Renier Grobler: A life cut tragically short

The 1969-70 Springbok rugby tour of Britain and Ireland became known as the “demo-tour,” with anti-apartheid activists using every opportunity to turn the playing of sport into a nightmare for players, officials and rugby-lovers.

TRAGEDY: Devil’s Peak, which tragically cut short the life of promising Springbok player Renier Grobler, along with 11 other SAAF officers, in 1971
Picture: SHELLEY CHRISTIANS

Each day of the tour, members of the visiting squad were harassed by demonstrators – many of them students – while tussles between police and demonstrators and rugby supporters and demonstrators created many ugly moments.

Front page press pictures of the time showed little of the actual play on the field but rather highlighted the running battles between the police and activists doing their utmost to stop play, with barbed wire fences and police guard dogs very much to the fore.

It was an era when long tours of three months or more were undertaken and SA had established a proud record over 63 years in the Northern Hemisphere.

But not this time.

The results showed the intense pressure the team was under, with the Tests against Scotland (3-6) and England (8-11) being lost by small margins while the internationals against Ireland and Wales ended in draws.

During the 1969 season, a speedy wing was capped by Northern Transvaal (now the Blue Bulls) and enjoyed a meteoric rise from obscurity to Springbok colours.

He made his debut in grand fashion, scoring a try in the 13-3 victory over the Australian team which toured SA that year. At the end of the season he scored a try in the Currie Cup final against Western Province at Loftus Versfeld.

Selection for the tour followed, amid much criticism from a demanding public, citing his relevant inexperience.

While the wing had a good tour, he was unable to break into the established Test team with Syd Nomis, Gert Muller and Andy van der Watt all being preferred on the position.

He missed the 1970 season due to injury and was busy making a comeback to big rugby at the start of the 1971 season.

In May of 1971, celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the Republic were in full swing when our hero, now a corporal in the SA Air Force (SAAF), reported for duty on May 26 for a full rehearsal of what promised to be a memorable fly-past on the since-discontinued Republic Day, May 31, exhibiting the strength of SA’s military air power. He took his place as a passenger on one of three Mercurius twin-engined executive transport jets, a variation of the Hawker Siddeley 125, which had a crew of two.

Clouds were low-lying that day and the three jets did a right-hand sweep that propelled them into the clouds.

But the direction was all wrong and the jets slammed at high speed into Devils Peak, above the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town, with a loud explosion heard over most of the southern suburbs.

In a split-second, 11 SAAF officers were killed, including the 24-year-old Springbok.

The shockwaves of the accident were felt within rugby circles with young Renier Grobler, Springbok number 431, gone forever and a potential great career in the game irretrievably lost.

Sadly, another member of the 1969/70 tour was to lose his life in tragic circumstances.

In 1988, reserve fullback, 42-year-old Paul Durand, Springbok number 430 from Western Transvaal, was killed in a motor accident in Durban.

It took many years for the unpleasantness of the 1969/70 tour to be eradicated from South African rugby fans’ memories and it was only 22 years later in 1992 that SA was again fully integrated into world rugby.

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