The 'Springbok Minyan' lead starry cast of oval-ball heroes

Ahead of Sunday's World Cup final, Greg Tesser looks at the impact of Jews in the world of rugby union

October 19, 2011
Jonathan Kaplan (right) was a touch judge at the World Cup semi-final featuring Wales and France

Jonathan Kaplan (right) was a touch judge at the World Cup semi-final featuring Wales and France

During those dark days of Apartheid in South Africa, apologists of that racist regime were quick to rebuke opponents of tours by the Springboks (Peter Hain and his "Stop the Tour" campaign and all that), with the mantra: Don't mix politics and sport.

Well, as anyone who has travelled the corners of the earth watching or indeed reporting on sporting contests knows, this is indeed a spurious argument. For whenever and wherever a ball is kicked or a willow wielded, the dreaded P-word will somewhere along the line rear its ugly head.

Take the days of Irish rebellion and the Easter Rising of 1916, for example. There was a doctor, whose family had emigrated to the Emerald Isle from England in 1824. He was a supporter of Irish independence and, bizarrely, a friend of self-proclaimed antisemite Arthur Griffith, the founding father of Sinn Fein, even to the extent of assisting him financially in the purchase of his first house.

This doctor's name was Bethel Solomons and he became the first Jew to play Test rugby, when, on February 8 1908, he lined up as Ireland's number 8 in their 13-3 defeat by England at the Richmond Athletic Ground.

All told, he collected 10 Ireland caps, and represented both Dublin University and The Wanderers club with distinction.

There is a saying in South African rugby that no Springbok XV can be successful without a Jew or a doctor, and following Morris Zimerman's debut on December 5 1931 in an 8-3 victory over Wales, nine other Jewish players have donned the Springbok jersey.

Known as the "Springbok Minyan", the list includes Zimerman's cousin Louis Babrow, Fred Smollan, Dr Cecil Moss, who also later coached the national side, Professor Alan Menter, Joseph Kaminer, Syd Nomis, Dr Wilf Rosenberg, Joel Stransky and Okey Geffin, who, despite collecting a paltry seven caps, is often considered the finest Jewish player of all time.

During the Second World War, Geffin was captured at Tobruk, but continued to practise his rugby skills. In fact, during his incarceration at Stalag XX-A in occupied Poland, he met former Bok Bill Payn, and they organised a "Test"against a New Zealand POW XV.

Having a Jewish player on the team is the good luck I dream of

As Geffin later recalled: "Our gear was dyed underpants and vests, but no boots. We played barefoot."

Known as "The Flying Dentist", Wilf Rosenberg's story is certainly one for the scriptwriters. Born in Cape Town, he spent his childhood in Australia where his father, Phillip, was a rabbi in Sydney. Upon his return to South Africa, the young Wilf's rugby skills improved with every passing year, so much so that in 1955 he was chosen to play for his country for the first time in the second Test against the British & Irish Lions.

Rosenberg – 5th Jewish Springbok was the front-page headline in South Africa's Sunday Times newspaper.

In 1960, he was offered £6,000 to turn professional with the Leeds rugby league club, the heftiest signing-on fee ever advanced to a player at that time.

In the 1960-61 campaign he broke the single season scoring record at Leeds with 48 tries, a feat that stands to this day.

His father was once asked how he could allow his son to play rugby on the Sabbath. Sighing, he replied: "My son was born with a God-given talent. Who am I to argue with God?"

However, there is one name that stands out above all others in South African sporting history - that of fly-half conductor extraordinaire Joel Stransky.

Clint Eastwood knows a thing or two about Joel, casting his son Scott in the role of the man in his film, Invictus; the man, who, in 1995, united the whole of this new racially reborn country when his dramatic drop-goal in extra-time against the All Blacks handed them the World Cup for the first time.

As Stransky, who notched all his side's points in their 15-12 success, put it himself: "I can't help feeling that fate and destiny were on our side." Back to that emotional day in 1995, and opposing Stransky in the All Blacks line-up was a formidable open-side flanker in the shape of Josh Kronfeld.

The holder of 54 New Zealand caps, he describes his origins somewhat mysteriously as "German/Samoan", and it was religion that played a major in his World Cup baptism.

Michael Jones was a New Zealand rugby icon and a devout Christian, who, like Scotland's Euan Murray during the current World Cup, refused to play on a Sunday. Obviously, his replacement, Kronfeld, had no such concerns and the rest, as they say, is history.

Michael Lipman has also had a colourful career. He first saw life in London, was brought up in New South Wales, played for the Australia Under 21s before moving back to the Old Country and gaining 10 England caps.

Later, he became embroiled in a drugs controversy at Bath that saw him return to Australia. Lipman is currently plying his trade at Melbourne Rebels with another England "reject" Danny Cipriani.

Unlike their soccer counterparts, rugby referees are generally well-respected figures, even in this less deferential age being addressed as "sir" by the combatants on the pitch. And certainly in terms of experience, no official can match the CV of Jonathan Kaplan.

Internationally, it all started for the articulate South African back in 1996 in Harare where he took charge of Zimbabwe's match-up with Namibia. Two years ago, he became the first referee to take control of more than 50 international contests.

Tenuous a link it may be, but England World Cup lock Tom Palmer and London Scottish prop Aaron Liffchak, skipper of the British Zions at the 2009 Maccabiah Games, have something, in common. Well almost. Before moving on to the University of Hertfordshire, 26-year-old Liffchak was educated at Queen Elizabeth's School Barnet, and it was at Barnet Elizabethans RFC that a five-year-old Palmer began his road to rugby stardom with the club's mini-section.

Talking of youth, 18-year-old Scott Spurling is a name to log for the future. Already capped at England Under-18 level, for whom he played a vital role in their 48-16 victory over Australia in August, he recently helped the England 7s to a 41-20 success over South Africa in the final at the Under-19 Commonwealth Games. No wonder Premiership champions Saracens have signed the precocious Harrovian.

Let us leave the final word to Danie Craven, one of South Africa's most celebrated players, and later a stand-out coach: "Having a Jewish player on the team is the good luck I dream of!"

Last updated: 3:05pm, October 19 2011