In memory: Jan Ellis

Jan Ellis personifies Springbok rugby, for me. It has been said that as humans we think in pictures. When we think of something we see a picture of some sorts and this picture can differ from one person to the next which is why we sometimes voice the same words but come up with different understanding or meaning. The best communicators are those who can create clear and vivid pictures in the mind of his listeners.

When I think of Springbok rugby I see Jan Ellis. Hard uncompromising, fast with a touch of artistic moodiness and flair but with relentless motivation to succeed based on a staunch work ethic and absolute conviction of what is right and wrong; that is Jan Ellis in a nutshell, for me. 

So I don’t see all that, I just, see pictures of Jan Ellis flashing through my mind (see the photo gallery I’ve created of Jan Ellis here).

The Springboks being Jan Ellis, for me, came along probably because I had so many pictures of Jan Ellis when I started with my sampling of rugby pictures in 1970.  I was born in Windhoek South West Africa (now Namibia) and Jan was SWA’s second springbok; the first being Sias Swart.

So Jan was bigger than life in SWA and could do nothing wrong in our eyes. In fact when he was dropped by the national selectors after 11 years and 38 consecutive test matches in 1976 my father stopped supporting the Springboks in the series against the All Blacks. “I hope they lose so that those damn selectors can put Jan Ellis back in the team” was his exact words.

Jan was not perfect he had some flaws like all of us. His biggest flaw probably his temper. ‘Vuilgat’ (dirty) Jan was so re-known for his short fuse that film-maker Jamie Uys even pulled a candid camera prank on Jan while Ellis was still living in Namibia in the early nineteen seventies. The camera crew mounted a car hooter against the pavement just a few paces from a traffic light which ‘Rooi’ Jan frequented daily on his way to work. Patiently they waited about 5 days for a red light to force Jan to stop long enough for a car to pull-up behind him. Three hoots had Jan looking annoyed and angrily over his shoulder at the innocent victim in the car behind. It took two more hoots to saw Jan storming out of his car, plucking the surprised little fellow out of his car and threaten him with a raised fist. Jan was on the brink of shoving his huge right paw down the little fellows’ throat when the filming crew intervened to safe the poor man who was pleading innocence at the top of his voice.

Jan didn’t thought it was funny and was not prepared to laugh about it -as most of us. Realising what transpired he turned around got in his car and drove off without saying a word.

There was also an incident during the 69/70 EOYT when Jan couldn’t take old Avril Malan’s insults and whinging (the team was struggling and Malan was giving it to them calling them gutless and what not) anymore. He packed his bags got into the train heading for the airport. It took some convincing and a promise by some senior players that they’ll keep Malan away from him to stop a fired up Jan Ellis to board a plane back to South Africa.

Jan was a reserved, quiet and fiercely private man who did not suffer fools lightly. In 1976 there was an attempt to use him for window dressing by having him captaining a multiracial South African XV team against New Zealand. Jan declined the invitation to captain a side consisting of 11 whites, two coloureds and two blacks on the bases that he had flue/influenza. However, a few hours after the match had been played the media honed in on a story that Jan had declined on racial reasons. A scoop on the story was keenly sought after so media men from every imaginable newspaper, magazine as well as radio and television station stared to ‘pester’ Ellis and his wife at home. Goaded, Rooi Jan exploded. He had, he said, nothing more to say. With him the situation was ‘finish and klaar’ and that was the end of it.

In a pure rugby sense Jan is remembered for the way he carried the ball in one hand as can be seen in the picture below which was taken when he played for Transvaal against the 1976 All Blacks.

Jan is also remembered for his partnership with Piet Greyling. Some scribes have argued over the years that the way he and Greyling dominated the breakdowns was one of the primary reasons why the boks won the 1970 series against the All Blacks.

Ellis is also remembered for his work ethic and his contrasting running styles when he chased and ran with the ball. Stories had been told of Jan’s training regime with rocks in the mountains and storm water ravines surrounding Windhoek. His fitness, agility, speed and his arm and leg strength alleged to be a consequence of running up and down the mountain slopes carrying sizable rocks during the heat of the day. During the 1965 tour the New Zealand rugby scribes were much impressed with his speed and commitment to training while admitting that he was still very much a newbie in process of getting the hang of tactical plays and demands of defensive play of loose forwards. Jan was a quick learner though and by the end of that tour he had cemented his place in the Springbok side and by 1970 he had learned enough to influence the outcome of that series with his defensive and tactical endeavours around the park.

Such was his natural strength though that when he got robbed and shot at age 58 he seized the gun bearer carried him something like 15 meters to the his garage office and held on to him while phoning the police and kept him down on the ground while bleeding profusely until the police arrived.

Ellis had a distinctive forward leaning running style (see picture below) when chasing and was deceptively fast on the chase with those long forward-leaning loping strides. 

When carrying the ball he was more upright and on his toes. This upright style and his natural speed of the mark provided him with a devastating sidestep that could send the South African fans into a frenzied overenthusiastic applause that baffled some of the international scribes on occasion. During the last match of the 69/70 EOYT tour Ellis used this sidestep with good effect against the Barbarians to score two brilliant tries. The picture below shows Ellis on his toes just before he started sidestepping his way through and past the ring defenders surrounding him in the photograph to score his second try in that match.  This try is described by Chris Greyvenstein as follows:

‘Twelve minutes to go and the ball rolls loose 40 metres from the Barbarian’s goal. Swooping down on it is Jan Ellis, the red haired flank from South West Africa. The ball is scooped up in one easy-flowing, almost casual, movement and then he is off in that loping, long striding run of his. Two defenders are brushed aside with a flip of the shoulder and a sway of the hips. Another one is beaten with an all but imperceptible change of pace. Now the ball is clutched in one big, freckled hand and running with perfect balance on the soft green turf, Ellis sidesteps free of the cover defence with only Mike Gibson, Ireland’s outstanding centre, between him and the try-line. A feint as if to pass and Gibson goes the wrong way as Ellis thunders past him to score one of the greatest tries in the history of international rugby without a finger being laid on him on his weaving 40 meter run.’

He didn’t shy away from the rough stuff and many a picture shows him with a bruised cheekbone if not a black eye (See picture below).

He was a prolific try scorer and one of the top try scorers in the team during the 1971 tour to Australia notching up seven tries. He notched-up 10 tries during the 1965 tour to Australia and New Zealand and 6 tries during the 69/70 EOYT to the United Kingdom. Jan Ellis scored 32 tries for the Springboks in 74 matches (7 tries in 38 tests). See his test career statistics here.

Jan could strum a lively piece on the piano and knock-out a lively tune on the mouth-organ.

Rest in Peace big fellah I will always remember you with fondness.

5 thoughts on “In memory: Jan Ellis

  1. This is very sad news.

    I may have mentioned on your site that when I went to watch the Namibia vs South Africa game at RWC2011, I was intending to cheer, “Go Jan Ellis!”. You may have mentioned, McLook, that many younger South African rugby followers wouldn’t necessarily have heard of Jan Ellis. If so, then while that is understandable, and a fact of life, it is nevertheless sad, and their loss. Would I be right is guessing he is the greatest athlete SWA/Namibia produced along with Frankie Fredericks?

    Anyone who could outplay great All Black loose forwards like Ian Kirkpatrick and Brian Lochore, as Jan Ellis (in tandem with Piet Greyling) clearly did in 1970 had the total respect of the NZ rugby public. As I may have mentioned before, if NZ are losing in the lineouts against the Springboks, we don’t necessarily consider ourselves out of the game. But because the loose forwards are the traditional New Zealand strength, if we are beaten at that phase, then it is pretty much all over for us. Which is why you can probably count on one hand the number of times Kiwis would ever consider they were out-matched in that phase in the last 50 years. Jan Ellis figures in one of those few occasions, indeed he and Greyling are the classic example of how to beat the All Black at their own game.

    I have a feeling that the distinctive South African phrase “fetcher and carrier” to describe the inter-play between 6 and 7 had its genesis with Ellis and Greyling. All the All Blacks who toured in 1970 remember with rueful admiration the damage they wrought and have spoken and written about it. On the 1969-70 tour (and are you sure it wasn’t Avril Malan, and not Johan Claassen who was the coach on that tour?) Jan Ellis was one of the players who played up to form, when others with big reputations let gatvol as a result of the annoyance over the demonstrators get to them. Perhaps, from what you have described of his personality, he had to be “pissed off” to play at his best! If so, rugby was all the better for it :)

    A great player. South Africans will know his back ground more fully than I, but from what I understand and have been able to piece together, Ellis was a late-come to rugby, but like his contemporary Ian Kirkpatrick had an extensive background in school athletics, which developed his natural genetic advantages. He was still very raw and inexperienced when he first toured here in 1965, but managed to break into the test team for the entire series against the All Blacks after the Australian preliminary section had shown that some of the more experienced players were not committed enough. By about 1967, when Greyling was paired with him for the first time, Ellis was the finished product.

    About 10 years ago a NZ journalist journeyed to South Africa to find material from former Springboks for a book about what it was like to play against the “awesome” All Blacks. When the premise of the proposed interview was explained to Ellis he refused, because he wasn’t going to do anything to boost the All Blacks reputation, especially when, as a player, he had done everything he could to tear their reputation down! That’s the way Kiwis love their Springboks – hard, tough, uncompromising, and nursing a grudge! Non-Saffers and Kiwis may not understand it, but that attitude earns the respect of the NZ rugby public – even though Jan Ellis probably wouldn’t have cared. And that attitude no doubt contributed to him being the champion he was…

    • Kimbo you wrote: “On the 1969-70 tour (and are you sure it wasn’t Avril Malan, and not Johan Claassen who was the coach on that tour?) Jan Ellis was one of the players who played up to form, when others with big reputations let gatvol as a result of the annoyance over the demonstrators get to them. Perhaps, from what you have described of his personality, he had to be “pissed off” to play at his best! If so, rugby was all the better for it”

      Yes it was indeed Avril Malan. I corrected it in the piece. Yes that sort of reverse psychology was obviously at play. Ellis was such a proud Springbok and hated so much to lose that he didn’t need much motivation and Malan’s remarks might have been aimed at some of the others who were gatvol to a point of nafi (Army term meaning no ambition f-ol interest) with the demonstrators and circumstances on that tour.

    • Yes, Ellis was a late starter as I mentioned when I wrote about the 1965 tour. He had all the attributes, speed, desire, strength, work ethic and a competitive spirit but his rugby background was only about 4 years when he got selected for the 1965 tour. Haas Schoeman and Frik du Preez was the flankers in the Aussie test matches. When Piet Botha got injured du Preez played himself into the team as a lock. Bedford got injured and Doug Hopwood was struggling with a chronic backproblem (both loose forwards). That opened the door for Ellis and he learned in the test matches from the master Kel Tremaine and how he must have hated those lessons at his teams expense. In 1970 he dished out what he have learned with interest.

  2. I was extremely saddened to hear the news of Jan’s death, it feels like it was only yesterday he was performing extraordinary feats in the Bok jersey and it seems unbelievable that this legend is gone.

    Without doubt, he was one of the all-time greats of world rugby and it’s a shame there seems to be no footage of him so that later generations could appreciate just how wonderful a player he was.

    A superb athlete, he was a ball-carrier supreme, and I still can picture him running with the ball in one hand, side-stepping tacklers and showing he had the pace to outrun many backs. He was an excitement machine and a crowd-puller and if he’d been playing in the professional era would have been one of the highest-paid in the game, one of its biggest superstars.

    He was also a tough man. I still remember him landing an uppercut on Keith Murdoch in the fourth test of 1970 that would have done credit to Frans Botha. It rattled my teeth all the way back in New Zealand.

    I hope his passing draws the media cover in South Africa it should, and that he’s given the credit he deserves. As far as I’m concerned, rugby stars don’t come any bigger than Jan Ellis, and I don’t believe any player, of any era, ever played with more pride and passion for his country.

    My condolences to his wife and family.

    Rest in peace, Jan, and thank you for the memories.

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