If asked to name the most illustrious three-quarter line from one club or country, northern hemisphere rugby historians are most likely to name the Oxford University and Scotland three-quarter line of the 1920s – Ian Smith and the Australian AC ‘Johnnie’ Wallace on the wings with GPS ‘Phil’ Macpherson and the New Zealand All Black George Aitken in the centre. Although they never played together in a varsity match against Cambridge University, they formed the first-choice three-quarter line in Scotland’s Grand Slam winning matches in 1925.
Southern hemisphere historians however are much more likely to nominate “The Thin Red Line”, the Stellenbosch and Western Province three-quarter line which formed the heart of the South African backline on their first tour of the United Kingdom and France in 1906-07. Bob Loubser on the right wing, Japie Krige at right centre, HA ‘Boy’ De Villiers at left centre and Anton Stegmann on the left wing formed one of the great combinations and the four players scored 52 tries between them on the 29-match tour.
Japie Krige is still regarded as one of the greatest centres in Springbok rugby history. An exceptionally elusive and intuitive player, only 5 foot 4 inches in height but extremely fast, he played for Western Province in their Currie Cup win in 1898 at the age of nineteen and was in their Currie Cup winning side ten years later. He played his first test for the Springboks against the touring British Isles side in 1903 and was joined in the third and final test by the nineteen-year old Stellenbosch speedster Bob Loubser on the right wing.
The pair played together in the first three internationals on the 1906 tour of the UK until Krige was hospitalised with appendicitis and missed the England international and the remaining tour matches. Their instinctive combination was fully revealed in the match against Ireland in which Loubser scored two tries and Krige scored his only test try in a narrow 15-12 victory. A week later in front of 40,000 spectators at Swansea, they played superbly in the international against Wales when the conquerors of the 1905 All Blacks were convincingly defeated 11-0 with Loubser scoring another test try.
In his historic book of the Springboks tour, the Transvaal journalist EJL Platnauer summed up Krige’s play in the Welsh match:
“If there was one man more than another in the three-quarter line who deserves special mention it is Krige. He was everywhere, and he had evidently made up his mind to stop the Welsh backs from doing any of that deadly passing for which they hold a cherished reputation.”
Bob Loubser scored 24 tries in his 21 matches on tour, still a South Africa record for most tries by a player on tour, and he established a benchmark of excellence for all future Springbok wingers. In 1910 he moved to work in the Witwatersrand mines in the Transvaal and he made his two final test appearances against the British Isles in 1910 as a Transvaal player.
Boy De Villiers and Anton Stegmann on the other wing were less overtly praised but hardly less effective. The long striding Stegmann scored 18 tries on the tour including a vital last minute try in the defeat of Ireland in his second and final test. Unluckily, a strained leg muscle ruled him out of the matches against Wales and England. De Villiers was a powerful runner and a deadly tackler whose superb handling created numerous chances for his wingers. He played 18 matches on tour and only missed the international match against Ireland. Both players played their only internationals for the Springboks on this tour.
Ironically, the only international in which the quartet played as a combination on tour was in the 6-0 defeat to Scotland. Throughout the tour spectators were thrilled by the speed and accuracy with which the ball was passed down the Springbok backline with so few passes dropped, a testament to the innate athleticism of all four players.
Stellenbosch College became a university in 1916 and the Stellenbosch Rugby Club in their dark red jerseys exerted a major influence on the development of South African rugby for many years. In his summary of the 1906-07 tour, Platnauer relayed the comments of an English critic on “The Thin Red Line”:
“They were great at half, three-quarters, and at full back. Surely the famous Stellenbosch line – Loubser, Krige, De Villiers and Stegmann – for all-round ability have never been surpassed. Have they been equalled?”
- The Carolin Papers – Laubscher & Nieman (Rugbyana Publishers, Pretoria 1990)
- Met die Maties op die Rugbyveld 1880-1955 – Craven & Jordaan (Nasionale Boekhandel Beperk 1955)
- My Recollections and Reminiscences – WA Millar (Juta & Co Ltd, SA 1926)
- Seasons of Glory – Chris Schoeman (CJS Rugby Books – 2nd edition 2006)
- The Springbokken Tour in Great Britain – EJL Platnauer (Wunderlich, Johannesburg 1907)
- The Springboks History of the Tour 1906-7 – F Neville Piggott (The Cricket Press, London 1907)
- Western Province Rugby Centenary 1883-1983 – AC Parker (WPRFU 1883)
About the Author – A professional musician and arts administrator, Richard Steele has had a life-long love of sport. He has been on the committee of the World Rugby Museum at Twickenham since 2005.