One of South Africa’s greatest back row forwards, and an opponent of the British & Irish Lions on three tours, Jan Ellis has died at the age of 71.
Ellis played in 38 of the 39 tests that the Springboks played between his debut in 1965 and his final test in 1976. In that time he played 11 times against the Lions, including all eight Tests on the 1968 and 1974 tours.
“Jan Ellis was one of the greatest Springbok loose forwards of any era. He was one of those unbelievably tough Springbok forwards for which our country is renowned. He was a fixture in the Springbok team for more than a decade and will be fondly remembered by the older generation,” said Oregan Hoskins, president of the South African Rugby Union
Born in Brakpan, Ellis and his family moved to South West Africa, now Namibia, when he was a child. He was selected at the age of 19 by South West Africa to face Arthur Smith’s Lions in 1962 and also earned a place as a lock at the Springbok trials that year.
His first cap came on the Springbok tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1965, making his Test debut in the first of four tests against New Zealand in Wellington at the age of 22. He was not to lose his starting place until his 34th year.
An obsessive trainer, his speed and fitness led him to score seven test tries and a phenomenal 32 in the 74 appearances he made in all Springbok matches. He made his final appearance in a 16-7 win over the 1976 All Blacks in Durban, equalling Frik du Preez’s record of 38 Springbok test appearances.
He tasted a series success against Tim Kiernan’s 1968 Lions, when the Springboks won 3-0 with one match drawn, and raced away for a try in the 19-6 fourth Test triumph. He scored a try for South West Africa in their 23-16 defeat to Willie John McBride’s side, captaining his home province for the second time against the tourists, but lost the series by exactly the same margin as he had won it six years earlier.
The great South African rugby administrator, Dr Dannie Craven, wrote of Ellis: “Jan Ellis in many respects, was a marvel. He made his reputation in South West Africa, well away from the main centres of recognised rugby and it took a great deal of determination as well as talent to rise to the top. Only a very gifted player could do that because you only play as well as your company allows.
“The company you play in tends to restrict you – and with respect, he was not playing in the best of company when he represented South West Africa. Yet he became a Springbok and he remained a Bok for a long time. Jan also had a difficult temperament, because he was an artist, and this did not always help him.
“But he gave South Africa wonderful service in his many years of test rugby, 11 years in all. It takes a great player to play at international level for so long while out of the recognised mainstream.”
JAN ELLIS V LIONS: P 11 W 3 D 2 L 6
SW Africa 6 – 14 British Lions
South Africa 25 – 20 British Lions
SW Africa 0 – 23 British Lions
South Africa 6 – 6 British Lions
South Africa 11 – 6 British Lions
South Africa 19 – 6 British Lions Try
SW Africa 16 – 23 British Lions Try
South Africa 3 – 12 British Lions
South Africa 9 – 28 British Lions
South Africa 9 – 26 British Lions
South Africa 13 – 13 British Lions