It is commonly accepted that the future of any nation depends on its youth. It is through them that new ideas are transported, tested and implemented. It is on their backs and through the sacrificing of their unrivalled energy that wars are won and nations are restored. They are, indeed, the flowers of our nation, and the custodians of our collective rugby league future. South African rugby league owes it’s a great debt of gratitude to both the current and past generation of youth. Sixty years ago, in 1962, it was the sacrifice of a group of young men who, with an eye to their own future, decided to break the mould of tradition and to bring rugby league to these shores. When the sport faced a serious existential crisis during the decade 2010 – 20 because of serious and near-fatal wounds, it was yet again a new generation that stepped to the fore to salvage the SA Rugby League and to become a symbol of the sport’s resilience. Within these ranks were Jean Pierre Nel, one of Tuks Rugby League, most talented players. JP as he became known among friends and rivals, played the game with unlimited enthusiasm, always in support and always leading with the shoulder to gain critical territorial advantage. “Always with a grin, always smiling…. always had your back! as a teammate recalled.
Off the field, he played it equally hard. Another friend recalled:
JP “always had a plan! And just know how to cheer a person up and what to say to make all troubles go away!” With adventures of this sort, it is a predetermined fact, as recalled by another:
“We are all bound to each other for life, no matter where we are or we go, we have shared so many moments with each other that we will be connected for the rest of our lives”
JP Nel made his debut for the Rhinos en route to the Rugby League World Cup Qualifiers on 9 October 2011. The game against Canada at Fletcher’s Field at Markham was a tough one and a moment of immense pride for the players. They were tasked with restoring South African pride after an intense period of internal strife. In their hands laid the responsibility to turn despair into hope and to showcase the Rhino as a worthy opponent. JP and his teammates were full value for money and defeated the Canadian Wolverines by 36-22 after a tough battle on a hot Toronto day. This prompted a local reporter to write:
“The Rhino Moniker is one that is meant to bring awe, respect and fear from opposition. The rhino is a large and powerful animal that stands its ground and defends itself when under threat. These are all qualities that were shown by the South African Rugby League team today in Markham, Toronto”.
With the coach confirming his trust in the team, JP remained part of the matchday squad for the critical first qualifier against the USA Tomahawks, four days later, on 15 October 2011 at Campbell’s Field, Camden. Although the team could not secure a place in the final group of finalists, the new generation of Rhino’s had done a great deal of work to restore the country’s status as a rugby league nation. A continued display of good form and consistent performance saw JP included in the SA Student Rugby League World Cup Squad for the Leeds event. In its aftermath, JP also represented his country in the series against the visiting New South Wales Country Rugby League side played at the Bosman Stadium on 18 October 2013. His international career was capped with appearances against Lebanon on 25 October 2015 and against Niue on 2 November 2016 also at the Bosman Stadium, Pretoria.
JP Nel was a dedicated servant of the sport of rugby league in South Africa. His legacy would be engraved in the annals of this exciting and worthwhile game together with those who have served under the most difficult conditions. We a SA Rugby League salute a true Rhino, one that true to our moniker has brought an equal measure of awe and fear to our rivals and earned the respect of both fans and enemies. Rest well!
By Hendrik Snyders