Windhoek — THE late Namibian rugby icon Jan Ellis could best be described as having been born on the wrong side of history, considering the lukewarm if not total disregard of his exploits and astute heroics on the rugby field by his country, especially following independence.
Like a dozen others, Ellis had fallen victim to the past deeds committed by his ancestors, and therefore has never been accorded the recognition he so dearly deserves in independent Namibia. Statistics don't lie and history will reveal that Jan Ellis is by a mile the most revered athlete to have come out of our beloved land during the apartheid regime when Namibia was known as South West Africa.
The strongly built ginger-haired boy from the Cattle Country (Gobabis) was a legend, but more fittingly, a world-class and fearless loose forward who represented the Springboks in 38 tests. Worshipped by many - including those from across the colour line - Namibian history will be totally incomplete without the name of Jan Ellis engraved on the golden pages of our archives. In today's edition, New Era Sports pays tribute to a true son of the soil Jan Ellis, who finally lost his battle against cancer at the advanced age of 71.
The late Jan Ellis will be best remembered as the most successful athlete of all time in the annals of Namibian sports history as he goes toe to toe with athletics wunderkind, Frank Fredericks. The one-time joint record holder for the number of Springbok caps succumbed to cancer at a hospice in Pretoria last Friday after suffering from the disease for some time. He also celebrated his 71st birthday last month.
The adorable Ellis was duped 'Omburu ya Pako' (Gobabis farmer) or the 'Red Devil' a reference to his reddish-ginger hair. He enjoyed an illustrious playing career with the 'Biltongboere' as the South West Africa Rugby XV was affectionately known among their ardent followers back in the day. He was doubtlessly an all-time Springbok great and can be described as one of the most outstanding loose forwards of his era. Ellis is up to this modern day one of only three rugby players from South West Africa to have earned Springbok colours. The other two are the departed pair of Lefty Fourie (3) and Sias Swarts (1).
His never-say-die attitude, characterized by his uncompromising style on the rugby field convinced municipal authorities in his hometown Gobabis to rename the town's rugby stadium after him.
The likeable beanpole hooker played in 38 tests for the Springboks, between his debut in 1965 and his final test in 1976. Many rugby pundits believe had Jan Ellis played in the professional era, his 12-season career would have resulted in a century of test appearances.
Born in Brakpan, South Africa in 1942, Ellis moved to South West Africa (Namibia) as a toddler with his parents.
He was a product of Wennie Du Plessis High School in Gobabis, and this is where he cut his teeth with the oval ball. Barely out of his shorts, the rugby crazy Ellis would feature for the school's rugby team in the morning - only to resurface with the town's senior team in the afternoon. It was not long before he was lured to the city of lights where he joined forces with United Rugby Club in 1965.
He eventually crossed the floor to seek refuge with cross-town rivals Wanderers after one season with the Olympia outfit and went on to captain the White Stallions with a considerable measure of unsurpassed success for several seasons.
As a raw-boned youngster, he won selection for South West Africa and subsequently earned a place at Springbok trials, having played at lock against the visiting British and Irish Lions in Windhoek in 1964. He earned his first cap with the Springbok tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1965, making his test debut in the first of four tests against New Zealand in Wellington at the fairly young age of 22. He never lost his place in the starting line-up until his 34th birthday.
"He was an obsessive trainer whose phenomenal pace and high level of fitness, combined with an unorthodox training schedule, largely contributed to his seven test tries, including a massive 32 in the 74 appearances he made in all Springbok matches," according to childhood friend Daantjie Louw. He became the proud owner of the Jan Ellis Sports Shop, which was holed up in the Old Mutual Arcade in Windhoek after local business moguls, under the stewardship of Schalk Burger, set up a fund to assist him to kick-start the business.
He played more than 50 matches for the Biltongboere and also captained both the national team and Wanderers during an illustrious rugby career between 1965 and 1976. Ellis made his final appearance for the Springboks in a 16-7 win over the 1976 All Blacks in Durban, equalling Frik du Preez's record of 38 Springbok test appearances. He bade farewell to his beloved adopted country in 1976 when he relocated to South Africa, where he was to wind up his playing days with Transvaal in the highly competitive South African Provincial Currie Cup Competition.
Ellis wrapped up his rugby career as Transvaal captain before settling in the small town of Rayton, near Cullinan, Bronkhorstspruit where he ran a petrol service station, while he also tried his hand as a salesman in the vehicles industry. "Jan Ellis was one of the greatest Springbok loose forwards of any era. Although he was one hell of a gentleman who could not even harm a fly, Jan was one of those unbelievably tough Springbok forwards and to tell you the truth his name was always first on the Springbok team sheet. He actually picked himself, a culmination of his ultra fitness level," according to Corrie Mensah.
"He was a fixture in the Springbok team for more than a decade and will be fondly remembered by the older generation," said Oregan Hoskins. While the likes of Percy Montgomery, Chris Badenhorst, Henning van Aswegen, Andre Stoop and Gerhard Mans hoisted the Namibian flag in topflight rugby - Jan Ellis was definitely in a class of his own and ranks amongst that rare breed of immortal athletes of all time. "Jan Ellis was a kind-hearted human being who never allowed fame to go to his head. He was always humble and a very reserved person. I can vividly remember the day when he sponsored me with full goalkeeping gear, including a brand new pair of boots while I was a student at Augustineum High School," former South West Africa Bantu Football XI shot stopper, Japhet "Bump Jive" Hellao, recalls fondly.
However, tragedy struck when the former Namibian golden boy was shot in an armed robbery in Pretoria in December 2000, and since then his health had been deteriorating. Both the Namibian and South African rugby unions have expressed their deep sadness at the passing of Jan Ellis. New Era Sports salutes this son of Omaheke (the Sandveld). May his soul rest in eternal peace.