Whenever rugby fans talk about the heaviest and biggest Springbok of all time, invariably the name of Tommy Gentles will be mentioned as the “Shortest Springbok” ever.
At 1.61m, Gentles certainly was no giant, and at 61kg, he was a lightweight, but he was a gutsy player who always performed on the field with a huge heart.
Gentles was born 30th April, 1934 and represented Western Province. He died on 29th June, 2011 at the age of 77.
At only 21 years of age, he was selected as scrumhalf for the first Test against the British Lions in August, 1955 and it was his finger on the ball when fullback Jack van der Schyff missed that vital last-minute conversion which would have given the Springboks a one-point victory against the visitors.
Instead, South Africa lost 22-23, Van der Schyff was banished from the team, never to reappear, and the Boks had to fight to retain their unbeaten record in a series in the 20th century. This they managed to do in the fourth and final Test at Port Elizabeth.
Gentles played in three Tests in 1955 and then toured Australia and New Zealand the following year.
His great rival at scrumhalf, Coenraad “Popeye” Strydom, was preferred for the two Tests against Australia and the first (lost) Test against the All Blacks, and Gentles returned for the second and third All Black Tests. The Wellington match was won but the third Test at Christchurch was lost 10-17 and Strydom returned for the fourth at Auckland.
Gentles’ last international was against the touring French side in 1958 at Ellis Park which was lost 5-9. The visitors broke the Springboks’ record when they won the series 1-0 with one match drawn.
Gentles played six Tests altogether (won three, lost three). During the 1956 tour he played 14 matches and scored three tries, a total of nine points.
He was also an above average golfer and as a youngster he was a useful cricketer who represented Western Province Schools at the 1951 Nuffield Week.
- Peter Martin