Danie Gerber suffered in sporting isolation, but was rugby’s greatest centre

It would be easy to write that one of rugby’s biggest disappointments was Danie Gerber’s absence from international rugby during South Africa’s isolation period.

The isolation that was a consequence of apartheid kept Gerber away from the biggest rugby stage from 1986 to 1992. Gerber scored a high hit rate of 19 attempts in his twenty-four international matches from 1980. In his limited testing he established himself as the premier center in international rugby.

Gerber played centre, wing and middle. In my favorite team I chose him as inside center to play alongside Philippe Sella, what a combination! After watching Gerber’s highlights role I have to say that he is the most powerful, exciting and elusive center I have ever seen.

Many see it as frustrating that he only played twenty-four Tests, but as with many things in life, we must be thankful for what we have received and cherish every moment. Gerber should be proud of some of the most exciting rugby matches we’ve gratefully seen, albeit brief.

South African rugby player Danie Gerber during the second friendly match between France and South Africa at Parc des Princes in Paris, October 24, 1992. France won 29 points to 16.  (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images)

South African rugby player Danie Gerber in 1992. (Photo by Howard Boylan/Getty Images)

Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1958, Daniel Mattheus Gerber played football and cricket at school and represented South African schools in rugby. His football training laid the foundation for his ability to dodge kicks, which was never better demonstrated in the try he scored against Ireland in 1981. He received the ball at the 10-metre line, tried to kick and then made his way past Irish defenders, including two who were so stunned by Gerber’s evasive maneuvers that they ended up attacking each other.

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Gerber was a precocious talent for the Eastern Province, eventually playing 115 times for the state. He made his Test debut aged 22 against South America but it was his game against England in 1984 that defined him. His devastating footwork, strong defense and pace were too much for the English.

Gerber had a professional player’s mentality when it came to training, and he incorporated long-distance running, swimming, weights and circuit training to build his fitness and physique. If you watch videos of him he looks deceptively stocky with those enormous thighs, but he was 1.80m tall and would have been difficult to defend. He had the adept ability to stagger a defender with his fling, but could also fight his way through a tackle.

After South Africa isolated a New Zealand rebel team, the Cavaliers toured South Africa and it gave Danie Gerber an opportunity to showcase his talent. His try in game three underscores his electrifying pace.

South Africa emerged from isolation in 1992 with a much-anticipated game against the All Blacks that reminded everyone why they had the greatest rivalry in world rugby. The New Zealand team was talented with the likes of Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones and John Kirwan and they proved too strong for the inexperienced Springboks, defeating them 27-24. However, Gerber was at his best, scoring two tries.

Danie Gerber retired from rugby in 1992 after losing to England and was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2007, a consolation for not playing in what may have been over a hundred Tests. That’s a regret he had and also missing out on both Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991.

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Gerber was taught by Dr. Cecil Moss, the South African trainer, described him as “a freak in terms of physical ability” and ex-springbok Morne du Plessis summarized him as “a real springbok who loved to run”. Bill McLaren, the legendary commentator, included it in his All Time XV.

In 2002, Danie Gerber had heart surgery with his family, who had a history of high cholesterol, he worked as a heart disease awareness ambassador.

One thing I noticed about Gerber is that he frequently went around corners to try, pretended to push the ball and then immediately went on to hit under the post. Sometimes it’s what you do behind the try line that defines you. Think of Carlos Spencer and Bryan Williams.

I have to be honest I didn’t know much about Danie Gerber but now upon further research I realize he was an exceptional talent whose skills were simply world class and he must be considered South Africa’s greatest center and arguably the best the world has seen.

Danie Gerber, a popular international player.

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