In the fourth instalment of SA Rugby magazine’s series on black rugby players, GARY BOSHOFF looks back at the career of former Saru wing John Noble.
John Noble, his three brothers and two sisters grew up in the picturesque Boland town of Stellenbosch. He was George Noble’s eldest son and, like him, was passionate about the game of rugby.
George worked at a local business called Blakes Bricks & Tiles and started the Noble rugby legacy through his performances for the Blakes Rugby Club, which was made up of the company’s workers. While not exactly the sporting type, mother Katie was a fanatical supporter of her rugby-playing sons and the Blakes club.
Such was George’s rugby abilities as a No 8 that the locals named him ‘Pickard’, after the legendary Western Province No 8 and president Jan Pickard.
‘If all things were equal, he would most certainly have played representative rugby,’ says John of his father.
John attended the Rhenish Mission Primary School in Stellenbosch. It did not offer rugby as a sport, so he had to settle for soccer and athletics instead. However, such was the influence of his father and the Blakes Rugby Club that he would head off to the rugby field immediately after school, where he and his mates would play with a tennis ball.
Like so many of his contemporaries, he opted not to go to high school, but rather to find work to help his parents financially. Supporting his family became more urgent after his father was tragically killed at the age of 33, when he intervened in a fight between two of his friends. As the eldest of four brothers, 16-year-old John had to do something and he found work as a messenger at Stellenbosch University.
With the legacy of his father and support from his mother and her sister, John aspired to follow in his father’s footsteps and be the best rugby player he could be. Every day, after returning from work, he would go to the rugby field where, under the supervision of Andrew van Wyk (who established the Blakes junior rugby team), he would train and hone his skills as a wing.
His younger brothers saw this commitment and they aspired to become like him. And so the Noble rugby legacy was reinforced, which would define the achievements of Blakes Rugby Club and the Noble family for many years to come.
Noble started his senior rugby career at the age of 16 when he was selected for the Blakes 1st XV. From the outset, he played wing and went on to represent the Proteas and South Africa in that position.
At 18 he was selected for Coronations Union, the first representative side (union team) he played in. He continued his meteoric rise in the South African Rugby Federation (Sarf) context and in 1972, at age 20, was invited to the Sarf (Proteas) trials in Cape Town. He got his first cap that year when he was selected to represent the Proteas against the visiting English team. Over the next few years he cemented his position in the Proteas side in ‘Tests’ against the Leopards of the South African Rugby Association (Sara).
It was just a matter of time before he was called up for higher honours. Having played against Willie-John McBride’s British Lions in 1974, he was invited to play in a rugby festival in Brisbane. He left for Australia in 1975 and was accompanied by Moaner van Heerden, the burley South African lock. While in Brisbane, he impressed the executives of the West Club so much that they offered him an opportunity to stay there and play for their club. This was very tempting since his good friend Green Vigo had left South Africa to play professional rugby league in Britain just a few years earlier.
The West Club offered Noble a full-time job and accommodation, but he was advised by South African Rugby Board president Dr Danie Craven and Cuthbert Loriston, the president of Sarf, not to accept it as he was destined to be selected for the Springboks upon his return from Australia. He believed this would be the case and turned down the offer, only to be disappointed when he was instead selected for an SA Invitational XV on his return later that year.
The disappointment was huge, especially as he was later told the plans to select him for the Boks were thwarted by the then minister of sport, Piet Koornhof, who refused to approve the selection of a multiracial Springbok side and insisted it be called an SA Invitational XV.
However, Noble still made history when he became the first non-white rugby player (in a multiracial team) to score a try against a foreign team on South African soil. Also in the team against the French tourists were Turkey Shields, Morgan Cushe and Toto Tsotsobe. He describes the try he scored that day as the proudest moment of his rugby career.
‘I will never forget the cheering of the crowd and the excitement I felt when my teammates congratulated me – it was unbelievable,’ he says.
The following year he was selected for another Invitational XV, which played against the visiting All Blacks, and played for the WP Federation against the visiting British Lions at the Danie Craven Stadium in Stellenbosch in 1980, his final year of representative rugby.
Noble rates Vigo, his former Proteas teammate, as one of the best centres he played with and against, and fondly recalls his tussles with JJ Williams (1974 British Lions) and Grant Batty (1976 All Blacks).Other local players he believes would have played for South Africa if the doors of rugby had opened earlier, were Charles Williams and Hennie Shields (both Proteas centres), as well as Hennie Roos, the tall, lanky centre from Franschhoek.
LIFE AFTER RUGBY
When Noble retired from representative rugby he qualified as a barrel maker and later worked in the taxi industry for 15 years. He went to adult night school and obtained his matric. He now works as an office salesman for First Car Rental in Stellenbosch.
Noble is still involved with rugby and serves as adviser for the Excelsior Rugby Club that plays in the Simonsberg region of the WPRU.
‘There are too many laws in the modern game, which limit and constrain the freedom that is necessary for the game to thrive,’ he says. ‘Over-regulation is killing the game and World Rugby needs to do something.’
Noble talks with admiration and respect about his family’s rugby prowess. George laid the foundation for him, his brothers George, Aubrey and Christie (who all played for the Proteas), Aubrey’s sons Howard and Dusty (who played for the Sharks in the early-2000s) and JP Pietersen, his sister Renelle’s son.
John says that even during the tumultuous 1970s, he just wanted to play rugby and be the best he could be. He never bothered about the politics in the game, or which of Saru or Sarf was right or wrong. For him it was always about showcasing his talent and to play for the Springboks.
Sadly, it was one goal that eluded him.
– This article first appeared in the June 2017 edition of SA Rugby magazine