Jan Ellis: Self-made Bok great
It came as a shock to hear the news that Jan Ellis had died in a hospice in Pretoria on Friday.
His death came as a shock because of all Springboks he seemed indestructible – those strong legs striding, ball in one hand, face impassive, red hair flying.
When he retired he had worn a Springbok jersey 74 times, 38 times in Tests, then a record. And he did it all on his own and in his own way. More than any other, he was a self-made Springbok.
Ellis may just have been the fittest Springbok of all time and his training was legendary, running in punishing heat up sand dunes carrying bricks.
His fitness had without a doubt much to do with his durability. He played his first Test against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 1965 and his last against the All Blacks in Durban in 1976.
In that time the Springboks played 39 Tests and Ellis played in all but the 1969 Test against England when he was injured. He was not dropped till his last Test when Theuns Stofberg was picked ahead of him,
Ellis played in a team game with team mates and yet was a loner. He avoided after-match functions, content to sit in a bus and wait for the others. On tour he was in bed early with a book. He was not a popular man, not even amongst those who admired him most.
Jan Hendrik Ellis was born in Brakpan on January 5, 1942. He was young when he moved to Gobabis in South West Africa (now Namibia) and went to school there.
From that remote town he captained South West African schools and then moved to Windhoek determined to make his way as a rugby player.
In 1962, aged 20, he was chosen as a lock against the British and Irish Lions and then next year he went off to Pretoria with rugby ambitions. His ambitions were not realised and home he went to Windhoed. From that remote part he became a Springbok at the age of 22.
His career was in a topsy turvy period of South African rugby which teetered on the brink of isolation, suffered demonstrations and mixed ignominious defeats with outstanding victories – two series wins over New Zealand, a 3-0 series win over the British and Irish Lions, a whitewash of the Wallabies, undefeated in Australia and almost total domination of the French.
For South Africa Ellis was a flank, at his best in tandem with Piet Greyling – Ellis the beneficiary of the opportunities Greyling created.
In his tribute to the legends of Springbok rugby, Doc Craven wrote of Ellis: "Jan Ellis was in many respects a marvel. He made his reputation in South West Africa, well away from the main centres of recognised rugby and it took a great deal of determination as well as talent to rise to the top."
Oregan Hoskins, the president of the South African Rugby Union, said: "Our condolences go to Jan’s family and his friends. He was one of the greatest Springbok loose forwards of any era. He was one of those unbelievably tough Springbok forwards for which our country is renowned. He was a fixture in the Springbok team for more than a decade and will be fondly remembered by the older generation."
Ellis played for most of his career in South West Africa, ending it playing for Transvaal in 1975 and 1976. He played his club rugby for Otjiwarongo United in Windhoek, Windhoek Wanderers and Kempton Park
He was an auctioneer and then a garage proprietor. In December 2000 he was shot in an armed robbery at his garage and his health suffered as a result.
Ellis is survived by his wife Heila, a son, a daughter and five grandchildren, one of whose weddings he attended on Saturday.
By Paul Dobson