EVEN AFTER his debut season for Rhodesia in 1956; at the age of twenty one. Bulawayo's Ronnie Hill was being singled out as a future Springbok rugby hooker When Attie Botha's Rhodesian team arrived back from its Currie Cup tour to South Africa that year, manager Fred Jamieson was particularly full of praise for three forwards — Ed Brophy, Des van Jaarsveldt and Hill, of whom he said "Springbok selector Jan Lotz was most impressed and said he had quite a future He will be keeping his eye on Hill."
Four seasons later, in 1960, the shrewd Lotz had cause to remember his words of wisdom as he and fellow Springbok selector Maurice Zimmerman watched Hill — in his first international for Rhodesia — play two brilliant games at Kitwe and Salisbury against Wilson Whineray's All Blacks.
Rhodesia lost 9-13 and 14-29 but after the Salisbury match, A C. Parker, the doyen of South African rugby writers, wrote: "What they saw of Ronnie Hill's hooking should have convinced the two national selectors in the record crowd of 23 000 that the Bulawayo man should be a certainty for the 1960-61 tour to Britain."
Giving a New Zealand viewpoint, Terry McLean wrote: "Thanks very largely to Ronnie Hill's brilliant hooking and the excellent lineout play of De Klerk, Roebert and Macdonald the All Blacks found the glories of Glamis Stadium to be like Mark Twain's death — grossly exaggerated for most of the first half. Had not the Rhodesian physical condition quite suddenly given out, the All Blacks might, in fact, have left the field both sadder and wiser men. What a devil of a time the Rhodesians gave the All Blacks until the crisis had been reached. Hill is an uncannily brilliant hooker . .."
Rhodesia had not been able to emulate those wonderful matches of 1949 when John Morkels team beat the All Blacks 10-8 at Bulawayo and then drew 3-3 at Salisbury, but the 1960 men did, through their adventurous style, have the satisfaction of crossing the New Zealanders' line twice.
At the conclusion of their long tour, the All Blacks rated Hill as the best hooker they had met and the Rhodesian was duly selected to accompany Avril Malan's Springboks on their tour of the British Isles and France during the off-season (1960-61). Hill was chosen as understudy to Abe Malan, but played with telling effect in two internationals when Malan was sidelined with a knee injury.
The Springboks on tour were: Lionel Wilson, Gideon Wentzel, Michael Antelme. Hennie van Zyl, Jannie Engelbrecht, Francois Roux, Ian Kirkpatrick,John Gainsford. Ben van Niekerk. David Stewart, Keith Oxlee, Charlie Nimb, Dick Lockyear, Piet Uys, Piet du Toit. Fanie Kuhn, Doug Holton, Mof Myburgh, Abe Malan, Ronnie Hill, Johann Claassen, Avril Malan (capt), Hendrik van der Merwe, Piet van Zyl, Hugo van Zyl, Martin Pelser, Frik du Preez, Johannes Botha, Doug Hopwood and Adriaan Baard. Hooker Bobby Johns was a tour addition when Malan was injured.
Beaten only once — 6-0 by the Barbarians — in thirty-four arduous matches, this was among the most formidable Springbok teams of all time, despite having to contend with atrocious weather conditions in most centres. It was the worst winter in British rugby history, but despite this and an insidious Press campaign against them, the Springbok morale was never broken.
Hill wore the Springbok green and gold for the first time in the opening fixture of the tour against Southern Counties, which was won 29-9. It was shortly before the first international against Wales at the famous Cardiff Arms Park that Abe Malan injured his knee, though Springbok worries were allayed when Hill turned in a rattling good game against North Western Counties, both in and out of the scrum. He was up to score a try and handed on to Hopwood for another. The tourists won 11-0 and such was the superiority of their pack and the quality of Hill's hooking that they took the tighthead count by more than a dozen.
Thus Ronnie Hill was chosen to make his Springbok Test debut on 3 December 1960 against Wales when he was to oppose the Newport hooker Bryn Meredith, the formidable 1959 British Lion who was making his twenty-seventh appearance for Wales. But the joy of playing an international at Cardiff Arms Park was dampened by the weather. Maxwell Price reporting: "The match was played in terrible conditions with the famous field waterlogged and a sixty-mile-an-hour gale roaring downfield from the Bristol Channel... Cardiff Arms Park was unfit for habitation by man or beast"
South Africa eked out a 3-0 victory through a Keith Oxlee penalty and were deserving winners to retain an unblemished record against Wales in matches stretching back to 1906.
Maxwell Price, in his book Springboks in the Lion's Den wrote: "Ronnie Hill, hooking in his first international, was in great form. He took more tightheads than Meredith (7-3) and was a great held (hero) in mauls and loose play."
With Malan still not fit. Hill was again called to duty for the second international against Ireland at Landsdowne Road on 17 December — a match so memorable for the stirring battle of the Irish forwards. For the first time, the Springboks really encountered tough opposition in the pack, and a crowd of more than 35 000 watched the match in ideal Dublin conditions.
The Springboks lagged 3-0 at half-time through a penalty, but came back to 3-3 with a desperate try by Gainsford, only managing an 8-3 victory with a pushover try in injury time. Said E. W. Swanton of the Doily Telegraph: "No side that leads for a bare ninety seconds of a game and wins can be other than lucky in the result. Providence was with them."
Hill was replaced by Malan for the final three internationals against England. Scotland and France and did not play in the only tour loss to the Barbarians. Thus in sixteen games for the Springboks on tour, the Rhodesian was never on the losing side. He excelled in both the set and loose scrums and also went on an
unusual try-scoring spree. Having surprisingly scored only once for Rhodesia in a long career spanning nine seasons Hill ended up with six tries for the Springboks — then a record for the most points by a Springbok hooker on an overseas tour.
With Hill's selection for that tour there was a touch of melancholy. Earlier in the season Rhodesian captain Des van Jaarsveldt had led the Springboks in the solitary home Test against Scotland and the selection of two Rhodesians for Springbok sides in one season had been a repeat of 1949 when Salty du Rand and Ryk van Schoor played together, though they were not Rhodesian-bred like Hill and van Jaarsveldt.
But for van Jaarsveldt that one Test was to be his lot and, typical of his unselfishness, Hill's first comment on hearing of his own selection to tour Britain was: "I'm so sorry Des didn't make it. He is a great player to have alongside you on the field "
Hill went on to play five more Tests for South Africa for a final tally of seven internationals. As the quickest striker in Southern Africa in 1961 he became the Springboks' number one choice for the home internationals against Ireland and Australia. Against Ireland the NewlandsTest was won handsomely 24-8. while the Wallabies were beaten 28-3 at Ellis Park and 23-11 at the Boet Erasmus Stadium at Port Elizabeth.
The Rhodesian lost his place the following year, but was recalled for the fourth and final Test against the 1962 British Lions under the captaincy of Arthur Smith. That Test at Bloemfontein was won 34-14 and it was only when again recalled for the first Test against John Thornett's 1963 Wallabies at Ellis Park that Hill played in a losing Springbok team for the first and only time, the match being lost 9-11.
Ronald Andrew Hill was born at Johannesburg on 20 December 1934 and went to Bulawayo with his parents at the age of three, attending Milton Junior and the Technical High School. It was as a flank that he played for Matabeleland under 19s in 1950 and Rhodesian Schools in 1950-51 before Bulawayo coach 'Bucky' Buchanan persuaded him to switch to hooker. He made his debut for Old Miltonians in 1952 and remained loyal to his club throughout his career.
It was in 1956 that Hill made his debut for the Rhodesian senior side, going with Attie Botha's team on a four-match tour of South Africa. The Currie Cup match against Transvaal was lost 3-18 but in the following friendly against the same province, Rhodesia won 25-11 at Krugersdorp, when Hill scored the only try of his career for the country. Eastern Transvaal were beaten 21-6, but Rhodesia went down 0-11 to Northern Transvaal on a tour that was the swan song for big lock forward John 'Ox' Barritt, who had earned his first cap in 1947.
In 1957 Hill was propped in the scrum on tour in South Africa by the powerful Andy Macdonald and Reg Stewart with Piet de Klerk and Graham Roebert. two outstanding locks and line-out jumpers. It was the year that Rhodesia had a gilt edged wing in Springbok Tom van Vollenhoven and they convincingly beat both Griquas (15-5) and North Eastern Districts (17-3) before losing 11-16 to Transvaal with a disputed try.
Although he missed the 1958 international for Rhodesia against France, Hill continued to emphasise his immense talent as a hooker, seizing his chance to impress the Springbok selectors in the two matches for Rhodesia against the All Blacks in 1960, the visitors including such famed names as Don Clarke and Colin
In 1961 Rhodesia shaped up to Ronnie Dawson's Irish tourists at Glamis. They outclassed the home team 24-0 though Ronnie Hill and Macdonald played creditably. Hill was injured just before Rhodesia's 1962 match against the British Lions and was replaced by Noel Dollar of Midlands in his only national appearance.
Hill captained Rhodesia against the 1963 Wallabies in the opening encounter at Kitwe and his team were well motivated, storming to an 11-6 lead. But the Wallabies hauled back to 11 -all at half-time and went on to win 22-11, though Hill took the tighthead count 10-7. However, the classy hooker injured a calf muscle
during the game and was out of the return match against the Aussies at Salisbury, being replaced by Charlie de Kock in a match lost 5-12 by Rhodesia.
The 1964 tour to South Africa, when Andy Macdonald was entrusted with the captaincy, again saw some incredible performances by Hill, who received magnificent support from Macdonald and Willie van der Merwe. Hill won the tighthead count 19-1 against Border and in the other three games raked back 32 balls against the head without reply — an incredible tour tally of 51 -1. It was also in 1964 that Michel Crauste's Frenchmen proved too potent for Rhodesia, winning 34-11, though again Hill was brilliant in taking 10 tighthead heels without reply, while flanker Piet Greyling — later to become Springbok captain when living in South Africa — was also outstanding.
Greyling left for South Africa before the start of the 1965 season, while Hill retired at the same time after a cartilage operation on his left knee. He was thirty and happily took his family away on holiday for the first time in nine years. He had played rugby to the exclusion of all else — "I even cut short my honeymoon to play rugby," he recalled.
He had played seven internationals for the Springboks, five for Rhodesia and had also been honoured with games for the South African Barbarians, Quaggas and Rugby Writers' XV. Indeed, it was a proud career that enriched Rhodesian rugby greatly.
Completing the story of the sporting Hill family, Ronnie's wife Joan, gained her national swimmijig colours in 1950. Jo-Anne their eldest daughter swam backstroke for Rhodesia for three years, Debbie their second daughter became national diving champion, won a sports scholarship to an American university and
represented Zimbabwe in the 1980 Olympic Games, while Sarah-Jane their third child represented Rhodesia at synchronised swimming for four years and is, as far as is known, the youngest individual to have represented this country in a sport.