It was an enormous privilege to be often in the company of Doc Craven in the last 20 years of his life, at a time when he was the best known, most easily recognised man in South Africa.
He deserved to be well known. He had earned that right as a player, an administrator, a teacher and a thinker, but above all as a courageous man of principle. In most cases he was well loved but in others he was an easy target for criticism. If there was any criticism of rugby, it was Craven's fault - the team, an injury, a law you didn't like, a politician's pronouncement, anything you didn't like about the Currie or Craven Week, a referee's decision. He was so much Mr Rugby that it was presumed that he ran every detail of the game.
His direct participation in Springbok rugby lasted from 1931, when he was 20 years of age, to 1993 when he died - a lifetime of playing, coaching, selecting and administering the game at the top level. He never shied away from his principle, for Doc was not a shrinking violet. 'No comment' was not in his vocabulary.
He was chosen for the Springboks in 1931 before he had turned 21, after playing for Western Province. He was a third year student at Stellenbosch, housed at Wilgenhof. On that tour he played in two Tests - chosen ahead of the great Pierre de Villiers. The Springboks won all four Tests on that tour, and in the Golden Thirties went on to beat the Wallabies at home in Australia and New Zealand and the British & Irish Lions in South Africa. He played in all those Tests and captained in four. He then coached the 1949 Springboks to a whitewash of New Zealand, then to another Grand Slam in the UK and Ireland with a great win in France, then in a series win over the Wallabies. He was also the coach the first time the Springboks lost a series after 60 years, in New Zealand in 1956, the year Doc became president of the South African Rugby Board, a position he held till the politically acceptable unification of 1992 when he became the first executive president of the new SA Rugby Football Union.
It was a long way from Lindley in the beautiful Eastern Orange Free State, a long way from watching Lindley play Ermelo to playing in the great stadiums of the rugby world, a long way from the boy at the farm school to Stellenbosch University, a long way from a third-class matric to three earned doctorates plus an honorary doctorate, and a long way from obscurity to becoming the best known man in South Africa.
Doc could not hide. Wherever he went he was recognised - and expected to be recognised. You arrived at a hotel in Port Elizabeth and headed slowly towards reception - slowly because Doc never walked past anybody. He had something cheerful to say and by the time you had booked in and were at the lifts you looked back and saw a host of smiling, admiring faces. You were stopped on a cold night on the Lesotho border with Ian Kirkpatrick driving and an armed soldier with a cape told Ian to open the boot. Craven leant over from the passenger seat and told the soldier he should be polite enough to say please and the soldier said: "Sorry Doc Craven." Annoyed when he went to board a plane and the security pinged. He was told to empty his pockets. He said grumpily: Do you think I'd do harm to my country? And the security man said: "No, of course not, Doc Craven."
Doc had intense loyalties - to whatever he was a part of - Lindley, Stellenbosch and South Africa. He was furious when a journalist refereed to Lindley as a 'dusty, little town in the Free State'. To him Lindley was always beautiful. He was happy when he eventually got a plot in the cemetery looking down across Stellenbosch - where he is now buried. He coached his beloved Maties till he was 80 and a great deal of his struggle as an administrator was to get for his Springboks the same opportunities that he had enjoyed - to play against the best in the world.
Doc was loyal to South Africa - to all of South Africa. He has never really been given full credit for his campaign of the last 20 years of his life - to break down racial barriers in South Africa. His slogan was: 'We can change South Africa on the rugby field." To do this, with a band of helpers that included Ian Kirkpatrick, Dougie Dyers and Piet Kellerman, he travelled the length and breadth of South Africa, from Stanger to Aggenys, from Ficksburg to Calvinia, encouraging people to play mixed rugby. He forced the schools to open the Craven Weeks to all races. He has not been given the credit that he deserves because there was some desire to preserve racial segregation and others who wanted their form of domination. What Doc wanted for South Africa was not always what government people wanted. As a result he had pressure from the Nationalist government in the times of Verwoerd and Vorster, he had pressure from the Broederbond till HB Thom, rector of Stellenbosch and chairman of the Broederbond reigned them in and he incurred the wrath of FW de Klerk when he and Louis Luyt met with the ANC in Harare.
Doc had a great memory and could recall details. Life in Lindley was so important to him - life on the farm with his five brothers, his mother who taught him so many of life's lessons, finding his father dead in the field from a heart attack, falling in love for the first time - with Elza, the dominee's daughter - playing his first rugby match, having a cream soda when they played in Bethlehem, and so much besides.
One could go on and Doc lives on in many memories of people who start by saying: 'As Doc always said', 'As Craven often said," Then what followed would be accepted with reverence as the truth.
One of the things he often said was 'Don't talk. Do.' If you judged Daniel Hartman Craven by what he did and how he did it, you would know greatness. Perhaps the greatest facet of his greatness was his inherent generosity and ‘otherwordliness’. Nothing that he did was for self-gain. He had no interest in money except what it could buy his cause, which in its simplicity was rugby in South Africa. He was not a worldly man not worldy wise but certainly shrewd enough to get what he needed to do and what he wanted.
In his old age Doc was a bit – only a bit – concerned that when people read his estate papers they would see that he owned nothing. He was, you see, never paid by rugby for what he did for rugby.
By Paul Dobson