11 April 2023 marks the 86th birthday of Jan ‘Das’ Prinsloo – a true South African rugby league icon. Having served the game that he love for more than 60 years, both as player and administrator, Prinsloo finally took leave from being an active administrator earlier this year. Over this period he has become the embodiment of the resilience of this code and a shining example of the true values, of one of the first if not the first sport, that strived to be an inclusive sport for all. South African Rugby League on this day, would like to express our eternal gratitude to one of the true servants and icons of our game. Without people like ‘Oom Jan as he is universally known, the memory of the early struggles of the first generation of rugby league players most probably would have been forgotten. Even as he prepared for the next phase of his life, he is ceaselessly working towards the formal recognition of the sacrifices by all the former players of Rugby League South Africa and the National Rugby League during the dark days of the 1960s when the then SA Rugby Football Board banished most of them from the amateur game. In addition, he has committed himself together with SA Rugby League to secure formal acknowledgement of the achievements and sacrifices of fellow Black South Africans such as David Barend, Green Vigo, Enslin Dlambulo, Goolam Abed and others that opted to play rugby league when apartheid denied them their national colours. Jan ‘Das’ Prinsloo indeed has a storied rugby union and rugby league past that is worth retelling. This story is hereby recounted.
A Life in Rugby – Part 1
Eleven days after the birth of Jan ‘Das’ Prinsloo in the Free State town of Bethlehem, on 30 May 1937, the Springboks kicked off the first match of the Australian leg of their tour down under. Twenty years later, at Prinsloo’s matriculation in 1957 at the Warmbad (now Bela-Bela) High School, the Springbok team, once described as the “best ever to leave for New Zealand”, was a shadow of its former self. In addition, it was still smarting after suffering a crushing series defeat against their traditional rivals. These years, when the mercurial Tom van Vollenhoven showed his finesse as a world-class winger, turned the impressionable Prinsloo into a life-long fan of the ‘Van’. Van Vollenhoven’s departure into rugby league left a lasting impression on the young man and followed his hero’s overseas progress through the local media. Coming from a working-class family, Prinsloo, not yet 20 years old and unable to register for university study, joined the South African Army Gymnasium in 1958, with the aim of becoming a soldier. After several noteworthy performances at fullback for the Gymnasium’s First XV, Prinsloo was selected to represent Northern Transvaal (now the Blue Bulls Rugby Union) at under-19 level. He was potentially on track for senior provincial and eventually national colours. In pursuance of his dream of studying theology, Prinsloo resigned from the Army and applied for admission to the University of Stellenbosch. There he naturally caught the attention of Danie Craven. But shortly after his admission to Stellenbosch, misfortune struck. After a bad fall, his mother was left in need of long-term care. Studies became a privilege and the young Prinsloo therefore dropped out of university to become a breadwinner for his family. Finding a job, however, was not easy. He received a telephone call from an acquaintance at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), imploring him to return to Johannesburg, with the possibility of employment at SABC. He was appointed as a journalist and assigned to the crime reporting desk in which capacity he reported on the famous Rivonia Trial of Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders. This started a career of 21 years in broadcast journalism. After a short stint at the Johannesburg headquarters, he was deployed to the broadcaster’s regional offices in Bloemfontein. A chance meeting with a former school and rugby friend in the Rose City, did not only offer accommodation, but also membership the Free State’s most famous club, Old Grey RFC for the 1959 season. Prinsloo left this club in 1959 - 68 and joined Collegians RFC, another of Bloemfontein’s well-known clubs who played in the province’s premier competition. This stay was equally short because the SABC transferred Prinsloo back to Johannesburg and Pretoria. Back in his home area, he joined Pretoria RFC, who played in the Carlton Cup. His arrival in Pretoria coincided with the last leg of the 1957– 59 Currie Cup. This was the last Currie Cup rugby until 1964. Ambitious young players like Prinsloo had little opportunity for top-flight competition. Consistent performances at club level helped him stake a claim for provincial selection in 1961. Some of his peers included future league players such as Ontie Odendaal, Chris Geyer and Willem Vermaas. Soon after the start of his provincial career, Prinsloo received offers from rugby league clubs in Australia and England, including Wigan. Mindful of the success of van Vollenhoven, his life-long role-model, he approached the secretary of the Pretoria RFC in the hope of getting sound advice about the offers. Beyers Hoek, the club secretary, told him that his consideration of the offers meant that he forfeited his amateur status and had become a professional. So his playing career with Pretoria RFC was over. Prinsloo said farewell to rugby union and joined the fledgling rugby league game initiated by Rugby League South Africa and the National Rugby League.
Rugby League and beyond – Part 2
Jan ‘Das’ Prinsloo joined Pretoria Koedoes Rugby League Club in 1962. In this context he played with former Northern Transvaal rugby union team mates and friends such as Corrie Vermaak, Albie Kruger, Tony van Zylichgem, Johan Mitchell, Dawid van der Merwe and Ryan Lombaard who provided the backbone for league in the capital. Pretoria Koedoes joined Johannesburg Celtic, Boksburg/East Rand Vikings, and Bloemfontein Aquilas, the other foundation clubs in the NRL Cup, the official club competition of the Norman Lacey grouping. Most of the players also came from an Afrikaans background. John Mitchell was coach of Pretoria RLFC, formerly of Transvaal, Free State and Natal RU. Based on a series of solid performances, including 40 tries as a winger and full-back, Prinsloo was included in the first South African Rugby League national side scheduled to tour Australia and New Zealand in 1963. Misfortune, however, struck one week before the team’s departure when he seriously injured his ankle during a social match. Bitterly disappointed, Prinsloo was forced to withdraw. Although the national body decided to award him national colours retrospectively given the historic nature of the tour, this incident continued to haunt him. Post-tour problems such as inaccessibility of training and match venues, however, put paid to his national ambitions. In addition, the South African Rugby Football Board initiated a new strategy to finally break the code by extending an offer for readmission to the amateur ranks provided former players’ commitment to destroy the code themselves. Frustrated by their existing circumstances and a campaign of social isolation within their communities, a large number of players accepted the offer. Prinsloo, in particular, played a central role in these negotiations. The strategy of divide-and-rule effectively sabotaged the efforts of Rugby League South Africa to launch the 1964 season. By keeping players on a string through both subtle and direct encouragement and promises for the full year they dealt the code a mortal blow. As a result by the end of 1963, rugby league in South Africa was effectively killed. Efforts in late 1963 and early 1964 to play the code firstly in modified form and thereafter on an amateur basis also failed. Prinsloo for many years continued to wear his honorary national rugby league blazer as a sign of his continued commitment to the cause. When the code was revived during the late 1980s, he served as Vice-President of the new body, South African Rugby League Association. He continued to serve in this role until the beginning of 2023 and during this time allowed the organisation to attach his name to its Inter-provincial competition. Away from rugby in his senior years, he continued to be involved in Masters Athletics and until recently he participated in both the South African and Africa Masters Championships in the over 80 years age group.
By Hendrik Snyders