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Percy Day - The South African Rugby Manager who did things differently

Percy Ware Day 1871 -1953. The South African Rugby Manager who did things differently

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Percy Ware Day whilst being an active all round sportsman in his youth, he did not attain the sporting heights reached by others of his generation. He is remembered however for an act in the administration of rugby which he successfully managed to carry out without any comeback and continued to serve the game at its highest level until his death some sixteen years later.

Had he attempted the same act in today’s world there is little doubt that the media would have had a field day at his expense and that the executive of South African Rugby Football Union would have had their knives out and sharpened.

What was Percy Day’s achievement? Quite simply this. He was the Manager of the 1937 Springboks in New Zealand and Australia. Whilst in New Zealand and with the series evenly poised one-all, Percy calmly handed over his duties to his assistant, leaving the team and catching the boat in Wellington and sailing back to South Africa. Many rugby pundits consider that this Springbok side to be the best ever touring side, it is the only one in the long history of sporting contests between the two countries, to have won a series against the mighty All Blacks in New Zealand. There are many Kiwi’s who believe that this team was the best touring side to leave their shores. The question to be asked is why did he do it and why did he carry out the action at such a crucial stage with the final and deciding test only a few weeks away? His actions created no impact in the media and the books which were written about the tour hardly make mention of the fact that he came home before the tour finished. In addition, no action was taken against Percy by the rugby authorities on his return to Cape Town. If it were to happen today it needs little imagination to what the outcome would be. The Press, radio and television would have a field day and the men in charge of rugby would be in a state of apoplexy. One shudders to think of what the outcome would be.

Born in Exeter, England in 1871, Percy came out to this country as a young boy growing up in Cape Town. As a youth his great sporting loves were rugby and cricket. He played in the back line for both Hamilton’s and Gardens Rugby clubs, before being forced to give up the game due to persistent knee injuries. On the cricket field he represented the Cape Town Cricket Club for a number of years. Like many of his generation Percy sought adventure and in 1891,at the age of twenty, he joined the British South Africa Police going north into Mashonaland in what is now part of Zimbabwe. He spent four years out in the bush on police duties but found time to become both the national lightweight and middleweight boxing champion of Southern Rhodesia. When his tour of duty was up Percy Day returned to the Cape, working first for the ‘Cape Times’ newspaper and then for the organisation which developed into the South African Breweries. During this time he started with his involvement in rugby administration serving for a short spell on the Western Province Rugby Union Executive. Percy however, was unable to settle down to ‘city’ life and he set off for the diamond fields in the Kimberley area, where he took up an appointment as Mine Manager. It was there that he continued devoting himself to the administrative side of rugby. He also became a rugby referee progressing from club level, through the ranks of provincial games to reach test match status in 1903 when he was in charge of the whistle in the second International match in the series between South Africa and a side from the British Isles led by Mark Morrison. The result of the game was a scoreless draw. During the tour Percy also handled three of the provincial games against the tourists.

In 1910 when the next touring side came out from the British Isles, under the captaincy of Dr Smythe, Percy was in charge of the first match of the tour which was a fixture at Mossel Bay between the tourists and South Western Districts. In this series he also served as a South African selector. He had been invited to act as the S. A. Rugby Board’s Liaison Manager, but he could not spare the time to travel the country with the Tourists and he regretfully had to decline the invitation.

Percy was also played a leading role on the administrative side whilst performing the referee’s duties and did much to improve their lot. He served as a leading member of the steering committee which drew up the constitution of the national body leading to the formation of the South African Referees Society in 1915.

When war broke out in 1914, Percy joined up serving as an officer in the Cape Corp, which allowed him to maintain the close relationships that he had built up since his early days in Cape Town with the coloured community. When peace was declared he returned to this country. In 1919 a New Zealand Services team which had been playing some matches in the United Kingdom stopped over on their way home and undertook a full length tour of South Africa. Percy Day served as the liaison officer, accompanying the team throughout the tour for which he received high praise from the visitors. This was the first New Zealand team to tour this country and it laid the groundwork for the Springboks to accept an invitation to tour down under two years later. It was also the start of the intense rivalry between the two nations for top international honours which continues to this day.

Percy was renowned for his independent nature and an early clue to this is reflected in his relationship with the Cape Coloured community. In the late 1890’s when he served the spell on the W. P. R. F. U. Executive, the union encouraged a close working relationship with their counterparts, the coloured Provincial Union, who had the use of the Newlands ground when required. In 1899 the coloured union sent a representative side overseas to England and Percy was the link man between the two bodies prior to the teams departure to ensure that all the arrangements had been successfully concluded. On the teams return he was suspended for a short time from the Executive for admitting that the players had received a small sum over and above their accommodation costs. This was regarded by the W. P. R. F. U. as a breach of the strict rules relating to professionalism which were observed in those days.

After his spell in the Kimberley area, Percy Day returned to Cape Town and obtained the position of General Manager and Secretary of the South African Turf Club, a position he was to hold for the next thirty four years. This role possibly provides the answer to the question of why he removed himself from the role of Manager of the Springbok team in 1937 in New Zealand. It is interesting to read of the delegation of duties in the management structure on this tour and it showed that the South African thinking was way ahead of other test playing nations. The Springbok strategy, team selection and coaching was the responsibility of a tour committee consisting of five of the senior players who were Philip Nel, the captain, Danie Craven, his vice-captain, two forwards, Boy Louw and Lucas Strachan, with the backs being represented by the legendary full back, Gerry Brand. Percy, as manager, acted as chairman of the selection committee but he had no vote at all. His other duties consisted mainly in the administration area which was his forte and which he shared with his assistant, Alec De Villiers. He was also used as an occasional speechmaker. In the light of the success achieved on this tour of using this management format one wonders why it was immediately abandoned by South Africa and not used again on tour.

Getting back to the story of why Percy Day left the tour. The New Zealand media in 1937 recorded that the reason was due to business pressure back home in that he was required to organise the major horse race of the year. This race more than likely would have been the Cape Metropolitan Handicap, the running of which would only have taken place in the middle of summer, towards the end of January 1938. Percy left the team in the middle of August 1937, nearly six months before the event making it unlikely to be the cause. He did not leave on a sour note for it is on record that the players clubbed together and made a presentation to Percy.

A more likely explanation for his departure from New Zealand is that given by Danie Craven. There was a rumour at the time in the Springbok tour camp that the only reason why Percy Day had accepted the position of manager of the touring side was his avid interest in horse racing and his determination to use the opportunity to buy a New Zealand bred thoroughbred to race in this country and to use it later for stud purposes. Once he had made the purchase his objective was achieved and he decided to return home leaving the players to achieve the crowning glory of winning the third and final test convincingly. Danie Craven did, however, rate Percy highly and stated that he had wonderful memories of the man whom he fondly regarded.

On his return Percy quietly continued with his heavy involvement in the game continuing to represent the Griqualand West Union on the South African Rugby Board, a position that he held for twenty five years. He also served for a period on the Board’s Executive. In 1938 he seconded the motion put before the Board that the Pretoria Sub-union be allowed to secede from the Transvaal union to become a separate independent union to be known as Northern Transvaal.

While he channelled his life of sport into rugby, cricket, horse racing and boxing, in his younger days Percy was also a fine tennis player winning the Griqualand West mixed doubles championship. Whilst in Kimberley he also won several long distance swimming competitions.

It is a pity that the real reason behind Percy’s withdrawal from the 1937 tour has never been documented and we are left to wonder at the rationale behind his decision. It is obvious that he was a strong character who was very much his own man but he must also have had a natural charm to enable him to do what he did and to survive the consequences without any effect. He lived a long, interesting and active life, dying at the age of eighty two, in style, on board the ‘Edinburgh Castle’ as the Union Castle liner was entering Table Bay. Percy Day had unfortunately taken seriously ill on the voyage down from Durban where he had spent the Cape winter following the Natal racing season.


1.South Africa’s Greatest Springboks. - J. L. Sacks. 2.Springbok Annals 1888-1964. - Compiled by D. H. Craven. 3.The Visitors. A History of International teams in New Zealand. - R. H. Chester and N. A. C. McMillin.. 4.W.P.Centenary 1883-1983. - A. C. Parker. 5.S.A. Rugby Annual 1953. 6.The Craven Tapes: Doc tells all. - Keith Clayton and Chris Greyvenstein. 7.Doc-The life of Danie Craven. - Paul Dobson.