September 23, 2010
Louis Babrow in action while at Honor Oak Park in 1938 © Getty Images
When West Ham United manager Avram Grant chose to miss last weekend's Premier League game with Stoke because it fell on Yom Kippur, one of the most important Jewish holidays, it recalled the choices made by rugby players, like All Black legend Michael Jones and 1920s Scottish threequarter Eric Liddell, who refused to compete on Sundays for religious reasons.
There were also echoes of another Jewish sportsman who found a way of squaring religious observance with the call of his team. It was 73 years ago come Saturday, October 25 1937, when the final test between the All Blacks and Springboks at Eden Park, Auckland fell on Yom Kippur.
The man with the quandary was the Boks' centre Louis Babrow, the youngest member of the touring party and one of the last to be selected, who had established himself as a key member of the team, playing both Tests against Australia and the previous two against the Blacks.
The powerful Boks XV, including such immortals as skipper Phil Nel, versatile language-mangling forward Boy Louw, the extraordinary Danie Craven and the magnificently named back-rower Ebbo Bastard, had lost the first Test but won the second to level the series with one to play.
It was played amid excitement reported as unprecedented for an All Black home match and has gone into South African history thanks to a telegram sent by Paul Roos, skipper of the first-ever Bok touring team to Britain in 1906, to Nel. In Afrikaans, but needing no translation, it read simply 'skrum, skrum, skrum' - advice that Nel and his pack took, with devastating effect.
They were to be equally grateful for a splendidly Talmudic piece of reasoning by the 22-year-old Babrow, who was genuinely torn about whether he should play. He eventually found a way round his doubts, telling Craven: "I'm a South African Jew, not a New Zealand Jew and New Zealand is eight hours before South Africa in time. When we are playing our holy day will not yet have dawned in South Africa".
Babrow crossed within three minutes of the start, then set up a score for Ferdie Bergh with a cross-kick. He was to score a second after a superbly contrived piece of deception by Craven, who waved outside-half Tony Harris wide at a scrum, then passed short on the blindside to begin the move completed by Babrow. A further Babrow break created the Boks' fifth, and last, try in a 17-6 win that remains, in equivalent scoring terms, comfortably the greatest hammering ever inflicted on the All Blacks on their own soil. It also made 'The 1937 Springboks' the punchline to a long-lived Kiwi joke about 'the best team ever to leave New Zealand'.
It was also the end of Babrow's international career. By 1938, when the British & Irish Lions toured, he had left his medical studies at the University of Cape Town in order to continue at Guy's Hospital in England. He was to play for Guy's - finalists in the 1939 Hospitals Cup - Middlesex and the Barbarians before the outbreak of war, but there were no more Springbok Tests until the All Blacks arrived in 1949.
He was the second Jew to play for South Africa, following his cousin Morris Zimmerman. There have been 10 in total, including such notables as goal-kicking prop Okey Giffin, powerful centre Syd Nomis and World Cup-winner Joel Stransky - a happy number given that 10 men form a minyan, the quorum required for certain religious services.
The Yom Kippur match of 1937 finished with All Black scrum-half Harry Simon, reportedly the first Jew to play for New Zealand, shaking hands with Babrow and introducing himself as a co-religionist. Babrow recalled that some members of the Springbok party were sympathisers with the pro-Nazi 'Greyshirt' movement, but that he was never personally subjected to anti-semitism.
His own opposition to Nazism was to take a highly practical form. As a member of the Medical Corps he was present at Dunkirk, in North Africa and Italy, was wounded at El Alamein, decorated with the Military Cross and mentioned three times in dispatches. After the war ended he was among the personnel who inspected the remnants of Hitler's Bunker in Berlin.
Upon returning to South Africa he had a long medical career, serving for 21 years as an elected member of the national Medical and Dental Council and for 25 years on the University of Cape Town council. He retained an active interest in rugby, serving as president of the university club and as a selector and manager at provincial and national levels. He was among the first to note the exceptional talent of future World Cup-winning flanker Ruben Kruger, a pupil at his own old school, Grey College in Bloemfontein.
Babrow was also political and at odds with Springbok contemporaries like Frank Waring - the player whose inability to tour in 1937 may have won Babrow his place - who was later Sports Minister during the D'Olivera affair. A consistent opponent of apartheid, Babrow campaigned for the release of radical lawyer Bram Fischer - who had been at Grey College with him - and against the Medical and Dental Council's whitewashing of doctors complicit in the death of Steve Biko, who was beaten to death in custody in 1977.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby of former college football star Tom Buchanan: "One of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax." Babrow certainly reached an acute excellence at 22, but the remaining 66 years of his life - he died aged 88 in January 2004 - were anything but anti-climactic.