Ian William Robertson
Fanatical dedication, fierce determination and a brilliant natural talent have established Ian William Robertson as one of the most successful international sportsmen this country has produced.
His uncompromising search for perfection in the rugged arena of Rugby Union often plunged him into bitter controversy. At times he was justifiably ranked among the 'Superbrats' of international sport. On other occasions he was a humble, self-effacing man who would sacrifice anything for team and country.
Above all he had a 'professional' approach in one of the toughest amateur sports in the world.
His international career has come to an end - painfully halted under a bone- jarring tackle playing for Zimbabwe Rhodesia against Transvaal at Salisbury in 1979 The injury has proved critical to his international career and with his broken wrist still not wholly mended, it seems unlikely that Robertson will play first-class rugby again.
Another factor persuaded him to retire.
After having played in five internationals for South Africa against France and New Zealand, playing Test rugby is no longer the most important thing in his life.
"The most important day of my life was when 1 married my wife Sonia .. . and the next most important days of my life were the births of our two sons Brendon and Gareth. Playing rugby at international level is now therefore the fourth most important thing to have happened to me," he said.
Robertson's first-class career started when he was a precocious nineteen- year-old in his first year after finishing his schooling at Prince Edward School at Salisbury. In his first senior season he quickly established himself as a regular member of Old Hararians First XV and earned a reputation as being a super-cool full back in a team that was later to develop into one of the strongest club sides in Southern Africa.
Under the expert guidance of team-mate Brian Murphy, who is regarded by Robertson as one of the greatest players and thinkers in the game, the flame- haired teenager made his Rhodesian debut in that 1969 season — against South West Africa.
He came into the side to replace regular full back Chuck Sawyer, who had to withdraw because of illness. The critics of the day described his debut as a quiet, efficient game stamped with class. He went on to play two further matches during the season.
This ice-cool approach developed into full-blooded brilliance during the next season (1970) when he played five games for Rhodesia, including an international against the touring All Blacks at Salisbury.
After three matches in 1971, Robertson ran foul of the rugby authorities in Rhodesia and became disillusioned about his future in a country that appeared to be completely isolated from world-class competition. He believed that to fulfil his boyhood dream and lifelong ambition of playing for the Springboks, he would have to move to South Africa. He took the plunge and emigrated to Johannesburg where he played for Transvaal B. During that year — on 2 June — he was married to Sonia (née Chick) and was home in time for the start of the 1973 season.
"I gambled on getting a lucky break. The gamble did not come off and I came back to Rhodesia. The experience was tremendous though," he said of his move.
During the 1973 season Robertson was to play a vital part in a season still regarded as one of the best in the country's rugby history. Under the captaincy of wiry scrum-half Des Christian, the Rhodesians played ten matches — six Currie Cup, three friendlies and an international against Italy.
During that season, Robertson was one of only three men who played all ten matches. The others were Christian and front row iron man, Dick Coleshaw.
The national side was in its third season of the Ian McIntosh era in which the dynamic Matabele had carefully cultivated an exciting brand of open, running rugby based on Welsh influences. Robertson was a vital cog in that pattern as a full back with devastating aggression and flair in attack.
For the first six matches of the season he stuck to full back with the selectors battling for the right half-back combination by using first Mike Swanson and then Terry Bowes at fly-half.
Against Eastern Province at Salisbury, Robertson was brought into the side at pivot in place of Bowes and immediately stamped his class and authority on the position — an undeniable versatility which was later to earn him Springbok colours as a centre in three internationals.
That 1973 season saw the Rhodesian side through to the Currie Cup semifinal against Northern Transvaal at Pretoria with Robertson gathering 81 points in the year from 3 tries, 10 penalties, 15 conversions and 3 dropped goals.
The next season he reverted to full back, partly due to his own preference in preparing for a crack at forcing his way into the Springbok Test team to take on the mighty British Lions under Willie-John McBride.
The season started well with Rhodesia putting up a brave show in going down to Free State in a friendly, and Robertson snatching victory from defeat with a brilliant solo effort in the dying minutes of the game against Lancashire. From well inside his own half he engineered a move that he himself rounded off with a try under the posts and a conversion for a breathtaking 21-20 win against the powerful British touring county that included the 1980 Lions captain, Billy Beaumont
The season lacked the same glamour and glory as 1973 and Robertson was shamefully overlooked for a berth in the South African side for the Lions series. He missed the last match of the season with a badly sprained ankle.
His only consolation had been in the previous season when he played for the South African XV on the internal tour and for the South African Barbarians against Free State.
He had been invited to the Springbok training-camp before the Lions tour but had subsequently been ignored.
Compensation was to come later that year when Robertson became the first Rhodesian since Andy Macdonald to be chosen for South Africa. His place in the short tour to France was as a reserve full back but he made his Springbok debut in Lyons at centre and scored a try. He went on to play both Tests as a match-winning foil to the powerful Johan Oosthuizen, and was the top try-scorer on tour.
"I was lucky. I was in the right tour at the right time and got my chance," he said of his success.
The next season was to prove an unhappy one. Robertson, in a typical outburst of scorn and contempt for anything less than the perfection he always strove for. again fell foul of rugby authorities in Rhodesia, and at the start of the season was suspended for four weeks. He missed the opening match — a compulsory friendly against South Eastern Transvaal at Witbank in which Rhodesia crashed 10-21 to the lowly country side — and then, in keeping with his Springbok reputation, was brought in for the next match at centre. A badly twisted ankle in the second half of this game against Public School Wanderers ended his season for Rhodesia.
In June 1974, he announced that he was leaving Rhodesia to settle in Cape Town.
"I was first approached with job offers when I travelled to France with the Springboks ... now that I have had time to settle down after the tour I have had more time to think about it I have been made a very attractive offer from Cape Town that I would be silly to turn down."
Robertson admitted that he had been influenced in his decision to move to the Cape after his recent clash with the authorities.
He left with a broadside at Rhodesian rugby.
"Something is missing in Rhodesian rugby at the moment. I know players who have lost their pride in wearing their Rhodesian colours," he said.
In some respects, Robertson's criticism was justified. After the euphoria of the 1973 season, the side had slipped during 1974. and during 1975 the Rhodesians managed only two victories in eleven matches — both against Boland with the final match being a game to avoid relegation from the A Section of the Currie Cup.
In Cape Town Robertson played for the mighty Villagers and in August 1975 made his debut for Western Province at full back against Eastern Province. His second spell in South Africa matured the man and the player.
When he returned to Rhodesia at the beginning of 1976, once again he became an automatic first choice for the national side. A hamstring injury prevented his return debut in the first match and he suffered several set-backs during the rest of the season as the result of illness and injury. But 1976 was to be Robertson's greatest.
He became the first Rhodesian since Ronnie Hill in 1963. to be selected for the Springboks for a home series against an international touring side. He was chosen at centre for the Test against Andy Leslie's All Blacks at Durban but was switched to full back when Dawie Snyman was forced to withdraw at the last minute. Robertson's home international debut was a dream — he turned in a rock-solid display in defence and was prominent in several raking attacks that steered South Africa to a convincing 16-7 victory. He rounded off this performance with a magnificent long-range drop goal to complete the Springbok tally.
In a shock move for the second Test Robertson was switched to the centre and even more surprising, after a creditable performance, he was relegated to the substitutes' bench for the third Test at Newlands.
The reshuffle by the South African selectors was slated by the rugby-crazy public and the Press. Andy Leslie was prompted to comment: "I consider Ian Robertson to be South Africa's best back."
Jonty Winch, in his book, Rhodesia Rugby — a history of the national side 1898-1979 wrote:
A delighted Robertson was brought back (for the fourth Test at Ellis Park) and Mike Shafto commented from Johannesburg: "Better late than never goes the saying. And it's one that aptly describes the Springbok rugby selectors' welcome choice of Rhodesia's full back ahead of Dawie
Snyman for the fourth and final Test against the All Blacks at Ellis Park". Robertson added that he was particularly pleased to be at full back because it was the position to which he was accustomed but he must have been even happier in the knowledge that he was at last regarded as South Africa's first choice in that position.
At the end of the series, Robertson and Rhodesian colleague 'Spike' McKenna, were invited to play for a World XV against Cardiff in the famous club's centenary match at the National Stadium before a fantastic Welsh crowd of 25 000. For Robertson it was a significant indication of his high rating in the rugby world and a just reward for his supreme dedication to the game. Before leaving to play for the World XV, Robertson intimated what sacrifices have to be made in order to reach the top in a demanding sport such as rugby:
"Since 1969 I have trained as hard as I think is possible in trying to achieve my ambitions. I have trained through every off season ... I can honestly say that I haven't missed ten days of training in all that time and I've never taken a holiday. I was determined to succeed."
Robertson at full back was immaculate in all he did and was a tremendous credit to Rhodesia. Eminent critics raved over his play while J. B. G. Thomas rated him as the second best full back in the world after the great J. P. R. Williams Thomas went on to say: "Ian Robertson played the game of his life. His catching in the rain with a slippery ball was superb, and his running in attack showed just what a South African does with encouragement."
The renowned Sunday Times of London, rugby specialist, Vivian Jenkins wrote: "Robertson was an outstanding success, drawing volumes of cheers from the crowd. He showed by his superlative fielding of the wet ball and splendid attacking runs, with swerves and dummies interlaced, why it is that South Africa play him at full back or centre, with equal facility."
Robertson went on that season to captain Rhodesia on two occasions — for the first time against Eastern Transvaal at Salisbury after Murphy had announced his retirement and replacement skipper Colin Blythe-Wood had been forced to withdraw due to injury. It was something of a nightmare in which Rhodesia scrambled to an 18-13 victory to move out of danger of relegation. But for Robertson it was a stirring and proud moment as he reached so desperately close to faultless perfection in a game that he completely dominated as an individual. He finished the season by captaining the side to a narrow but thrilling defeat at the hands of Western Province at Bulawayo.
Robertson started the 1977 season in blistering form. As a guest of the New Zealand Rugby Union he played two matches in that country — an invitation which had been extended to him after the fourth Test at Johannesburg in 1976. In distinguished company he played well and in the second match of that brief visit he scored five penalties. He cut short his visit to join Old Hararians on a club tour to Cape Town only to come back to Salisbury and announce that he was to retire from the game.
"It's time that I repaid some loyalty and compliments to my wife and family. She has given up so much for me and my sport. I really can't say enough about how important Sonia's support has been to me. We've rarely gone out at nights because getting the right amount of sleep has been important to me and she has never complained . . . she is the greatest."
Robertson also spelled out how his career and livelihood had suffered through his total dedication to the game. However, under considerable pressure from the national selectors he agreed to play for Rhodesia in the Currie Cup match against Free State — a game in which he kicked a penalty, a conversion and a drop goal. After that match he stuck to his guns to concentrate on his career and devote more time to his family. Former All Black, Allan Sutherland led the national side through a dynamic campaign in which results were mixed but satisfying.
After the first few games of 1978, Robertson came back into the game to take over as fly-half and by the end of the season had done enough to prove beyond doubt that he was the best fly-half in Southern Africa.
And so to the 1979 season, those first six games and that career-shattering injury against Transvaal.
During his career Robertson was capped 56 times for Rhodesia; he holds the record for the greatest number of points in a season (120) and the most points gained in a game (30 points against South Western districts in a Currie Cup match at Bulawayo in 1974). His career total of 437 points from 12 tries, 60 penalties, 21 drop goals, and 73 conversions is more than 130 points better than the next man — Terry Bowes (304).
Robertson played 12 games for South Africa — 5 of them Tests. He played 8 games for the Junior Springboks, 4 matches in the South African XV, twice for the South African Barbarians, once for a combined Quaggas/Barbarians team and once for the Quaggas side. He played first-class invitation matches in Cardiff and in New Zealand. He was also capped for Western Province.
Robertson was born at Salisbury on 28 April 1950. At Prince Edward School he played in the First XV for two years and in the Craven Week side in 1968. He made his Mashonaland debut at the 1969 tournament
His club-playing career has been largely dedicated to Old Hararians with brief spells at Johannesburg and Cape Town.
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