Tom van Vollenhoven

Rugby league player

Born: April 29, 1935;

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Died: October 21, 2017

TOM van Vollenhoven, who has died aged 82, was an outstanding rugby player who made his name initially in the union code representing his native South Africa before turning professional and enjoying a stellar career in rugby league with St Helens.

A flying winger who was credited with a time of 9.8 secs. for 100 yards, international class sprinting then, he was a prolific try scorer. During his 11 years with St Helens, he scored 392 in 409 games, still the club record and over 100 ahead of his closest rival. In 1958/9 he notched a record 62 and twice scored six in a game.

He was a master of utilising tight space on the touchline where the combination of his sheer pace, elusiveness, and strength made stopping him extremely difficult. With St. Helens he won two Challenge Cup Finals at Wembley, two League Championship Finals [although injury prevented his appearance in the second, he played in all previous games], was losing finalist twice and won seven Lancashire Cups. Being ineligible to represent Great Britain as a South African, he was however selected four times for the Rugby League X111 in games against France and New Zealand.

Of his many tries, two were especially memorable. The first was in the 1959 League Championship Final against Hunslet. After 25 minutes Saints were losing when ‘the Voll’ got possession 70 yards from the opposition line and sped up the right touchline, flying past and handing off defenders before touching down between the posts. By the 42nd minute he had scored a hat trick to put his side well on the way to victory. The other occurred in the 1961 Challenge Cup Final at Wembley in front of 98,000 against closest rivals Wigan when he picked up the ball close to his own line before sprinting the length of the field, interpassing with teammate Ken Large to score. Many consider it the greatest try ever seen there and St. Helens’ diehards are evenly split as to which of the two is the better.

The length and success of his league career has tended to eclipse his time in union which, while comparatively brief, was also special. Aged 19 he made his debut for Northern Transvaal, later representing them in a Currie Cup Final. In August 1955 he made his test debut for the Springboks against the British Lions but it was in the second test a week later that he truly came to prominence when he scored a hat trick of tries, leaving his opposite number, the legendary Tony O’Reilly, flailing in his wake.

In 1956 he toured Australia and New Zealand with the Springboks scoring 19 tries in 19 matches. In all he played 7 tests for the Springboks and 16 other games. By now his feats were attracting the interest of English rugby league clubs with Warrington being the first to make him an offer through intermediary, journalist and former cricketer George Woodcock, then in South Africa covering the English cricket tour. After returning from the the Antipodes he moved to Northern Rhodesia [Zambia] to work in copper mining and played for NChanga, leading to eight caps for the Rhodesian national team.

By this time Wigan and St. Helens were competing for his signature, he making it clear he was open to the highest offer. In 1957 Saints pipped their biggest rivals in the chase as he put pen to paper for them for a record fee of £7,230. The club was well on the way to recovering its outlay after his debut against Leeds attracted a 23,000 crowd. He was a huge fans’ favourite not only for his breathtakingly exciting play but also for his gracious and affable manner.

Born Karel Thomas van Vollenhoven into a working class family in Bethlehem, Orange Free State, he was brought up in a rural area where he attended primary school and then Voortrekker High School, Bethlehem. After leaving at 17 he joined the South African police stationed in Pretoria before opting for better paid work in Northern Rhodesia. In 1957 he married Leonie Lawrence and they had three children, Keith, Alan and Lynn but sadly Alan predeceased him. After his playing career finished, he returned to South Africa where he worked for a subsidiary of Pilkington Glass who had been his employer while in Lancashire. He died in Springs, near Selcourt.

He is survived by his wife, children and five grandchildren.