Proud moment sees Barends fulfil once-thwarted ambition

IN most respects, Tom van Vollenhoven remains the most famous South African player in rugby league history.

The former Springbok winger established a reputation as the one of the sport's greatest exponents during his 11 seasons at St Helens from 1957 and went on to become an inaugural member of the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

Yet for all van Vollenhoven's exploits, including a famous solo try in the 1959 Championship final against Hunslet and a length-of-the-field score in the 1961 Challenge Cup final against Wigan, there is one of his fellow countrymen whose career as a league player is perhaps more significant.

David Barends may never have got to play for South Africa – he was not considered for selection by the Springboks because of the colour of his skin – but he did represent Great Britain as a rugby league international.

Twenty eight years before the controversial call-up of Maurie Fa'asavalu, the Samoa-bornSt Helens forward, by Great Britain for last autumn's Test series against New Zealand, Barends made two appearances as a Lion in the first and second Tests in Brisbane and Sydney on the 1979 tour.

The former Wakefield, York, Bradford and Featherstone winger recalls that little fuss was made about a foreign national being selected by Great Britain.

"There were a few comments made – people should be entitled to pass comment based on their own beliefs – but not a lot of objections," said Barends, who had arrived in England eight years before to join Wakefield Trinity.

"My Great Britain debut was the proudest time for me. To play for Great Britain in a Test match was beyond my belief.

"Coming from South Africa and not being able to fulfil my ambitions to play as a Springbok made representing Great Britain extra special.

"When I ran out on to the field it was as a Great Britain Lion, but I was also making a statement for my people back home in South Africa.

"I showed the world that we have the capacity if we are given the opportunity."

Barends's talent had been noted by a Wakefield official who spotted the young winger playing for 'South African Coloured' and quickly brokered the life-changing deal.

"I knew absolutely nothing about league when I arrived on December 6, 1970. I knew very little about England either and had never really heard of Yorkshire," said Barends.

"Yorkshire is a very special place to live. Wherever you go people speak with a different dialect.

"I'd been here for a few days when some people at Wakefield invited me around for an 'early tea'. I had no idea what to expect and tried to look up what 'early tea' meant in a dictionary but the term wasn't in.

"They put on a lovely spread but the stuff on the table was a real eye opener for me. I had never seen food like it, never mind eaten it."

At Belle Vue Barends played alongside Neil Fox, another future Hall of Fame member who was coming towards the end of his career, but with Wakefield struggling to replicate the glory days of the Sixties he soon moved on to join York.

"I enjoyed my time at York, it was a friendly club and a lovely city, but it didn't work out for a very strange reason," said Barends. "I returned to South Africa for a visit in 1976 and explained to my brother who York were and told him that they were playing in the Second Division.

"He didn't like that because he thought it meant I was playing for the second team.

"He insisted I move because of my responsibilities to my family."

The following year Barends signed for Bradford Northern, a move which was to precipitate his international breakthrough when Widnes winger Stuart Wright withdrew from the tour with injury.

"Being on tour was an eye opener," he added.

"You learn a lot about your fellow players and about yourself when you are away for such a long time together.

"When I received my first cap and stood there on the pitch in Sydney everything came back to me: why I had come to England in the first place and everyone who had helped me become who I was: my parents, my brothers, the people from my village in South Africa, my wife, my two daughters and the village of Hemsworth.

"I thanked them all as the national anthem played and I don't think I had ever been so touched."

Given the vileness of the apartheid regime, Barends could be forgiven for resenting his homeland, but he bears no grudges and is proud that his achievements as a sportsman were finally recognised in 2001 when he was invited back to South Africa to meet Nelson Mandela.

"I returned in 2001 to receive an award from Mr Mandela in Johannesburg as one of the country's 'Yesterday's Heroes'. It was a very special day for me," said Barends.

"The aura of the guy was amazing and I just wish he'd have the chance to see what a great sport rugby league is."

Now 60, Barends still lives in Hemsworth, near Pontefract, his home for over 30 years, and works with the South Yorkshire probation service, where he has been heavily involved in forging links with ethnic communities in Doncaster.

Given the nature of the population of the towns and villages in the Yorkshire coalfields, which until recently were almost exclusively white and working class, Barends was very much a one-man ethnic minority when he arrived in Hemsworth.

The sight of a black South African who spoke English as a foreign language – his native tongue is Afrikaans – on the streets had a certain novelty value in the town, but the welcome he received could not have been warmer according to Barends, whose paternal grandmother was a white South African.

"Colour was never an issue for me back in South Africa. We were taught from an early age that respect for other people was the most important thing," he said.

"When I came to Hemsworth I found I was the only black person in the town, but people always treated me with great respect.

"I'd get stopped in the street by people who wanted to talk to me about sport and that was a great way of ensuring there were no barriers.

"We have always had colour in the world. We need to communicate with one another and sport is a wonderful way of communication.

"I have spent the last 38 years in England and have had a lovely time. I value the work I have done here greatly and, looking back, there isn't much, if anything, I'd like to change."