Rugby League Heroes: Green Vigo

Green Vigo was widely tipped to become the first player of colour to play rugby union for the Springboks.

Instead, he left Apartheid South Africa to take up a contract offer from Wigan. He was labelled the new Boston, but as Wigan fell on hard times in the 1970s, Vigo’s career didn’t reach the same heights as his illustrious predecessor.

Nevertheless, his try-scoring exploits and his sheer flamboyance made him one of the most iconic players of his time, and there was a place for him in the first-ever World XIII selected by Open Rugby magazine in 1978.

If you could relive one day from your career, which would it be?

The day I was presented with a player-of-the-month award by the great cricketer Freddie Trueman. Leigh’s John Woods won it in the first month of the 1977-78 season, and then me in the second. It was a proud moment, and it was down to Vinnie (Wigan coach Vince Karalius) who gave me so much good advice.

I was twice named player of the year in South Africa, but I didn’t get anything. For this, I got a tankard and £100! My best mate Bill Ashurst took me in his car – an old banger that would barely go up the hill. He refused to park it next to other players’ cars because people would laugh at us. At the dinner, I sat next to Keith Fielding. There were so many knives and forks. I watched Keith closely because I knew he’d know how to use them. There was a photographer – if anyone has photos of that night, I’d love to see them.

Tell us about your early life in South Africa.

I’m from Saldanha Bay, which is a fishing town in Cape Province. If you look at a map, Saldanha Bay is right at the bottom. When you get there, that’s it, you got to turn around because you can’t go any further. On a good day, you can see Table Mountain.

South Africa is massive. Everybody from around the Western Cape came looking for work because there were loads of fish. There was plenty of work. The first thing I did when I got a job on the trawlers was get my mom a radio. I came home one day, and all her friends were there, listening to it. With my next payment, I got her all the furniture we needed for the house. My brother Ronnie still lives in the house, and now it’s ours because Nelson Mandela gave it to us – no more rent! It’s a nice piece of land.

I remember coming home one day to a message that a white man had left a package. It was a pair of rugby boots. They used to let us train in the Army and Navy Camp in the Apartheid years. All my team-mates used to live in the same street. South Africa’s biggest newspaper, The Sunday Times, had a big picture of John Bevan as the Lions had just beaten the All Blacks in New Zealand.

Little did I know I’d be playing against him soon in Rugby League – and when I did, he made me look a fool.

It’s a beautiful place, but I’d rather be here in the UK now. In the old days, it was safe with plenty of work for everybody and you could stay out till late at night. When the ANC took over, we expected things to be good, but it isn’t. Government agencies are stealing money. Everybody owns guns – even my friends – not to rob people, but to protect themselves. It’s dangerous if you go to the wrong places.

What was life like in the Apartheid years for a man of colour?

I was just born into it and have to accept it. I’m not angry about it. Sometimes I watch the Springboks on TV and wonder why did I have to come to another country to play rugby?
I’m a Cape Coloured, which means I’m mixed race. Then you had the Blacks and the Whites. I hate talking about it. The Police used to come from Malmesbury. They were bad. They were looking for the Blacks for their ID. They used to stop me – even though I’m mixed race, I look black. I saw with my own eyes them waiting at the harbour during lobster season. The police would chase Blacks, some of whom couldn’t swim. They would just jump into the sea, but the police would get them out.

Across the road, my friend’s mom sold illegal ale and played music at full blast, day and night. I can still remember the police kicking the door in.

But the white people treated me great because of rugby. One day during Apartheid, a friend of mine was in court. He asked me to go with him. Back then, when a black man went to court in front of a white judge, you’d had it, but the judge said, “Aren’t you Green Vigo? Is this your friend?” I said yes. My friend received a fine. Outside the court, my friend started crying and acknowledged if I hadn’t been there, he’d have been jailed.

I returned to Cape Town after my first year of playing Rugby League. You changed planes in Johannesburg, and I used to stay with a friend – a white guy in a white area. We went for something to eat, but the restaurant wouldn’t serve me because I’m black. A black woman scrubbing the floor was frightened that I was going to cause trouble and begged me to go.
When I took my daughters, they could not believe we were not allowed where the white people lived unless you cut their grass or something. We had to be out of the town centre at 7pm or they’d find you and kick the whatever out of you.

What was South African rugby union like?
Danie Craven was the big boss. They say he hated Rugby League. That was wrong – he just believed no one should be paid to play rugby. Boy, did we make it! The whole of South Africa used to call us ‘The Fishermen’, and my name was on top. I’ve never been in a position like that. We were only playing to have fun.

When I meet my old mates in South Africa, you won’t believe how much respect they give me. They keep saying I could have been the first coloured or black to play for the Boks. All the black players of the Apartheid years have now received Springbok blazers, but I don’t want one because I never played for them. There’s a book out with South Africa’s best 100 players. I’m in it, but I don’t know why as I only played club rugby.

I toured England in 1971 with the Proteas, which was the representative team for Blacks and Coloureds. It was an incredible experience. It was in November, so we never saw the sun! There was a protest at one of our games against Apartheid. I was tipped to be the first black Springbok and people began to talk about me and my town a lot. We were amazed that people were talking about us! Wigan had a scout called Roy Seddon who lived in Pretoria, and he told them about me.

How much of an inspiration was Tom van Vollenhoven?

When I went to the movies, they would play a short newsreel first called ‘African Mirror’. It often had clips of Tom van Vollenhoven scoring tries for the Boks. We used to go mad. This was during Apartheid, and we Coloureds were all hooting for him. Back then, it was the Whites and Coloureds that were into rugby, and the Blacks were mostly into football. Tom was a hero to Coloureds and Whites. When he signed for Saints, the South Africans cut him off. But it was different with me. All my Wigan games were reported in the South African papers.

What do you remember of your early days at Wigan?

I landed at Manchester Airport. There was somebody to pick me up. He took my case. “No – a white man doesn’t carry a black man’s stuff,” I said. “This is England,” he replied.
When I got to Wigan, there were so many reporters there. I could understand English, but it was hard to answer the questions. The reporter I liked was Eric Thompson. He was in a wheelchair. He was a straight-shooting guy. “Give the lad a break – he’s learning the game,” he wrote in the Wigan Observer, but Norman Bibby, the Chairman, didn’t want to hear that. He wanted me straight in the team.

I owe Graham Starkey, the coach, so much. It was Graham who put me on the wing. I remember playing Warrington in the Locker Cup friendly. Friendly? Yeah, right. They knocked all my teeth out. I remember walking to the dentist and guys working on the pavement shouted, “How do you like this game, lad?” Then you’d go to Yorkshire in the wet or the snow on a Tuesday night. God help me.

Wigan sent me to college to study English – Afrikaans is my first language. When I got there, I ran away because there were no black people. The Chairman went mad with me. I stayed in a hotel at first. One night, I saw a pub called the Fox and Goose. I didn’t want to go in because there were no black people going in. Somebody must have known who I was and told someone inside who played for Wigan. I went in and saw a jukebox for the first time.

I remember Dessie Drummond when he first came along. I liked playing against him at first, but he learned quickly, and he’d cut you in half when he tackled you! His brother Alva brought him into the game. It was Alva and Danny Wilson (Ryan Giggs’s dad) who introduced me to Manchester.

I also remember seeing the great Jim Sullivan. All he used to talk about was Van Vollenhoven.

What sort of money were you on?

I didn’t know anything about money until I got to Wigan. I didn’t know about signing-on fees. I’m not a clever guy. I thought people bought houses with actual cash.

Players came straight from work. They want to play because they need the cash – £30 for a win and £10 for a loss – and that’s before tax. If you don’t play, you get nothing. Nobody told me anything about money or tax or how to pay bills.

Wigan got me a job with the council, picking up rocks. Somebody used to stand there, watching me work. I went to see the Chairman. He sat there with his big cigar. I gave it to him. “I’ve come from Apartheid. I’ve done all the shite work over there where the white man stands there like a prison guard, and you have to ask to go for a piss.” I told him I wanted to go back to South Africa. He said, “You can’t play over there because you’ve played Rugby League.” In the end, they put me on the ground staff.

The directors did nothing for me. They put me in digs that sometimes I couldn’t even find after training. No one looked after me. John Gray signed at the same time as me. They gave him a house, but they just dumped me in digs. They put me with an old couple. The old lady was making tea one day. The comedian Tommy Cooper was on TV. I didn’t understand and turned it off. She went mad! “You don’t do that to our Tommy!” As the months went by, I got used to it and I liked them all. We listened to Boer music and Jim Reeves back home. Aretha Franklin would be on Radio Mozambique. So Tommy Cooper was a bit different.

When my contract finished, I signed again because I didn’t want to leave for reasons I can’t really explain. I had six top clubs after me. One offered me a house and a three-year deal, but even with all the shite that had happened at Wigan, I signed for them again. I can’t really tell you why I did that. Bill Ashurst couldn’t believe I turned down a house to sign again with Wigan.

When I was offered a new contract, Vinnie told me to look carefully, especially under where they clipped it together because that’s where they always hid the stuff they didn’t want you to see. And, sure enough, he was right. Alex Murphy looked at the contract because he was interested in signing me for Salford. He said I must have been drunk when I signed it.

What are your rugby memories?

In my first season, we played Salford in the Lancashire Cup Final. Everyone wrote us off, even our washing lady, Mrs Backo. “David Watkins will beat you on his own,” she and the groundsman Billy Mitchell told me.

They were always telling me how good Billy Boston, Dave Bolton and Brian McTigue were. They obviously didn’t rate the 1970s team. It was the same when we played Widnes. “Who’s gonna stop Big Jim?” they would ask me. I had to get out of there.

We played at Leigh, my favourite ground, when I was at Wigan. I always played well there, but one day I put the ball on the 25-yard line, thinking it was the try line! That didn’t go down well – if looks could kill. I remember Dennis Boyd picking the ball up, laughing.

Keith Fielding did well against me a couple of times. Next time, my centre David Willicombe and I were prepared. I stayed wider and deeper, and nothing got past me. It was like standing on a hill and looking on everything that’s going on. You get the centre and wing in one go and I stuffed both David Watkins and Fielding. David’s grubbers weren’t going to work, and I could get Fielding on the inside. There was no way I was moving off the wing for that whole game. I stuck to that plan for the next four years.

Vinnie said, “You’re a big lad, you shouldn’t be frightened of anybody.” He’d done weights at Widnes, and he put me straight on to it. He told me he didn’t want me to be Arnold Schwarzenegger, and he was right. I scored 29 tries in the 1977-78 season, which was only bettered by Stuart Wright because they counted his international tries. I was in such good shape.

It has been reported that you had several skirmishes with the law back then.

Yes – I wake up these days and when I open my eyes and see my ceiling, I feel good because in the past I would wake up in a police cell, having been arrested for being drunk and disorderly. I did so many stupid things because of drink. It was all my fault. I can’t blame anyone else. When I finished playing, I vanished from the Rugby League scene. I was just drinking. It was even reported in South African newspapers that I had died because I hadn’t been seen. One day I went to the doctor because I was getting these pains. He said I would get cirrhosis if I didn’t stop. It was hard for the first few days, but I’ve found it easy since. I thought life would be boring without drinking, but it’s great. I haven’t had a drink for 25 years.

Tell us about your family.

I came over as a single man, and I married a Wigan girl called Sheila. We had two daughters. I’ve been to South Africa with my kids – up Table Mountain in Durban, and they loved it. My wife paid for it. She said, “Go and take the kids with you.” Well, she’s gone now. She died of cancer a couple of years ago. I have four grandchildren.

Was there one Wigan team-mate you were particularly close to?

My best mate at Wigan was Bill Ashurst. He always had time for me. He was a great player too, and I’m so sad he died recently. He always wanted me to give my story like this, but I always told him I wasn’t ready. Before he died, he was installed as one of Penrith Panthers’ best players. I love you, Bill. You were my best friend, and you were always there for me. I’m hurt because I didn’t go to his recent funeral. I wasn’t confident how I’d be accepted. Bill never forgot about me.

Who were best players you came across in the British game?

The first Rugby League game I watched was Salford against Featherstone. John Newlove was stand-off for Rovers. The way he was throwing the ball around – I’d never seen anything like it. On the other side, Kenny Gill was doing the same. I’d never seen that kind of rugby.

I played against the best players in English Rugby League. Every club was full of top players, not like today – I’m sorry lads. It was so tough too. Sometimes there were fights in the tunnel before a game. You’d go to Warrington to play against Alex Murphy and to stir it up with the late Dave Chisnall. What a player Dave was – he got their whole pack going. You don’t see prop forwards sidestep like that now. Then you’d go to Bradford and face one of the Van Bellens and big Bill Ramsey. I used to be frightened.

Roger Millward was amazing. He used to give Phil Lowe these Exocet-missile passes. Phil used to run between the centre and wing, but it all depended on Roger getting the pass right. When he did, there was no stopping Phil.

Leeds had Syd Hynes, Les Dyl, John Atkinson and Alan Smith – what a team! Arthur Keegan was a brilliant fullback at Bramley. The man I hated to play against was Jack Austin, who played for various Yorkshire sides. I left him for dead once on the outside. Then, and I don’t know why, I ran back into him, and he knocked me back where I’d come from. Vinnie used to go mad with me!

Then there was Ken Senior at Huddersfield. He could fly. He’d run alongside and just push me into touch with a big smile on his face. I learned how to get the better of him in the end.
I’ve already mentioned Keith Fielding. He was faster than Offiah. Peter Smethurst went to watch Salford play Warrington a week before we played them. In the dressing room before the game, he kept warning me about Keith. Salford had the quickest and best back line with Paul Charlton, Maurice Richards, David Watkins, Chris Hesketh, Keith Fielding, Ken Gill and Peter Banner, although I think Leeds probably ran them close.

We played at Widnes one day with Geoff Aspinall, a young hooker. A scrum broke up and suddenly Geoff went flying through the air. Big Jim [Mills] had done him. He didn’t even get sent off – they’d be calling it assault today! People were afraid of him. I’ll never forget our entire Wigan team turn their backs with Big Jim just waiting for someone to take him on. Jim actually saved me from getting locked up once. I got a taxi to his nightclub but was blind drunk and didn’t have the fare. Jim came out and paid it for me just as the driver was going to call the police. I was very grateful for that. These guys are so sweet off the field!

You also played for Swinton and Oldham.

Swinton was a disaster, and I don’t even remember much about it. But I loved playing with Alan McCurrie, Mick Morgan and Flash Flanagan at Oldham. There was Ray Ashton, Mick Worrall and Andy Goodway too, all very good players. Alan, Mick and I liked to think we invented the inside pass, but Alan would always spoil it by shouting my name so loudly that everyone knew what we were going to do! Mick still let it go one day in a game against Widnes. “Bollocks to this,” I thought, “I’m gonna get killed here,” so I went to the other side and Mick still let the ball go. Alan went mad. “Did you not see four of them coming for me?” I asked.

I disappeared for two days, getting pissed. I didn’t go to training. Oldham went mad. When Frank Myler was away, coaching the 1984 Lions Tour, the ‘A’ team coach was shouting and screaming and trying to show me up. If Frank or Mick or Alan shouting, I took it seriously, but not this fella. So I walked out and only went back when Frank was back from the tour and had one of my best seasons. In one game at Widnes, I was kicked on the knee. Joe Lydon told me to stay down. The bone was sticking out. I pushed it back in and carried on.

We played Castleford in the Challenge Cup in February ‘85. All the football games were off due to snow, and I assumed ours would be and went to the pub the night before. Suddenly the game was switched from Watersheddings to Oldham Athletic where there was under-soil heating, but they couldn’t get hold of me as I was in the pub! I had to play with a terrible hangover. It wasn’t pretty. They obviously knew what I’d done, and they told me I was finished. I was going to retire at the end of the season because of my knee. I accepted their decision. It was understandable.

Anyway, all I want to say is it was great playing Rugby League against all those great players, and if wasn’t for Vinnie and Frank, I wouldn’t have been in the World XIII and or won player-of-the-month awards.

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