A Springbok Great Has Died
A huge tree in South African Rugby rugby has fallen. Johan Claassen died in Pretoria on Sunday morning at the age of 89. There is scarcely an aspect of rugby in South Africa that he did not contribute greatly to.
In brief he played 105 times for Western Transvaal Rugby Union (later North West, now Leopards) from 1949, when he was 19, to 1962 and he played in 57 matches, including 28 Tests, for South Africa between 1955 and 1962. He captained Western Transvaal and, in nine Tests, South Africa. He was a world class player. Doc Craven said that South Africa had never had a better lock. He was never dropped from a Springbok team.
Claassen made his Springbok debut against the great 1955 B&I Lions in 1955, playing in all four Tests in that drawn series. The next year he toured Australasia when the Springboks won two Tests in Australia and lost the series 3-1 in New Zealand, the first South African loss in a rugby series since 1956. They lost the next series of two Tests against France when he captained the Springboks for the first time, the drawn Test at Newlands and the defeat at Ellis Park. It was a series in which the Springboks scored two tries to nil but lost to kicks. In 1960 he played against Scotland who came out on the first short tour by a Home Unions’ country. The Springboks won an unimpressive 18-10 but then went on to beat Wilson Whineray’s All Blacks 2-1 in the series with a draw in Bloemfontein.
He was on the Grand Slam tour of 1961, scoring a try against Scotland, and a draw with France in a match that started with a bizarre outburst of French violence to start the match. In 1961 he played against Ireland and then was the captain in two winning Tests against Australia. He was the captain again in 1962 when the Springboks beat the B&I Lions 3-0 in a series after the first Test had been drawn. That ended his Springbok playing career.
Claassen’s international contacts were not only with the Springboks. In 1953, when he was playing for Potchefstroom Dorp, he played for Western Transvaal against John Solomon’s Wallabies who gave the home side a hiding. But the 1955 B&I Lions started their tour against Western Transvaal who beat them 9-6, three kicks to two tries. In 1958, he captained a Northern Transvaal-Western Transvaal combined team which beat France 19-18. He was the captain in 1960 when the All Blacks beat Western Transvaal 28-3 at Olin Park. The next year Ireland beat his Western Transvaal 16-6 and in 1962 the B&I Lions won 11-6. The next year he was a national selector.
His playing days, done, Claassen coached Western Transvaal and South Africa. Claassen coached the Springboks in 26 Tests from 1968 to 1976. They won 17, lost 6 and drew 3. In his time as coach the Springboks enjoyed series victories over the B&I Lions in 1968, the All Blacks in 1970 and 1976, France in 1968, 1971 and 1975, and the Wallabies in 1969 and 1971. He was a national selector in 1963 and again from 1965 to 1976, and was the convener of selectors from 1971 to 1976, including the hammering by the B&I Lions in 1974. He managed the Springboks and on that difficult 1981 tour. Claassen became the president of Western Transvaal in 1977 and was a member of the SA Rugby Board’s executive for twenty years and the junior vice-president of SA Rugby Board and SARFU (now SARU). There is barely an area of South African rugby that he did not touch.
Johan was not the only Western Transvaal captain in the family. His younger brothers, Ernst and Willhelm, also captained the province. Ernst was a Springbok trialist and played for the Gazelles and the Junior Springboks.
Claassen was big, strong man – physically and in every other way, a man of calm relentlessness, not a man to give way on the field or off it. He was also a man with a charming smile and a twinkle in his eyes.
At the time of Claassen’s death Des van Jaarsveld was the only Springbok older than he was.
Johannes Theodorus Claassen was born in the Prince Albert District on 23 September 1929. He went to school in Christiana and to university in Potchefstroom. He was first a schoolmaster and later a professor of bible studies at his old university. He retired for a while to Yzerfontein on South Africa’s West Coast but returned north and died in Pretoria on 6 January 2019, survived by his wife Ada, their daughters Anlerie, Berna and Johanee, and their son Johan, 12 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
By Paul Dobson