Hennie van Zyl

The old Springbok wing Hennie van Zyl is one of the dusters from which legends are made. He made his mark about 57 years ago at the then Ellis Park when he scored two tries in his first Test against the All Blacks.

Many years and days have passed since he played the last of his ten Tests in which he scored six Test tries, five of which were at the Park in just two Tests. Shortly before his last Test, he scored a hat-trick against the Wallabies in Johannesburg.

Hennie, with his short back and sides and flat top as he calls it, and his long hauls played provincial or Test rugby for only three years, from 1959-61 for Transvaal, in just 29 games in which he scored 19 tries. And also twelve tries in just 14 Springbok matches.

This is a sum total of 37 tries, either for the Transvaal or for the Boks in just 53 matches / Tests for the Bok wing with the long strokes and the outside tip with which he stopped his opponents.

However, Uncle Hennie's story began in the Western Transvaal where he grew up on the family farm at the Upper Eye of Mooi River, where the famous river originated.

It was on this farm where he did his early gymnastics work, from the bank of the river to between the trees and in the digging holes at the local farm school where the children played in the digging holes.

It was only when he had to go to residence in Ventersdorp that he was introduced to a rugby ball - and was guided by the former Bok scrumhalf Champion Myburg.

Yet in 1953 he had the honor of playing in a pre-match for Western Transvaal's school team for the 1953 Wallabies, on the side of the scrum where he played his early years.

After school he followed his older brother Gideon and sister to Johannesburg where he went to look for work and joined Volkskas in De Villier Street and joined Diggers at his brother's insistence.

Gideon bought himself a pair of boots and went to Springfield the first night without ever intending to play himself. There he played for the Under 19s for two years where Ponie van der Westhuizen and Piet Malan coached them.

He recalled how the players gathered in front of the notice board on Thursday night to see which team they were playing for. There he crossed paths as a junior with his captain and future 'Bok, Lofty Nel's.

The following year he started playing flank for the first team, with men like Natie Rens, Hansie Oelofse, Chris and George van Rooyen and Nic Hurter where they forged close friendships.

Also with John du Toit, the toughest rugby player he has seen in his life. He had no pain threshold and was fearless on the field.

Hennie remembers when John dived or fell on you, you would surely stand up with bite marks.
They called him Zyl, and still today when he talks to 91-year-old Du Toit, he calls him that.

It was as a senior that his path crossed with that of Jannie le Roux's, his coach at Diggers (and later president of the Lions).

The turning point of his career was a club game at the end of 1958 at Ellispark where Diggers faced Rand Leases (later Roodepoort).

Diggers' first and second team wings were injured and le Roux forced him to move to the left wing.

The rest is, as they say, history. Zyl scored three tries and when they came down, Le Roux told him he was going to stay on the wing, and that he was going to make him a Springbok.

Ellispark was a happy hunting ground for Uncle Hennie. Not only did he score five of his six Test tries (in just two Tests) on the field, but also numerous provincial tries, including a hat-trick against Jannie Engelbrecht.

When he played at the 'Park, he had a lot more confidence.

However, his provincial and Test career lasted only three seasons before he switched to professional rugby with a group of his Diggers teammates, including Natie Rens, Mannetjies Gericke, Martin Pelser, Dawie Ackerman and Ok Oosthuizen.

A group of potato farmers in Delmas started rugby league in South Africa and the group of players were immediately declared lepers according to the strict amateur rules at the time.

The question, how big Hennie van Zyl would be if he did not suddenly stop at 26, will never be answered.

What is true is that he had legends such as Jannie Engelbrecht and Mannetjies Roux.

In the final trials before the 1960 Test series, he ran out for the B team and marked Engelbrecht. 

Uncle Jannie told him he just needs to do the basics well he remembers a dazzling dachshund around Engelbrecht which, according to Le Roux, earned him his place in the team.

That number 13 - his lucky number - in which he played, could have remained his for a long time. 

Zyl's birthday on January 31, his father on June 13, his mother on April 13 and the number on his jersey was a 13.

And on the day of his second rugby test on 25 July 1960, an outsider (20/1) wins the July - the horse's number: 13, and his name? Left Wing.

And no, Uncle Hennie did not bet money on him. The former All Black fullback Don Clarke did and he joked for a long time that they made the money.

Jannie le Roux, one might say, contributed to Zyl's legend. And Uncle Hennie also later married Uncle Jannie's personal assistant at Ellis Park, Tillie. 

* After the interview, Uncle Hennie asked that everyone he had come too close to in his 81 summers should forgive him, just as he had already forgiven those who had come too close to him.

by André Bester

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