Former Ireland Lions scrum-half, John Robbie, presented Johannesburg’s main radio breakfast show for 17 years
Credit: DAVID ROGERS
John Robbie has several notable claims to fame. The Ireland scrum-half was part of the 1980 Lions party to tour South Africa only to end up staying in the country and representing the Springboks in a series of uncapped matches.
He later presented Johannesburg’s main radio breakfast show for 17 years. His love of a discussion – the more heated the better – put noses out of joint. Robbie is one of only two people (alongside Bill Clinton) publicly told to “shut up” by Nelson Mandela. But he made far more serious enemies within the apartheid regime by giving a platform to prominent black voices and political prisoners who were not heard from elsewhere.
Death threats, usually accompanied by bullets, were sent to him in the post, including one detailing his wife’s car registration number. Robbie shrugged those off. What he did not realise at the time was that he was on the apartheid regime’s kill list, a fact he found out years later when he was told face to face by Eugene De Kock.
Nicknamed “Prime Evil” by the South African media, De Kock, a former police colonel in a covert South African police force, was involved in multiple assassinations of leading opposition activists. While laughing, he told Robbie that he received orders to assassinate him with a crossbow “to send a message”. Perversely, Robbie takes great pride in this fact.
“Obviously it concentrates the mind to make you realise you were a target,” Robbie told Telegraph Sport. “Later when you look at the other people they were targeting and the quality of those people – religious figures and anti-apartheid activists – then in a way it is like a badge of honour. Doing what I was doing on the radio by stoking the hornets’ nest was actually doing something that was right. I was on a mission because there was this window of opportunity when apartheid was coming down.”
This does not wipe away Robbie’s regret at returning to South Africa on Ireland’s 1981 tour. The previous year, he had come out as a replacement on the Lions tour and started the last Test, which the Lions won 17-13. In the intervening 12 months, the anti-apartheid movement had grown considerably and his decision to tour cost him his job with the Guinness brewery.
Robbie played scrum-half on the Lions' 1980 tour of South Africa
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“I knew coming here was wrong,” Robbie said. “It is stain I can’t shift but on the other hand if I had not gone on that tour then I would never have ended up where I am.”
Offered a job in sales, Robbie decided to stay in South Africa a year with the target of playing for Transvaal. A year quickly passed without him returning home. Robbie became Transvaal’s most capped scrum-half and in 1987 was voted in South Africa’s top five players. He pulled on a South Africa shirt but never got off the bench in the capped fixtures before the Springboks were plunged into isolation.
“I sat on the bench in 1984 four times,” Robbie said. “After the last time, the captain said I meant for you to come on. I thought it’s fine, I’ll get another chance.”
Robbie’s radio career also came about by chance when he was invited by Alan Wilkins to be a summariser. His gregariousness made him a natural fit on the airwaves and he started his breakfast show in January 1990, the week before FW De Klerk announced that he was freeing Mandela. The show exploded in popularity.
“Growing up in Ireland in the pub, you argue, you talk, you banter,” Robbie said. “That’s why radio came so easily to me. The whole basis of apartheid is that you were put into pigeonholes. If you were an Afrikaner this is who you were, this is who you voted, this is where you go to church and this is what you thought. If you were a Zulu from Kwazulu-Natal it was the same thing. But I could not be put into a pigeonhole because I was an outsider so that’s why it worked. There was no training. I made it up as I went along. I broke every rule in the book.”
Despite playing for the Lions, Robbie now has South African citizenship
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Robbie finished his radio commitments in 2016 but continues to hold court in a lovingly constructed pub in the annex of his Johannesburg home. Ironically, it even has his own Guinness pump, a luxury usually only afforded to the private residences of the Dublin brewery’s executives.
As a former Lion and Springbok who declared South African citizenship, he is well placed to give a view on this tour and upcoming series. With the country rocked by political unrest and still in the grip of Covid’s third wave – Robbie and his wife, Jenny, have lost several friends in the past few weeks – there were serious ethical questions about whether the tour should go ahead.
Robbie’s answer is unequivocal. “You think of the various entertainers during wars who went out to entertain the troops,” Robbie said. “You have to have live life. Life has to go on. I think it is so significant that it is going ahead in South Africa. For lots of different reasons, the country is really struggling at the moment and a Lions tour is a marvellous distraction.”
Where Robbie won’t be drawn is where his allegiances will lie in the series. “I really don’t know. I will probably only know when the game kicks off.” Despite his admiration of Conor Murray, Robbie admits that he was taken aback by the appointment of the Ireland scrum-half as tour captain when Alun Wyn Jones dislocated a shoulder.
“He’s a fabulous player, but a huge risk as a captain,” Robbie said. “Maybe he will grow into it, but he’s never captained anybody. I don’t think he even captained his school, he did once for Munster. Suddenly it is not his performance he’s responsible. He’s responsible for everything.”
That said, he feels the series is on a knife edge. Many of the Springboks’ advantages as world champions have been negated by a lack of game time. With such thin margins, the set-piece battle looms large. “It could come down to the scrum,” Robbie said. “That first scrum in the first Test will be really significant. If you can go forward, as South Africa did in the World Cup final against England, then you have basically won the game.”