In the seventh instalment of a series on black rugby legends, GARY BOSHOFF looks back at the career of former SARU scrumhalf Ronnie Korkee.
Ronnie Korkee was one of the fittest rugby players of his generation. In fact, when you look at his physique today, at 60, you’d better believe he is as fit as most of the players he coaches at Gardens Rugby Club.
Korkee was born in 1957 in Willowmore, a small Karoo town about 170km north of George. His father, James Nicolaai, came to Willowmore to teach at the primary school. He studied at Dower Teachers Training College in Port Elizabeth, an institution that had a very strong rugby culture. Nicolaai played scrumhalf and centre for Dower College. He was one of five brothers who loved the game and played club rugby during that period. Ronnie’s mother, Annie Korkee, was an active netball player for the local club, but never excelled in the sport.
When his parents’ marriage broke down, Annie relocated to Uitenhage in 1963, in pursuit of a better life. At age six, Ronnie started his school life at Jubilee Primary, where Roderick Jonkers, the former Eastern Province and Saru hooker, was a teacher. Needless to say, Ronnie was quite taken by his role-model teacher.
‘Even though I was quite small during my primary school years and played in the under-32kg side for the school, Mr Jonkers saw my raw talent and encouraged me to play the game,’ he says with a smile.
Korkee continued his development in the sport when he attended Uitenhage High, another school known for its impressive rugby culture. There, under the tutelage of Frank Wicombe, a former Eastern Province scrumhalf, Korkee’s skills as a scrumhalf were honed.
‘In addition to playing rugby, I was also a provincial athlete and represented EP High Schools in the 800m, 200m and 100m sprints,’ he says proudly.
Korkee even took part in cross-country running and made the EP 8km team when he was in Grade 11. It therefore came as no surprise when he was selected for EP High Schools (Sacos) in 1974 and 1975.
In his matric year he joined the local rugby club, Gardens RFC, which marked the start of a lifetime association with the club. In fact, it was in his first year of senior club rugby that he had his first taste of interprovincial senior rugby when he was selected to play for the Uitenhage and Districts team in a friendly against the visiting Western Province team of Salie Fredericks and Cassiem Jabaar.
‘I was completely overawed by the fact I got to play against those famous players in my very first outing for Uitenhage and Districts,’ he recalls. During those early years he had the privilege of partnering with another former EP flyhalf, Gert Witbooi.
The story of Korkee got all the more interesting after he started his association with the University of the Western Cape in 1976. He registered for a degree in theology with the intention of becoming a pastor. After he wasn’t selected for the UWC 1st XV, Korkee and his friend Eric Sauls (who also achieved Saru colours, in 1986) decided to join the neighbouring Peninsula Technikon Rugby Club. That same year, PenTech beat the University of the Western Cape (UWC) for the first time, thanks to the brilliance of the two former EP schools players. Needless to say, the UWC top brass wooed them back and in 1977 they were in the starting lineup of the 1st XV.
That same year Korkee was selected for the Tygerberg Rugby Union but played mostly off the bench behind Saru scrumhalf Julian Smith. Korkee got his big chance the following year when he received his first provincial cap for Tygerberg, against the Gugulethu-based Western Province Board. During his time at UWC (and Tygerberg Rugby Union) he shared the field with many famous players from the non-racial fold, including Clive Thomas, Peter Jooste, Timothy Foster, Daniel ‘Spokie’ September and Jacobus Jepoza.
Korkee lists many career highlights, including winning the SA Cup against Somerset Board in 1982 and being selected for the national team (Saru) in 1984. But he singles out the winning try he scored against Tigers RFC in 1979 after he and Gilbert Read ran the ball from their in-goal area.
This remarkable rugby player achieved all these milestones during a period of social upheaval at UWC, where he was a member of a revolutionary Student Representative Council. During those tumultuous years Korkee was incarcerated by the security police for six months because of his involvement with the student uprising. During his time in detention he was tortured, and was released only after word got out that he was being imprisoned without trial.
However, none of these setbacks could deter the battle-hardened scrumhalf as he became one of the most revered players in the Tygerberg Union and Saru. He continued to play representative rugby for many years and eventually retired when he was 37.
LIFE AFTER RUGBY
Korkee has dedicated himself to serving his community and his club, as an administrator and a coach of note. He has been teaching business studies at the high school for the past 26 years and served as treasurer of Gardens RFC for the past 29 years.
Today, he is one of the senior coaches at the club and in 2016 coached them to the EP Premier League title. Since retiring as a player he has coached at many levels of the game, including EP Craven Week, EP Academy Week, SA Schools, EP U21, EP Amateurs and SA Amateurs.
‘Rugby has always been a part of my life. I cannot do without it; it is me,’ he says, almost philosophically.
Korkee is married to Moira and they have two sons and a daughter. Both his sons played rugby, with his namesake representing EP Schools at scrumhalf. However, after a number of unfortunate injuries he called it quits.
Korkee is planning on completing his Level 3 coaching qualification with SA Rugby and hopes to take his beloved Gardens RFC to even higher levels in the Eastern Cape and possibly nationally.
It is dedicated and community-focused coaches and administrators like Korkee who are the real custodians of the game.
Today, as we celebrate his achievements, he continues to contribute to rugby and society at large by changing the lives of young rugby players in Uitenhage and the Eastern Cape as a whole.
– This article first appeared in the September 2017 issue of SA Rugby magazine