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Rugby great Louis dies

Fri, 01 Feb 2013 13:55
Louis-luyt3 Ball-in-hand-630 Louis-luyt
He came from humble beginnings
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Louis Luyt, one of the outstanding personalities in South African rugby, died in Durban on Friday, 1 February 2013. He was 80.

Luyt, who became a vastly wealthy man and a generous one, was certainly not born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Louis Luyt was born in Britstown on 18 June 1932 and spent his youth in dire poverty , rescued by hard work at school and rugby. The poverty the family experienced was harsh and, as a boy, Luyt was required to work wherever he could.

By the time he was 11, he was the second of nine children, and was required to be up at 4.30 on icy Karroo mornings to work in a bakery or even at 1.30 to irrigate a bit of a vegetable garden. It was a hard life, home sometimes a corrugated iron shack as the family shifted about and Charles Luyt changed jobs.

But he showed an aptitude for rugby and played - as a fullback - for the Hanover senior team where he was spotted by the coach at the Colesberg Collegiate School who offered him two years with free books and free boarding though even that was not enough and Luyt worked his holidays for meagre pay. Matriculated at 16, he went to Bloemfontein and found a job as a labourer on the railways.

Luyt joined the Railway club in Bloemfontein and graduated from fullback to flyhalf to eighthman to lock, and at 19 years of age he first played for Orange Free State. He made his debut against Eastern Transvaal on 27 May 1952.

In all he played 52 times for Free State, captaining them on occasion. His last game for the province was on 6 July 1960 when Free State beat the All Blacks 9-8. It was not the end of his playing career for in 1965, after a lay-off of five years, he played a match for Northern Transvaal. Luyt was unlucky not to have been a Springbok.

From the railways in Bloemfontein he worked underground on a gold mine in Welkom, then was a salesman for Caltex and then a rep for Fisons, the fertiliser company. When his commission earned him twice the managing director's pay, Fisons dropped his commission from 7.5% to 2%. Luyt moved to Pretoria and started Louis Luyt Enterprises. He was to start Triomf and become the fertiliser king of South Africa at the age of 38.

In all the work and play, Luyt managed to study on after hours and ended with an earned doctorate and an honorary one.

Wealthy and living in Johannesburg, Luyt became more and more involved in sports sponsorship and particularly in rugby football. With his brusque manner, he was not a popular man except to those who knew him and knew of his kindness. His achievements for rugby were enormous - he brokered the deals with the ANC that led to the unification of rugby, he saved Ellis Park, turning it from substantial debt to healthy profit, he ran what was till then then the best run, most lucrative Rugby World Cup and then he saved rugby when he fought off the attempt by Kerry Packer and his men to take over rugby. Luyt was at the birth of SANZAR (South Africa New Zealand Australia Rugby) which negotiated a massive deal with Rupert Murdoch and got Super Rugby and Tri-Nations going. In the negotiations with Murdoch he managed to get a better deal for South Africa than the other two got.

He was an excellent chairman of meetings, changing from Doc Craven's rambling ways to crisp efficiency, and he became the president of SARFU - the unified South African Rugby Football Union, now called SARU.

As the leader he took the blame. The founding of the Citizen newspaper and the subsequent infogate scandal that toppled John Vorster was a bad idea. The 1986 Cavaliers tour was a questionable idea. When Tiaan Strauss was not chosen for the 1995 World Cup, Luyt was booed at Newlands, though he was not a selector. When SARFU took Nelson Mandela to court, Luyt was blamed though it was a SARFU decision. He resigned from rugby after the case, though Mandela remained warm and friendly. When he had been inaugurated as South Africa's president in 1994, Mandela had mentioned two names in his speech - Doc Craven and Louis Luyt. Resigned from rugby, Luyt became a member of parliament. The DA (Democratic Alliance) was born in his house.

After he retired, Luyt moved down to Ballito on KwaZulu-Natal's North Coast, and while he was there his heart began to give him trouble. But a triple by-pass seemed to have solved the problem.

Born Oswald Louis Petrus Poley he was adopted by his mother's husband Charles Luyt. He later dropped the Oswald and the Petrus from his name. Luyt met Adri in 1957 and married her in 1958. They had four children - two daughters and two sons. He was always a strong family man in a family with firm religious principles. He is survived by Adri, Corlia, Lucien, Louis, Nossie, spouses and grandchildren.

By Paul Dobson

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