Boy Louw: Springbok archetype who lived a full rugby life

Boks won't pick A side and B side (1:38)

Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus talks about the importance of his team's coming Tests against Wales and England. (1:38)

There is a risk of categorising Boy Louw, who died 30 years ago on May 3 1988, as a comedy act. That outstanding chronicler of the South African game, Paul Dobson, recorded that "nobody in South Africa generated so much rugby mirth."

But it is worth remembering that Boy's famous reported manglings of the English language -- telling a shop girl that no, he would take the soap he had bought with him when asked "do you want it scented?" and warning the 1931-32 Boks that they must beat Wales for reserve wing Dai Owen Williams "because his father was a whale" -- were, as an Afrikaaner, in his second language.

And the one thing much more mangled that the English language was anyone who had the misfortune to oppose him directly during a decade-long, 18-Test career. Much more than an inadvertent joker, he was the archetype -- tough, smart and abrasive -- of the formidable forwards who so often made South Africa the strongest team in the world.

If any single quote speaks for him it is the one most cited in his native country -- complete with his trademark addition of an 's' to English verbs -- "looks at the scoreboard", a soundbite perfectly expressing the creed of the rugby pragmatist through the ages.

A total of 18 matches is not much nowadays, but they were enough when he accumulated them between 1928 and 1938 to make him the all-time Springbok record holder, a distinction he held until overtaken by lock Salty du Rand in 1956.

And there was a beautiful symmetry to his career, encompassing home (1928) and away (1937) series against the All Blacks, home (1933) and away (1937) against Australia, a visit to Britain and Ireland in 1931-32 and a visit from the Lions in 1938. The 1930s were arguably South Africa's greatest era, beating all four home nations on their own grounds and winning every series, reaching a peak as 'the greatest team ever to leave New Zealand' in 1937.

Recalled by Chris Greyvenstein as "a man of enormous physical strength," the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Louw stares fixedly out of team photos as though carved from a particularly unyielding piece of teak. He was, mostly, a prop, and more often than not a loosehead. But the Boks always felt safe in switching him to tighthead, particularly if his brother Fanie, a teammate in 11 of those 18 Tests, was also playing.

But he was versatile even by the standards of an era in which forwards were less specialised than now. The positions he played in five consecutive matches against Australia, split between the five-Test marathon at home in 1933 and the visit which preceded the famed series in New Zealand in 1937, speak for themselves -- lock, prop, flanker, flanker and No. 8.

The observant will notice that only one forward position is missing from that sequence -- hooker. True, none of his caps was won in the middle of the front row, but he filled in four times for Jan Lotz, the only specialist hooker in the party, in provincial games during the 1937 tour.

Matthys Michael Louw, as he was christened in 1906, came from one of those giant rugby clans which are something of a South African speciality. His uncle Japie played in the first ever Bok team against the 1891 Lions, and Boy was one of 14 children.

All nine of the boys who reached adulthood played senior rugby, four reached provincial level and two, Boy and Fanie, became Boks. A third, Japie, was seen as a serious candidate for the 1937 tour of New Zealand before he drowned at Port Elizabeth while on tour with Transvaal a year earlier. Fanie too was to die young, collapsing after a match at Ellis Park in 1940.

Boy made his debut for Western Province, between the wars the dominant force in Currie Cup competition, as a teenage schoolboy against Cove-Smith's Lions in 1924, and graduated to the Boks -- initially as a lock -- in the second half of the 1928 series against the visiting All Blacks. With that other South African archetype, the siege-gun kicker Gerrie Brand, he was a fixture for the next 10 years.

He was dropped only once, amid a spectacularly shambolic selection for the first Test against the All Blacks in 1937. Selection was wholly in the hands of five senior players, including Louw himself. It was a rare misjudgment on his part. He was, as that ability to play multiple positions shows, much more than a simple force of nature.

As Dobson wrote "Nobody in South Africa took rugby more seriously," while Greyvenstein reckoned him to have "an instinctive flair for the game and he understood the details down to the most minute details." An agency report on his retirement called him "a keen student of tactics, and he had much to do with the methods adopted by South African packs in recent years."

South African writer Maxwell Price recalled from days as a schoolboy spectator at Newlands the skills, way beyond those usually expected of tight forwards, displayed by Boy in matches for his club, Gardens.

After signalling for the ball from a lineout, "Up Boy would go to meet the ball, turn as he took it and bamboozle the opposition tight for a moment, and then having brought in the loose men on the other side, throw out a pass not to his scrum-half, but straight to his fly-half."

He played under some of the most formidable leaders in South African rugby history -- Phil Mostert, Bennie Osler, Phil Nel and Danie Craven -- but had a strong sense of his own role. We don't know which of them he told "You make the speeches, I'll lead the pack," but at 25 he had the strength of mind to stand up to the bombastically dictatorial Osler. At a windswept Murrayfield in 1932 he vetoed his call for the ball to be moved: "Nonsense with you, Bennie, we're keeping it up front."

"Boy was a coach we were prepared to die for." John Gainsford

Less appealingly, he was also the 'enforcer' for ruthlessly physical teams. The great New Zealand writer Terry McLean clearly never forgave him for the blow inflicted on All Black flanker Jack Rankin -- who suffered from memory lapses for the rest of his life -- in the second Test in 1937, writing that "Louw is still revered in South Africa as one of the great prop forwards, but it is sad that he inflicted a life injury on an opponent in what was supposed to be a sporting affair."

Louw played his last match, for the former pupils of Paarl High School, in October 1938. He had always carried a rule book around with him as a player and moved into refereeing to such effect that within a year he was taking charge of the first ever Currie Cup final -- the tournament had previously been played on a league basis -- in spite of the fact that one team was his own, Western Province and the other, Transvaal, was captained by his brother Fanie.

South African rugby, particularly on the Afrikaaner side, was torn by the Second World War. But Boy joined up and served in North Africa and Italy as a bombardier, devoting any free time to organising hard-fought matches between South African servicemen and their New Zealand counterparts. It meant that when he famously told the 1949 Springboks "When you play rugby against New Zealand, consider yourself at war," he was speaking -- unlike all too many people who loosely bandy such comparisons -- with recent first-hand knowledge of the real thing.

Knee injuries cut short his refereeing career, but he made an impact as a coach -- first at the University of Cape Town -- and eventually as assistant manager, the thin disguise in which the amateur era wrapped coaches, of two touring Springbok teams.

The first, led by Avril Malan to Britain, Ireland and France in 1960-61, steamrollered the home nations with forward power, flanker Doug Hopwood undoing Wales with blindside moves devised by Louw. Centre John Gainsford called him "a coach we were prepared to die for."

The second, a short tour of Ireland and Scotland in 1965, was less successful. It was also led by Malan after Hopwood was vetoed as leader amid the political manoeuvrings endemic to the South African game, and saw the end of South Africa's 59-year unbeaten run against the four Home Nations as both Tests and the matches against Irish Universities and Scottish Districts were lost.

He remained an active Western Province official into the 1980s and his most famous quotes remain a part of the game's occasional currency -- deployed in 2011 in snide press comment on the language skills of Springbok coach Pieter de Villiers, an Afrikaans-speaker born in Louw's home town, Paarl.

Louw was a true rugby lifer, with a life to which few can compare.