Initially, he was known as the son of 1937 Bok legend Mauritz van den Berg, and it used to irk him a wee bit. By the time he permanently exchanged his boots for a stethoscope, in 1976, Dr Derek van den Berg had, however, established himself as a Springbok, and Natal legend, in his own right...
Back in the hippie-era of the early Seventies, this Edendale house doctor was easily recognisable on the rugby track - courtesy of his rock star look. Now, 40 years on and having turned 70 on January 2 this year, he might have shed the locks of hair down to his shoulder blades, as well as the droopy moustache and sideburns, yet Derek Sean van den Berg is still in great nick and still practicing medicine down in the Cape!
We caught up with the rather rangy (1.88m) former tighthead prop, who could also lock the scrum when needed, to reminisce about his 45-cap career for Natal that stretched from 1971 to 1975, and which saw him gain Springbok selection in four tests for South Africa during the mid-Seventies.
Your dad, Mauritz van den Berg, who, for the uninitiated, was a star member of Philip Nel's 1937 Springbok team, the only Bok outfit to ever win a series against the All Blacks on New Zealand soil, pasted away barely two years after you had been born. Was his legacy a major inspiration?
Maybe even more so, because he had passed on it certainly was a factor. At one stage, when I was still working my way up in the Western province ranks, it used to irritate me sometimes when people referred to me not as Derek van den Berg but as "Mauritz's son"... At that stage, I guess, I was a bit hypersensitive! What happened was, after the Second World War, Dad had became too old and quit rugby.
The following year, in 1946. he was asked by a few friends to play in a water polo match, but Dad turned them down because he had the flu. However, they persuaded him to play one chukka only, and, of course he ended up playing four chukkas! And, a couple of days later he was busy offloading machinery at his ice-cream factory in Cape Town, when one of the machines threatened to fall off the truck and Dad had to hold it up with his body weight until it could be secured.
The next day he went to the bank and collapsed in the bank manager's office, having suffered a lethal heart attack. He was only 38 at the time.
An interesting story about Dad is the fact that he suffered from Osteitis as a child. This was during the pre-antibiotic days, and he was told that he couldn't participate in contact sports like rugby. He had to swim. So, he swam and ended up swimming for WP
But, one of the places where he used to sell ice-cream as a youngster was at Newlands, and one day, when he was 21, be thought by himself: "I can play this game..."
So, he joined Gardens Rugby Club and six years later, gained selection to go on the 1937 Springbok tour of Australia and New Zealand!
In my career, I played lock initially, but on an overseas tour with UCT in 1968 I was asked if I could help out at tighthead against Cardiff at the old Arms park. My opposite number was Howie Norris, who had represented both Wales and the British & Irish Lions. We had a good tussle and ofterwards he came to me and said: "My boy, stay at tighthead..."
And, six years later, I gained selection to go an the 1974 Springbok tour of France...
Rondebosch High, basically just across the street from Newlands, have produced 21 Springboks, including the Osler and McCallum brothers, as well as Joel Stransky... What an impact did Rondebosch have an you?
Roy McCallum and I played together as schoolboys. Rondebosch provided a good grounding. We had some good coaches and the whole setup was geared around rugby. We lived close to school and I spent most afternoons on the fields playing touch with the boarders.
Anyone in particular who played a major role in your rugby development?
Dr Cecil Moss (Springbok wing 1949, Springbok coach 1982-89) was a huge influence at UCT. Doc Moss was way ahead of his time, concentrating on physical fitness and skills, and he also was a great motivator; we all played for him. At 91, he's the oldest living Springbok but still bright as a new penny, and all his old players see him on a regular basis. Up in Natal, Izak van Heerden, Jimmy de Jager, Frans de Beer and Prof Peter Booysen all played a role..
Your provincial debut was for WP in1968 right?
Yeah. against the 1968 British & Irish Lions at Newlands! We had a host of Springboks in that Province side, including HO de Villiers, Gertjie Brynard, Eben Olivier, Jannnie Engelbrecht, Tiny Neethling, Andrew Janson and Tiny Naude, and gave the Lions a good run for their money. The final score was 10-6 to the Lions. Back then, one would play for UCT adainst say Hamiltons or Villagers, all with a host of current Boks in their midst. Then, the next week you might be chosen for WP and play with them... For a youngster it was grain to measure yourself against the Boks in club rugby. Nowadays, however there is a gap and the average club player seldom if ever gets an opportunity to play against Springboks or Super Rugby players.
And in 1971, you ended up in Tom Bedford's "Last Outpost"...
I qualified as a doctor at the end of 1970 and landed a job at Edendale in Pietermaritzburg with a whole bunch of other medical students who also played rugby, and we all joined Maritzburg Collegians
Club rugby certainly was a whole different ball game back in '70s, wasn't it...
There was great competition amongst the clubs, with very few easy games. The epic confrontations were with Durban Collegians; wonderful contests and hard as anything! Club rugby was all about good rugby and a lot of fellowship...
As a medical doctor, playing rugby for Natal required a lot of sacrifice, didn't it?
It did. At last, the powers that be have now realized that interns cant work for 30-hour stretches, but we did. I was lucky to have medical mates who would stand in for me, especially for away games in Jo'burg or Cape Town, but when I returned on the Sunday I had to head straight back to work to pay them back. It was quite taxing. But if you wanted to play you had to do it, and I wasn't the only one...
What were your highlights with Natal?
Contrary to popular belief, Natal had some pretty potent packs in the early Seventies, with guys like Toy Dannheuser, Martin Jansen van Rensburg, Bobby Botha and Klippies Kritzinger in the mix. I remember one occasion against Northern Transvaal at Loftus in 1973 when Piet Lodder, who stood in as captain for Tommy Bedford, who was injured, told us that the last thing the Blue Bulls would expect was for us to take them on up front. And, that's exactly what we did and we beat them. We had a couple of amazing victories that year like the 22-21 win against Transvaal at Ellis Park, when we scored 18 points in the final seven minutes! We might not have won the Currie Cup back then, but we were always competitive and teams like Northerns and Transvaal were always worried about our 'tricks'...
In 1974, you emulated your father by becoming a Springbok. Was that a life-long dream of yours?
It was. I saw my test debut as a tribute to my late father. But my test debut only came the following year, in 1975. On the 1974 tour to France, the selectors hung on to all the old men, like Hannes Marais and Jan Ellis, for the tests, but in 1975 the new guys that came in showed that we could beat the French quite comfortably at home.
Yes, indeed, you celebrated your test debut with a 38-25 win against France in Bloemfontein...
It's common that one doesn't remember a helluva lot and that your debut goes past in a blur. It was nevertheless a great moment, representing one's country in front of such a massive crowd (65,000 spectators).
The highlight of your international career must've been beating the All Blacks in Durban in 1976 - and that at your old homeground at KINGS PARK to boot?
Yeah, it was a great contest and nice to win (16-7) in front of one's home crowd. We actually played very well that day, but the second test was a different story. I'm not sure why, but we lost, the selectors made a few changes and that was basically the end of my career...