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History of Rugby

Early Years

Founded in 1863, Maritzburg College played its first rugby match in 1870, against Hermannsburg. Playing on the old Market Square in the centre of town under Winchester Rules, College won by two goals to nil, in the first recorded rugby match played in the old Colony of Natal

Rugby quickly became the game of choice at College and, apart from a short period of time in the 1880s and 1890s, when football enjoyed a considerable following, has remained the most popular winter sport at College.

1900 1st XV

The 1900 College First XV, captained by AS “Madevu” Langley, with its prized silver-ware – the Murray Cup. The dapper figure on the right is the headmaster, Mr RD Clark (MA) (Oxon). Mr Langley was later a much-admired, fire-eating Head Master of Durban High School.

Three Old Collegians appeared in the 1924 Springbok team to take on the touring British Lions

Bertram Vanderplank (front row, second right), Walter Clarkson (middle row, far left) and Bill Payn (middle of the middle row). The much-loved, versatile Payn taught at Durban High School from 1915 to 1953. He represented what is today KZN at five sports, and famously ran the 1922 Comrades Marathon in his rugby boots.

Philip Nel (OC 1921)

The captain of the 1937 Springboks to New Zealand, Philip Nel (OC 1921) (far right), introduces a local dignitary to his team, during his team’s triumphant tour of Australasia. The future rugby boss, Dr Danie Craven, appears second from the left.

A stand-out player in the early years was strapping farm boy, Philip Nel, who was the First XV captain and all-powerful head prefect of the school in 1921. Nel captained the Springbok team on its all-conquering tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1937. It remains the only Springbok team in history to have defeated the All Blacks in New Zealand. Such was the quality of the play of his imperious team that it was given the tongue-in-cheek accolade of being “the greatest team to leave New Zealand’s shores”. On the ship returning home, Nel formally announced his retirement from Springbok rugby by throwing his trusty old rugger boots into the sea. Like Alexander the Great, he had no more worlds to conquer.

Enter the Skonkwaan

Although rugby enjoyed great prestige in the first few decades of the 20th Century, the appointment as First XV coach in 1948 of Mr JM “Skonk” Nicholson was the great catalyst for future success. Skonk’s effect was immediate: his 1948 side lost only to old rivals, Durban High School, and in the following year Skonk (himself a former head prefect of “School”) produced his first unbeaten team. He retired in 1982, after 35 seasons as the coach of the First XV. During that time, 22 of his teams were unbeaten or lost only one match. 

Last 50 Years

Outstanding teams in the last five decades include the 1972 First XV, which supplied 10 Craven Week players and conceded only one try in 19 matches; the 1978 First XV, which won all of its matches; the record-breaking 1985 team, which won all of its 18 matches, including a 44-0 triumph over Bishops and a 10-4 win over a Grey College side brimming with five SA Schools caps; the 1987 side that included SA Schools’ captain Brenton Catterall and three other SA Schools’ players; and the 1988 First XV, which won all 15 of its fixtures.

Despite the retirement of the much-loved Mr Nicholson in 1982, that decade was a period of almost unbroken triumph for Maritzburg College rugby, and from 1981-1990 losses were suffered only against Glenwood (twice), Hilton and DHS (once each) among KZN schools. 

This rugby success continued into the 1990s, with the 1994 team delivering an unbeaten season against all South African teams, losing only to Gisborne BHS in the final of the World Schools’ Tournament in Bowral, Australia. Another highlight of the decade was the unbeaten 1995 side, which enjoyed wins over Ermelo, Selborne, Grey High and Paul Roos Gymnasium, and big wins over Glenwood (61-13), Westville (62-6) and Kearsney (43-3). Skippered by Zane Aszalos, the 1995 XV contained two SA Schools’ captains – Pieter Dixon (1995) and Richard Kelly (1996).

By 2022, the explosion of professional rugby around the world meant that the number of Old Collegians playing the sport on the international stage had increased dramatically, and Maritzburg College alumni have in the last 30 years won caps for the Springboks (including Joel Stransky, Butch James, Peter Grant and Jesse Kriel), England, USA, Italy, Germany, Cyprus and Spain.

For decades, the school’s redoubtable Chief Induna, Zablon Kwelha, was a loyal supporter of the First XV. He travelled widely by bus with the Maritzburg College boys to watch them play, often taking bets on their success with his contemporaries at DHS and Glenwood. An unofficial adviser to his great friend, Mr Nicholson, he fervently held the view that each College First XV should contain at least one red-headed player – “For extra fire!”

Future Springbok, Jesse Kriel, attempts to barge his way through the Affies defence, during the teams’ 2012 clash on Goldstone’s.

2018 First XV captain and current Sharks prop, Ntuthuko Mchunu, gallops across Goldstone’s, during a 70m dash towards the Michaelhouse try-line.

Other prominent players

Amongst the school’s 330 international sportsmen and officials at all codes, the following 16 Old Collegians have represented, or formally been selected for, South Africa at 15-man rugby:

Ernest “Baby” Shum (1912), Walter Clarkson (1921-1924), Cecil “Bill” Payn (1924), Bertram “Beevee” Vanderplank (1924), Philip Nel (1928-1937) (captain), George van Reenen (1937), Keith Oxlee (1960-1965), Ormond Taylor (1962), Andy van der Watt (1969-1970), Joel Stransky (1993-1996), Jeremy Thomson (1996), Pieter Dixon (2000), Butch James (2001-2008), Peter Grant (2007), Craig Burden (2012), Jessie Kriel (2015- )

In addition, several Old Collegians have represented other countries, notably: 

For England: Hubert Freakes (1938-1939), Geoff Appleford (2002), Don Armand (2018)

For United States: Juan Grobler (1997-2001), Chad Erskine (2005-2007), Matthew Hawkins (2010)

For Italy: Wim Visser (1999-2002)

For Germany: Frank Goedeke (2000-2001), Marcel Coetzee (2016-2019)

For Zimbabwe: Brenton Catterall (1991)

For Cyprus: Andrew Binikos (2009)

For Spain: Andrew Norton (2019)

For Singapore: Warren Ansell (2016)

A further eight Old Collegians have earned selection for international teams in the popular seven-man version of the game.

It’s a College try, and the bashers fly high on Basher Ridge!