Many know of the (indisputable) fact that in 1922 Bill Payn ran the Comrades Marathon in rugby boots (in those days the road between Durban and Pietermartizburg was largely gravel and Payn felt that rugby boots might be a tactical advantage over takkies), but not many know that Payn organised an unofficial “Test” series between the “Springboks” and the “All Blacks” when a prisoner of war in Poland during World War II.
And so you thought that the series between the New Zealand Cavaliers and the Boks in 1986 was the first unofficial series between the countries!
Seriously though, Payn had played two Tests on the flank for the Boks against Britain (as they were called in those days) in a home series in 1924, with the Boks victorious in both matches.
The Maritzburg College old boy did not play again for the Boks, but was a mainstay of Natal teams.
At the age of 46, he volunteered for service in the British army when World War II broke out in 1939 He was among many allied soldiers taken prisoner by the Germans in North Africa and was a prisoner of war in Stalag XX-A in German-occupied Poland.
There were also a number of New Zealanders in that camp and, with the brilliant Springbok series win over the All Blacks in 1937 still fresh in the minds of South African and Kiwis, Payn asked the camp commandant if a rugby match could be played between POWS of the two countries.
His wish was granted and the international Red Cross arranged for a rugby ball to be flown in from England. Great care was put into the build-up to the match. Let’s face it, the prisoners had time on their hands ...
The South Africans went to great lengths to have their red cross vests dyed green (they somehow got the dye from Russia) and the gold was ingeniously boiled up from anti-malaria tablets.
The field was marked off with yellow clay and battle commenced. Incidentally, they played barefoot in the Polish winter because the Germans decided army boots were too lethal.
The score was never recorded, nor do we know how many games were played in the series, but what we do know that is one of the South African players was a certain Okey Geffin, who went on to become a famous Springbok.
On the most sombre of notes, the Germans were fortunately unaware that Geffin was Jewish. Otherwise this story could have taken a desperately sad turn.
Payn spent many hours with Geffin, coaching him on goal kicking, and history records that in 1949, four years after the end of the war , Geffin kicked the Boks to a whitewash of the touring All Blacks.
As for Payn, he returned to Durban after the war and continued his teaching career at Durban High School. He taught there for 40 years and it would have been longer had he not fought in the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945).
It is noted that Payn only decided to run the Comrades on the eve of the event after having enjoyed some stiff drinks with his mate Arthur Newton, who went on to win the “up” race. At Hillcrest he stopped to have bacon and eggs and later on enjoyed some chicken curry. At Drummond, the halfway mark, he celebrated the milestone by having a pint of beer.
Nearing Martizburg he was struggling when, out of the blue, a saviour came in the form of a woman who offered him a magic potion that turned out to be peach brandy.
In Payn’s own words: “I gulped down a tumbler of this brew and realised that I had swallowed a near-lethal dose of raw alcohol. I am convinced that to this charming little woman must go full credit for inventing the first liquid fuel for jet engines, and I was propelled to the finish.”
The story does not end there. In Maritzburg, a friend reminded Payn that he was due to play a club rugby match in Durban the next day, and offered him a lift back to Durban on the back of his motorcycle. And off they went, and Payn duly played for his club, but in takkies because his feet were masses of blood blisters.
Dare we even mention that today’s players are pampered pros.