STORY OF A RUGBY ICON: IAN WILLIAM ROBERTSON
It’s Christmas Day, sometime in the mid 1970’s, and as I walk with beer in hand from the Old Hararians Club bar to the marquee on the cricket ground for a sumptuous lunch I pass the rugby field. There, in the blazing heat of the mid-day sun, is the lone figure of Ian Robertson, practising his kicking skills, hour upon hour.
As his great friend Keith Delport remarked: “I have had more beers on a Friday night than Ian had in his life.”
At the age of 65 Ian William Robertson (born Harare 28 April 1950), Rhodesia’s (now Zimbabwe) Springbok rugby icon, so very sadly passed away in Umhlanga, South Africa, on the morning of Tuesday, 25 August, 2015. His adoring wife of 43 years, Sonia (nee Chick; Olympic hockey Gold Medallist at Moscow in 1980) was at his side as Ian succumbed to cancer after a heroic battle that lasted more than three years.
It was in May 2012 that the man who was always supremely fit was diagnosed with Myloidfribrosis, a treacherous cancer of the bone marrow. He was treated with an experimental drug that showed some signs of hope, but this was immediately ceased when a secondary cancer, Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML), was diagnosed in September 2014. The ever-determined Ian endured chemo injections for a week every month for seven months, together with red blood transfusions and platelets.
The tributes from all over the globe continue to pour in for a man whose fanatical dedication, fierce determination and brilliant natural talent established him as one of the most successful and inspiring sportsmen to come from his homeland, Zimbabwe. Social media is awash with tributes that all have a common thread with truly meaningful words like Inspiring, Iconic, Supreme, Motivated, Hero.
Said one: “Ian, passed from this life, yet immortal in our memories; hero to our nation, the epitome of the Rhodesian spirit.” Another recalls “those torpedo throws he would make to Ray Mordt on the wing.” Ah yes, those pin-point long overhand passes were the mark of a man well ahead of his time in tactical thinking, innovative and precision play that only came from long and gruelling hours of practice.
Team-mate and another Springbok legend, Ray Mordt, refers to Ian (seven years his senior) as his “oldest brother” and credits him with much of his success as a powerful wing. “We have been friends since 1977 and Ian was not only a national hero but also my mentor throughout my career. He had incredible discipline and could play any sport.”
Ray said Ian had been an integral part of his family’s life, with Mom Eileen and his late dad, and all loved him. He recalled one particular Springbok trial when he spoke with coaches Butch Lochner and Nellie Smit who said that Ian Robertson was the fittest of them all on show.
“Ian could not have trained any harder,” said Ray. “We used to meet each other every day and practise for up to three hours; he was the consummate perfectionist and as a person was always there to advise and help. Ray admits that he might have “taken the wrong track at certain times” but Ian always hauled him back to do it right with no compromises.
He recalled how he and Nick Topping would go on 8 km training runs with Ian. “We somehow managed to keep up but for the last 2 km we never saw Ian, he was the fittest man on the planet, a phenomenon, a winner and a world-class rugby player who was ahead of his time with his unorthodox styles at a time when South African rugby was very conservative.”
Ian Robertson’s uncompromising search for perfection saw him play five tests for South Africa against France and New Zealand. His first-class career started when he was a confident 19-year-old in his first year out of Prince Edward School in Harare. Playing an ice-cool role as fullback for Old Hararians 1st XV, under the guidance of great friend Brian Murphy, he soon made a mark and made his debut for Rhodesia against South West Africa (now Namibia) in 1969.
In 1971 he moved to Johannesburg in order to try to fulfil his dream of playing for the Springboks. He played Transvaal B and, during this time, married Sonia (Chick) which he described as “the most important day of my life.” He returned to Rhodesia in 1973 to play a vital part in a season regarded as one of the best in the country’s history, only he, Des Christian and front-ranker Dick Coleshaw played in all 10 matches that included an international against Italy.
This was the coach Ian McIntosh’s era – who cultivated an open brand of attacking rugby based on the Welch influence and Robertson was a vital cog in that pattern as fullback for the first six matches with devastating aggression and a flair in attack.
Then, against Eastern Province, Robertson was moved to fly-half and immediately stamped his class and authority on the position, a versatility that was later to earn him Springbok colours as a centre in three internationals.
In 1974 he made his Springbok debut as centre against France in Lyons; played in both tests and was top try scorer on this tour. Job offers came in during this tour and in June 1974 he left Rhodesia again to settle in Cape Town where he played for Villagers and in August 1975 made his debut for western Province at full-back.
Again he returned to Rhodesia in 1976 which was to become his greatest season. He became the first Rhodesian since hooker Ronnie Hill in 1963 to be selected for the Springboks for a home Test series, at centre against the mighty All Blacks no less in Durban. He was switched to fullback when Dawie Snyman withdrew at the last minute and his home debut was a dream –m a rock-solid display in defence and he was prominent in several raking attacks that steered South Africa to a 16-7 victory. He rounded off this game with a magnificent long-range drop-goal. NZ captain Ian Leslie said: “I consider Robertson to be South Africa’s best back.”
He played centre in the second Test, was on the bench for the third and then came back in his rightful position as number one choice fullback in the fourth and final Test. At the end of the series Robertson and his Rhodesian colleague “Spike” McKenna were invited to play for a World XV in Cardiff in the famous club’s centenary match – a significant indication of their high rating in the world of rugby.
Robertson’s rugby career came to a shattering end in 1979 with an injury against Transvaal. He was capped 56 times for Rhodesia with a career total of 437 points from 12 tries, 60 penalties, 21 drop goals and 73 conversions. He played in 12 matches for South Africa, five of them Tests.
As he bade farewell to the game Ian said: “Since 1969 I have trained as hard as I think is possible in trying to achieve my ambitions. I have trained through every off-season….I can honestly say that I haven’t missed 10 days of training in all that time and I’ve never taken a holiday. I was determined to succeed.” In paying tribute to his wife Sonia he said: “It’s time I repaid her some loyalty and compliments. She has given up so much for me and my sport. We’ve rarely gone out at nights because getting the right amount of sleep has been important to me and she has never complained….she is the greatest.”
Legend 4 last
Some interesting facts on Ian Robertson’s timeline:
Family: Ian married a Chick twin (Sonia), who (together with her sister Sandy) was a member of the Zimbabwe team that won the inaugural Gold Medal for women’s hockey at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. They have been married for 43 years and have two sons (Brendon and Gareth) and a daughter Natalie, who are all married. The sons each have twin girls and boys respectively.
1986-1996: Opened Executive Health Spa in Harare.
1996-2000: Coached Prince Edward School 1st XV in Harare
2000: Left Harare for Durban to take up position as back-line coach and assistant coach with Rudolph Streauli for the Sharks.
2000: Opened a take-away Fish and Chips shops called Trawler’s in Durban North.
2001: Opened Taste Coffee Shop in the up-market La Lucia Mall which became a popular meeting place for Zimbabweans.
2012: In May was diagnosed with Myloidfribrosis, cancer of the bone marrow.
2014: In September was diagnosed with a secondary cancer Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML).