Springbok Lionel Wilson Dies

Tue, 19 Sep 2017 14:41
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OBITUARY: Lionel Wilson, A Springbok and Western Province fullback, in the 1960s died peacefully in Napier, New Zealand, on Sunday 17 September 2017. He was 84 years of age.  

Called Lionel by most people, Dick by his close friends and Speedy by team-mates, a nickname in the mould of Tiny for Tiny Naudé, the big Springboks lock.  Wilson was not fast but his courage and concentration were exceptional.

In life Wilson was one of the neatest of men, and so he was in his working life and in his rugby life. He prepared well for matches and in the match he could not be budged from doing what he had prepared to do.

Those were the days before HO de Villiers when playing fullback had just three requirements. You had to tackle, catch and kick into touch. Wilson was a genius in all three of those.

In 1960, the All Blacks were touring South Africa. Roy Dryburgh was the incumbent Springbok fullback and captain. He played in the first two Tests, and then the selectors dropped him for the third Test to be played in Bloemfontein.

The All Blacks had already been to Bloemfontein where they had lost 9-8 to Orange Free State. The Free State fullback was Piet Botha who kicked the three penalties that beat the two tries of the All Blacks. 

When Dryburgh was dropped after the second Test, the Free State went up in arms when, instead of their heroic Botha, Lionel Wilson of Western Province was chosen. The Free Staters were not silent in their rage. They booed Wilson at the hotel when the Springboks gathered on Wednesday, and kept up their torrent of abuse and criticism till about two minutes into the Test.

Wilson's immediate opponent was the great Don Clarke, a man with huge boot. After Wilson's selection, a Villager club-mate, John Markey, got him out onto the field at Brookside and kicked high up-and-unders onto Wilson, who caught them all. Over and over Markey kicked and Wilson caught. At the end of it, Markey said to Wilson: "There you did not drop one and there will be no excuse to drop any on Saturday." In Saturday's team there were two other Villager players - John Gainsford and Doug Hopwood.

The first up-and-under was not long in coming. Wilson got under it, hugged it into his chest and kicked it out - and Bloemfontein cheered. Wilson went on to play 27 Tests for the Springboks in a total of 58 matches as the Springboks toured the UK, Ireland and France in 1960-61, Ireland and Scotland in 1965 and Australia and New Zealand in 1965. When his career ended  in 1965, Wilson was the most capped Springbok fullback of all time, a certain choice - and never again booed.

Wilson scored only once in a Test. It was in 1964 when the Springboks were playing Wales in Durban.  The half-time score was 3-3. Then in the second half Welsh fullback Graham Hodgson kicked to the touchline on his right. It was not out because Wilson caught the ball. He stopped and kicked a 50-yard drop kick that put the Springboks into a 6-3 lead. Eventually they won 24-3.

Wilson grew up in Wynberg and then Plumstead. After leaving Wynberg Boys' High, Wilson played - scrumhalf - for False Bay, then a second league club. He worked for the Old Mutual, whose office was in Cape Town. The nearest first-league club was Hamiltons and he would take the bus to the club for practice.  He played for them briefly before moving back to the Southern Suburbs. He joined Villagers whose president was the great 1930s Springbok Geoff Gray, and it was Gray's Geoffrey that gave Wilson his middle name.

Lionel Geoffrey Wilson was born in Cape Town on 25 May 1933, the second son of Billy and Doris Wilson. He married Pam Walker, his teenage girlfriend. In 1976 they emigrated to New Zealand, but things in later life did not work out well for them. For one thing his health deteriorated, he came back to South Africa and then went back to his family in New Zealand. His family was around him when his long illness came to an end on Sunday in the Princess Alexandra Rest Home. He is survived by Pam, their sons Craig, Murray and Grant, his three daughters-in-law and his seven grandchildren.

One little anecdote. At one stage South African rugby's offices were in the Sports Science Institute, built on what had been the Newlands B field and provided facilities for gym, rehab and so on. Lionel went there to get his tickets for a Test. He got out of his car and almost immediately collapsed over the bonnet, conscious but in distress. People walked past but then  a girl came to him and said: "Can I help you?" It was Natalie du Toit, the swimmer, who has only one leg.