When the BIG. bearded lock forward Rob Stewart left Rhodesia in the first few days of 1980 to settle in South Africa he had the distinction of being the country's most capped rugby player.
After nine seasons with the national side the thirty-year-old Stewart had appeared 72 times in the green and white jersey in a career stretching from his debut in 1970 to the final game of 1979, when Rhodesia beat Griqualand West at Bulawayo to retain their place in the A Section of Currie Cup. He had only missed the 1974 season when he went into brief retirement
His 72 appearances up to the end of 1979 put him ahead of such illustrious names as Iain Buchanan (65), Des van Jaarsveldt (62), Dick Coleshaw (62), Brian Murphy (56) and Ian Robertson (56), the only players up to that time to have reached the 50 mark.
But more than holding the honour of the 'most capped player' Stewart distinguished himself with a record which is unlikely to be broken for many years — from the May 1975 match against Free State, when he displaced Mike Jakobi, he played for Rhodesia in an unbroken sequence of 56 games.
As he left to play in the Transvaal (he joined Wits University) Stewart said: "I am very sorry to be leaving Rhodesia. I have enjoyed my rugby here with a tremendous bunch of guys. The biggest thing Rhodesians have is guts and determination, and all sides down south are scared of them."
His major regret was that club rugby had been seriously disrupted for many years through the security situation — call-ups of young men were incessant during the bush war. In 1979 his Midlands club, Sabi Stars, had five Rhodesian players, yet they seldom practised together and could never hope to play to their full potential.
His most memorable matches for Rhodesia?
"When we honoured 'Choppy' (LeRoy Duberly) by beating Natal at the end of 1979... in 1973 when I scored a try from our own 22m line at Durban and we won . . . and when we beat Western Province at Salisbury in 1977."
That Western Province match was one of Rhodesia's most famous rugby victories.
Stewart's major disappointment was losing to Northern Transvaal in the 1973 Currie Cup semifinals at Loftus Versfeld — the closest the country has ever come to reaching the coveted final. Stewart recalled: "The ref beat us. I scored a try and it was disallowed. I was told I'd knocked on... I couldn't believe it. We all felt on the field that day that we could beat them."
Rhodesia led 3-0 at half-time with an Ian Robertson penalty. Northerns then scored a controversial try followed by Stewart's disallowed 'try' that knocked some of the heart out of the team. Gradually the terrier-like Rhodesians were worn down and Northerns reached the final with a 20-7 victory.
Robert Andrew Stewart was born at Glasgow, Scotland, on 25 September 1949 but moved to South Africa with his parents at the age of three. At Welkom High School he had to play soccer — there had been trouble between English and Afrikaner boys on the field and the school had been suspended from playing rugby for five years.
Stewart left school in 1966 and worked for a year as a surveyor on the mines before deciding to join the British South Africa Police. "I came to Salisbury in 1967 with the intention of playing soccer," he recalled, "and I started for Police at centre-half. I was a cadet at the time and a certain officer told me it would be wise to play rugby."
He reluctantly took this strong hint, though he continued to play soccer and was once suspended from rugby for going to soccer practices instead of rugby. "I was punished a few times and so I resigned myself to the fact that I would play rugby and give up soccer."
However, whenever the Police team were short at soccer he enjoyed filling in and in 1969 played National League games against Dynamos, Arcadia and Chibuku. These outings put him in two minds to go back, but finally in 1970 he set his sights firmly on a rugby career.
He had first played rugby in 1967 at full back for the Police 2nd XV, moving to the flank for the next two seasons and playing first league. He made his debut for Rhodesia as a lock against Western Transvaal at Bulawayo on 6 June 1970, Rhodesia winning this Currie Cup match 18-16. It was incredible to think that only three years before he had never been on a rugby field and now, at the age of twenty, he was playing for his country in a position at which he had only played seven times. At that time he had five Mashonaland caps — one in 1968, two in 1969 and two in 1970.
His interest in rugby, however, waned in 1974 and he 'retired' after being capped 14 times for Rhodesia, including internationals against the All Blacks and Italy. "I have lost complete interest and have packed up for good," he said at the time. "I played in two games for Edwardians this year and found that the refereeing was so bad that it killed all my enjoyment in the game."
But the 105 kg, 1,94 m-tall Stewart soon realised his mistake, and he returned to the game in 1975 as flank against South Eastern Transvaal at Witbank. The game was a disaster for Rhodesia, who lost 10-21, and Stewart was among several players to be axed, missing matches against Public School Wanderers and Boland before returning at lock against Free State at Bloemfontein.
Thereafter Stewart played in every match for Rhodesia (56) up to the time of his departure. He was vice-captain on occasions; he played mostly at lock, but also as flank and eighthman. He was a Springbok trialist and played for the President's XV against the Junior Springboks in 1977.
In his Rhodesian career he scored 68 points, including 17 tries — five of those from the lock position in the 1977 season when the All Black, Alan Sutherland, was captain and rejuvenated national rugby.
On his departure, only four players in the history of Rhodesian rugby had scored more tries than Stewart — Eric Barrett (31), Ray Mordt (25), Danny Delport (21) and David Smith (18). He had played three internationals — All Blacks in 1970, Italy in 1973 and America in 1978. He played Rhodesia under-20 in 1968 and 1969 (captain)
A fine ball-player one could often pick up the soccer influence in his rugby and it was a stirring sight to see the massive and highly mobile Stewart burst through, dribbling the rugby ball. He scored several fine tries in this fashion and frequently gained valuable ground for his team by this method.
As a youngster, Stewart was talented in other sports and at the age of fifteen, swam and played water polo for the Free State. He was also an athlete and broke school records for the 220, 440, 880 and mile in one day.
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