Izak Van Heerden

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Izak van Heerden (August 1910 – June 1973[1]) was a South African rugby union coach, and player, remembered mainly for his successes with the Argentina national team and Natal, and his unconventional style.[1][2]


Van Heerden was born in Durban in 1910.[1]

In his rugby playing career he had moderate success playing at loose forward for the Natal University College in Pietermaritzburg.[1] Not being a Springbok meant that later on, he was passed over as a choice to coach the national side, because it was wrongly assumed that good players and good coaches were one and the same.[1] What Van Heerden had lacked in physical prowess in rugby, he made up for by his tactical brilliance.

He qualified as a teacher at the Natal University College (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal), and became a school master at Durban High School,[1] where he taught Afrikaans. A rugby pitch at the school is now named after him.[3]

During World War II, Van Heerden served in North Africa, where he was taken prisoner along with another well known Natal University College alumnus, Durban High School schoolmaster and rugby coach, Bill Payn. He returned to teaching after the War.

Coaching Natal[edit]

He would frequently turn up to training sessions with Natal straight from school, donning the glasses, tweed jacket, or conservative dark suit that he wore at school.[1] This was one of his many foibles, which endeared some people to him, and alienated others. He was a big, burly man, with a humorous, witty manner, a sharp temper, and a repertoire of ripe language which he used freely in both the classroom and on the rugby field. He looked every bit the rugby player.

Amongst the South African players who passed through his hands were Tommy Bedford,[4] Keith Oxlee,[5] Trix Truter[6] and Snowy Suter.[7][1]

But Van Heerden's success with Natal was only a foretaste of what was to come.

Van Heerden and Argentina[edit]

If Van Heerden was an unsung genius in his homeland, it was Argentina that gave him the chance to flourish, and show exactly what he was capable of.

He was invited to Buenos Aires to help the Pumas prepare for their first visit to South Africa in 1965.[1][2] Despite Argentina faring badly in this tour,[2] it was the start of a long and happy relationship between Van Heerden and the Pumas. Izak van Heerden gave up his teaching post in Durban, relocated to Argentina, learnt Spanish fluently, and would revolutionise Argentine play in the late 1960s, laying the way open for great players such as Hugo Porta.[1][2] Van Heerden virtually invented the "tight loose" form of play, an area in which the Argentines would come to excel, and which would become a hallmark of their playing style. The Pumas repaid the initial debt, by beating the Junior Springboks at Ellis Park, and emerged as one of the better modern rugby nations, thanks largely to the talents of this Durban schoolmaster.[1]

Van Heerden's fame grew elsewhere as a result, particularly in the British Isles, where reports filtered through about the rugby "guru" with the golden touch.[1] Somehow his growing reputation worked against him in South Africa, and other than one series against the British and Irish Lions in 1962, in which the Lions were comprehensively outplayed (losing 3–0), Van Heerden's massive input was not required.[1]

After his coaching career, he went back to teach at Durban High School, where he was eventually promoted to vice-principal. He died suddenly in his office at the school in 1973.


Kitch Christie, who coached the Springboks for the 1995 Rugby World Cup, was quoted as saying Izak van Heerden "was truly light years ahead of the rest."[1] Christie openly acknowledged Izak van Heerden's influence on him, and to using his thinking as a blueprint for his own team, saying "Most of what you hear the modern coaches saying, and the phrases they use, were first coined by Izak."[1]

Van Heerden's masterpiece, Thinking Rugby, has become a coaching Bible around the world.[1] Several of the strategies he devised during his rise to prominence, when he masterminded Natal's victory over Australia in 1953, have become parts of the modern high-speed, high-intensity game.[1] Richard Bath describes him as "the thinking man's coach."[1] He also wrote Tactical and Attacking Rugby (1967).

Van Heerden's greatest legacy, perhaps, was to turn the Pumas into a truly respected national side. Despite the ups-and-downs of the Argentine side, Van Heerden's team are considered a benchmark of what the Pumas are capable of achieving. Argentina was already the rugby power in South America when Izak van Heerden came along, but he propelled them into a completely different orbit from their neighbours in Chile, Uruguay and elsewhere.[2]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Bath, p 172
  2. ^ a b c d e Bath, p 62
  3. ^ DHS 140th anniversary rugby festival
  4. ^ "SA Rugby Player Profile – Tommy Bedford". South African Rugby Union. Retrieved 26 May 2016. 
  5. ^ "SA Rugby Player Profile – Keith Oxlee". South African Rugby Union. Retrieved 26 May 2016. 
  6. ^ "SA Rugby Player Profile – Trix Truter". South African Rugby Union. Retrieved 26 May 2016. 
  7. ^ "SA Rugby Player Profile – Snowy Suter". South African Rugby Union. Retrieved 26 May 2016.