Strongman Pelser Dies
LEGEND: Martin Pelser, perhaps the toughest Springbok of all time, died in Johannesburg on Wednesday at the age of 84.
His death comes as a surprise as there was about him an air of indestructibility.
He grew up hard, did hard work played and rugby hard. A hard man. He was a small boy when his parents separated and his mother looked after him, his sister and his brother. There was little money for the family.
The great All Black Colin Meads, who had been a flank in his early days, said when picking flanks for his best opponents’ XV: “I think first of Martin Pelser, the one-eyed Springbok. What a player he was! One of the hardest, most skilful players in any position I ever played against.”
Pelser lost the sight in his left eye when he was three and was thrown through the windscreen of his father’s car in a motor accident. For this reason his mother did not want him to play rugby for fear that his other eye would be damaged. Pelser said it had no effect on his playing or anything else in life.
He started playing rugby in his late teens when asked to make up the numbers. He played fullback. He got to like the game, playing for Municipality. He did not make the Transvaal Under-19 side but at the age of 20, after changing to Rand Leases on advice, he played for Transvaal. In all, he played 51 times for Transvaal from 1955 to 1961. He became a Springbok in 1958 and played 11 Tests up to 1961.
It all ended in 1961, because the next year, he and five other Springboks joined in the effort to establish rugby league in South Africa, an immediate flop, but in the regulations of the day, they were excluded from fiercely amateur rugby union football.
In 1958, Pelser played in the first Test against France, a 3-all draw at Newlands. It was in 1960 that he really came into his own, first against the All Blacks in South Africa and then on the Grand Slam tour of the Four Home Unions and France. He, Doug Hopwood and Hugo van Zyl formed a very special loose trio.
Their last Tests together were against the touring Wallabies in 1961. In the first of those two Tests, Pelser scored one of the Springboks’ seven tries. His previous Test try had been the only try of the fourth Test against the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth. That was an important try, as the series was drawn – a win each and a draw in Bloemfontein – and the series was decided by an 8-3 win for South Africa. Pelser’s try came from a scrum. He drove some 15 metres over the line to score the try, despite Don Clarke’s efforts to stop him. Dick Lockyear converted to give their Springboks their winning lead.
Pelser’s strength developed, not because of the gym but through his work as a fitter and turner, carrying heavy things, but his exceptional fitness came from hard work on the roads of Johannesburg and words of an early coach who said: “Don’t ever walk on the field.”
He stayed a strong man and fit, running the Comrades in his late fifties.
Playing days over, he coached Roodepoort, overlapping with his son Franna who coached Pirates.
Hendrik Jacobus Martin Pelser was born in Johannesburg on 23 March 1934. He went to Rossmore Junior High School, now Hoërskool Vorentoe, and then worked on the mines. He and his wife Gesina had a son and daughter, Francois and Ilse. He had a stroke in May and battled with ill-health till his death on 15 August 2018.
Picture: Hennie van Zyl and Martin Pelser