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The Fearless Opponent

Copyright © The Author, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In pubs and cafes where sports fans meet to discuss the matches and players of the day an often heard comment about a rugby player is that I would rather have him on my side then have to play against him. In 1896 the name of Tommy Crean would have doubtless been mentioned at such gatherings.

To give him his full name, Thomas Joseph Crean, was a rare character of whom many tales are still told about to this day. He came out to South Africa as a member of the second British Isles Touring side in 1896. Prior to his selection for the tour he had already been capped nine times for Ireland and was a leading member of their scrum. In those days forward positions were not defined but relied on the principle in scrums of ‘first there-first down’ which no doubt speeded up the game.

One of his team-mates on the tour, Walter Carey, who would himself later return to this country as the Anglican Archbishop of Bloemfontein, described Tommy as ‘very good looking, tall and strong weighing some 215lbs, but the most Irish, the most inconsequent, the most gallant and loveable personality that one could imagine’. Crean was acknowledged by all concerned as the tower of strength in the team and the driving force behind the tourists success on the field. He was extremely popular with both his team-mates and the South African players but he did cause the team management numerous problems. Tommy was both the second tallest and second heaviest member of the touring party and there was nothing that he liked better then having a good scrap. When he was bored or had his space confined he would pick a fight with other members of the team either challenging them to a one-on-one contest, or taking on the whole team at once. This normally caused complete chaos, for in those days much of the tour was spent travelling either in compartments on trains or in the local equivalent of the stagecoach. The transport arrangements were somewhat primitive, to say the least, in that the trip from Grahamstown to Kingwilliamstown, some 90 miles, took two full days and at the hotel that the team stayed overnight the players had to sleep five to a bed as accommodation was limited.

On the sea voyage over to South Africa, Tommy made a name for himself in that he won every game that could possibly be played on a ship’s deck. Word of mouth had already reached Cape Town that he was the player to watch and the press reports from the local newspapers were estatic over his performance in the first match of the tour at Newlands. In all the tourists itinerary consisted of twenty one fixtures played over an eight week period with three match days each week, either Monday, Wednesday and Saturday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Tommy Crean played in all twenty one matches scoring seventeen tries in the process, including three in succession in one match. The team captain, John Hammond, was injured early in the tour and was only able to play in three of the games, Tommy leading the side on the other occasions. That he was able to play in all the matches bore testimony to his strength, fitness and ability.

Accepting that South African rugby was in its very early stages of development, a hundred years ago, the visitors were able to teach the local players new skills and the tour was a huge success, winning nineteen of the matches, drawing one and losing the final match. This was the third test which enabled South Africa to record it’s first- ever test victory.

The drawn match has an interesting story. This was against Western Province in the third game of the tour. The team had been invited to dine at Groote Schuur, the home of the Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Tommy, as captain of the day rose at the lunch table and prudently advised the players to limit themselves to no more then four tumblers of champagne each, for their match was less than a couple of hours away. The result was a scoreless draw. Later on in the tour, a return fixture was played and on this occasion, there, was no lunch or champagne beforehand, and the tourists scored a convincing 32-0 victory.

Besides his natural ability, Tommy Crean was also a deep thinker about the game and he is credited with the introduction of the principle of the first shove in the scrums. In addition, it is believed that he was responsible for the introduction of the tactic of wheeling the scrum which in those days was perfectly legal and, which in the years leading up to the Second World War became the focal point of forward power. Over and above his height and weight advantage, Tommy was also very fast, being timed some ten years after the end of his rugby career, when over the age of thirty, with a speed of 10.4 seconds for the 100 yards at an athletics meeting. On the rugby field he used his speed and high knee running action to good advantage for he had the reputation of being a very solid tackler who corner-flagged with relish making, match saving tackles on the tryline. He did, like others in the team, have difficulty in adapting to our grounds away from the coast for at that stage all our grounds up country were rolled gravel without a blade of grass. To overcome this problem, Tommy developed a style of tackling which enabled him to fall on his opponents thereby avoiding cuts and grazes to his own knees and elbows.

Tommy’s achievements off the sports field were equally impressive. Prior to coming on tour he had attended the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland where he qualified as a doctor. When the tour was over, he decided to stay on in this country and settled in Johannesburg which in 1896 was very much a boom town. He joined the Wanderers club to play his rugby and opened a very successful medical practice. Of his time on the Reef there are many amusing stories which have been recorded regarding his activities. One which occurred, after closing his surgery for the day, he was preparing for bed, being naked except for a vest, a new patient forced his way into the surgery. Tommy decided to teach the man a lesson for his lack of good manners and as he was always willing to have a scrap

Tommy chased the man out out of the surgery into the street and then all the way to his home, where the intruder barricaded himself inside and refused Tommy’s challenge to come out and fight. A crowd of spectators had gathered in the meantime, including a local policeman, who quickly reminded Tommy of his state of undress. No trouble to Tommy, he challenged the policeman to a fight for his trousers. This challenge was turned down so Tommy was forced to borrow a jacket from one of the interested spectators in the crowd, which he put on and proudly marched home.
On another occasion he acted as a matchmaker for a friend who was too shy to court the girl of his dreams. Tommy was the go-between even arranging for the purchase of the engagement ring. Whilst on his way to deliver the ring Tommy decided that the lady was not good enough for his friend so, he promptly sold the ring, bought a cab full of liquor, and changed direction to his friends home, telling him on arrival that he had decided to come and help him drown his sorrows, quoting ‘My boy I’ve saved ye. She is a withered old crone of no intelligence and I’ve decided she’s unworthy of you’.

When the Anglo-Boer war broke out in 1899, Tommy Crean was one of the first to volunteer, not as an officer in the Medical Corp to which he was fully entitled, but joining the ranks as an ordinary trooper in the South African regiment, the Imperial Light Horse. Legend has it that his decision to join up had little to do with patriotism but that he was itching to get involved in a good fight. He saw action in many theatres of the War, including the battles around Ladysmith in Natal, where he was wounded for the first time, as well as taking part in the relief of Mafikeng. During this period he was commissioned and whilst his commanding officer had nothing but the highest praise for his fighting ability he was concerned at the utter fearlessness he showed in battle. After much persuasion he was talked into becoming the Medical Officer to the regiment.

In December 1901 the Imperial Light Horse were in the district of Bethlehem in the Free State. At Tygerskloof a battle took place involving the regiment and General Christiaan De Wet’s commando. With his regiment under heavy gunfire from the Boer positions, Tommy, by now, Captain Crean, was busy tending to the wounded lying out on the battlefield. He worked his way to within 150 yards of the enemy and whilst he was himself wounded in the left arm he continued to move amongst the troops tending to their needs. Whilst busy binding the wounds of a junior officer a bullet tore through his stomach, half rising he screamed out at the top of his voice ‘By Christ, I’m kilt entirely’ and promptly fell to the ground. His Irish temper was now well and truly raised and grabbing the nearest weapon, which happened to be the gun of the junior officer, he set off on a charge directly towards the Boer lines firing away before collapsing in a heap on the veld. At first it was thought that Tommy had been mortally wounded but his level of fitness and great strength helped him to make an eventual complete recovery. Early in 1902 it was gazetted in London that Captain Thomas Joseph Crean had been awarded the Victoria Cross for this deed. By this time however, despite his strong protests, he had been invalided out of the Army, so he returned to the United Kingdom where he set up a medical practice in London’s West End. His Victoria Cross was personally presented to him by King Edward V11 at a ceremony at St James’ Palace on the 13th March 1902. Three years later, in 1905 Crean married a titled Spanish lady and they produced two offspring, a girl and a boy. The next few years were spent relatively quietly whilst he built up his reputation as a medical man in the British capital.

In 1914 at the outset of the First World War Tommy Crean immediately offered his services to the military and was sent to France as a Brigade Medical Officer. His bravery under fire soon became legendary and within twelve months he had twice been mentioned in despatches and been awarded the D.S.O. The published gazette, which announced this award, stated that it had been earned for his fearlessness and disregard for own personal safety. His carefree attitude to life, as an officer, did not go down well in some quarters and he often crossed swords with straight laced military hierarchy, in particular with one general who took him to task for needlessly exposing himself to danger and ordered him to stay at H.Q. Tommy’s reaction was to casually remove the cigarette he was smoking from his mouth, then placing his arm around the General’s shoulder, much to the horror of all the other officers present, addressed the martinet as ‘An order is it; General me old darling, tis’ written that I am to die in me bed. The boys need me. Go I must.’ With that he turned around and left the safety of the command post and went out, again walking amongst the wounded troops tending to their injuries and keeping at it until long after sunset. Tales of his incredible bravery and humane work were often written and talked about by the troops in the front line.

As Major Crean, he served throughout the War and when peace was declared in 1918 he was Officer Commanding the 44th Field Ambulance Unit. He returned to civilian life, becoming an honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons and establishing himself as an eminent Harley Street Specialist. It was there, in London, that he passed away, as he predicted, asleep in his bed. He was only 49 years of age, but he had lived life to the full, but the effect of his war wounds and the years of strain having taken their toll.

That 1896 rugby team to South Africa, was one full of characters. Robert Johnston, a fellow Irishman, and friend with whom Tommy loved to scrap was also awarded the Victoria Cross whilst serving as a Captain in the Imperial Light Horse regiment, at Elandslaagte. The brother of another team-mate, a South African from Grahamstown who was studying at Oxford University at the time, Cuth Mullins, also received the V. C. at Elandslaagte.The fly half the Rev. M.M Mullineux was awarded the Military Cross in the First World War.

Walter Carey, the team-mate, who became the Archbishop of Bloemfontein, is the man who is credited with establishing the motto of Barbarians rugby that so aptly describes the credo of the sport in that ‘Rugby is a game for gentlemen of all classes but not for a bad sportsmen in any class’.

To cap this story, it should also be mentioned that, in 1891, five years before coming out to this country Tommy, then only seventeen years of age, was awarded the Royal Humane Society’s Testimonial for saving life at sea. Rugby, one hundred years ago was characterised, by adventure and courage, facets that are still an important aspect of the modern professional game today. Would Thomas Joseph Crean perhaps have been a combination of Uli Schmidt, Sean Fitzpatrick and Bobby Skinstad if he were alive today?.

Sources: 1. History of South African Rugby - Ivor Difford. 2. Pride of the Lions - Reg Sweet. 3. For Valour: The story of Southern Africa’s Victoria Cross Heroes. - Ian S. Uys. 4. The Barbarians - Nigel Starmer Smith 5. The Springbok Saga - Chris Greyvenstein.