brain; we moved the ball wide, loose forwards were brilliant rangers and our tight forwards could handle and run like backs. We were punched, thumped, bullied and verbally abused but we never surrendered. There was a fierce pride and an absolute belief in our style of rugby and in our fellows. It was not only the First XV that played this way; this Varsity ethos ran through the club – the Varsity Spirit. Since the birth of the UCT Rugby Club, we have seen the same thing again and again.
I have seen it, this ethos, embodied in those who played for UCT in the recent universities’ tournament; it has warmed the heart of all of us who have had anything to do with the UCT Rugby Club.
‘Ethos’ means characteristic spirit; it stems from the Greek word ‘ēthos’ meaning: (settled) character. ‘Settled’ fits well and so does ‘character’; very few Varsity teams played with that ethos that marked our rugby, separating it from any other played in this country. Ethos, character, attitude all come together in the words ‘Varsity Spirit’. We as players never talked about the Varsity spirit; in fact, I do not think that we even thought about it. When I say we, I mean those fellows who played from the mid-50s to the mid-60s (no, dammit, I am not talking about the 1850s and 60s). I am not altogether sure that I know exactly what the Varsity spirit really is, despite my dictionary definitions. In a way, it is indefinable, abstract. I do know that those players with whom I shared my rugby playing life at UCT have remained my closest friends, even though I haven’t seen some of them for years. Is that friendship the spirit, or is that a result of it? When we talk about the Varsity spirit, surely we mean the spirit in which and with which we traditionally play our rugby. It is that spirit, that rugby ethos, which engenders the deep, everlasting friendships.
Tribute Image to Basil Bey, published by the Ikey Tiger Supporters Club.
Of course, the age at which one attends university is a wonderful one. For most of us (the ex-service- men were a different matter), it is the first time in our lives that we feel truly free. Life is full of promise, it is exciting and youth is never-ending. The moment is important and the future is distant and unimportant, for it does not impinge too much on the infinite now. For most of us it is a wonderful, carefree space in our lives; only years afterwards do we really realise how precious, how valuable, how essential (dealing with the essence) that space was. At that stage of our lives we are idealists – and so our rugby reflects that and it is wonderfully UCT.
Note on Basil Bey:
Basil Bey played for UCT RFC from 1956 to 1963 and was Club and Team Captain from 1959 to 62. In 1960, he played for Combined Southern Universities against the All Blacks (14-3) and captained the combined team on a tour of Rhodesia. From 1964 to 1970, Bey played for False Bay. After retiring aged 33, he coached False Bay (including the winning Grand Challenge team in 1972). He coached UCT for three years in the early 1980s.
His extensive coaching career further included Plumstead High School, Bishops (coached First XV for 27 years), Western Province U19 and an undefeated WP Craven Week coach. During apartheid, he worked with Dougie Dyers in coaching a talented mixed-race Craven Week team. He was WP selector (Currie Cup) and lecturer for Western Province coaching courses. Basil Bey retired from teaching in 1998, when he began ‘pretending to help the U14s at Bishops’.