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When one talks about Zululand rugby one doesn’t realise that when the game started to grow in that area so did the fortunes of the KwaZulu Natal Rugby Union. Indeed Zululand has a rich rugby heritage with a history steeped in wonderful traditions with Thanda North Coast Rhinos the shining light in the heart of the mighty Zulu Kingdom.

The history of rugby in Empangeni can be traced back to 1921 and the Thanda Zululand Rhinos Rugby Club can certainly look back with great pride on their history and what they have achieved right up to the present time with the establishment of the Zululand Rugby Academy, which is based at Mick Kelly Park in Empangeni the home of the mighty Rhinos.

Formerly known as the Empangeni Rugby Football Club their home was first situated at the old Zululand Sugar Mill in 1921 and when the site was considered not suitable for the game the club moved to a location higher up in the then small fledgling town where the Catholic Church is now situated. In 1933 they settled in Addison Park and remained there until 1960, which was to become their second most important date in the history of the club, for it was the year the rugby section would break away from the Empangeni Sports Club and establish a new home AT Mick Kelly Park where they have remained until this day.

The late Ronald Maitland, Mick Kelly, Chris ‘CJ’ Edwards, a tireless worker for the club still to this day and John Adlam, were the prime movers in getting the project started and soon the new home of the 86 year old club began to develop into a marvellous facility for the game in the region. This was after they had negotiated with the then town board to develop the area next to the municipal swimming pool.

After all the hard work that Mick Kelly had put into the club, it was no surprise that when he was tragically killed in an air crash in 1963 the now famous rugby facility was named after him. Mick Kelly can certainly look back with pride today as the home of the North Coast Rhinos is undoubtedly one of the best club grounds in KwaZulu-Natal.

The club first earned Premier Division status in 1974 and in the interim have had three Springboks listed on their honours board in Kevin Putt, Brent Russell and AD Jacobs who is a current member of the Sharks squad. There of course has bee a whole lot of well known names who represented the province that have played on the hallowed turf of the grand old Zululand club. These include R.C. Lyle (1930), G. Howson (1937-39), N.E. Theunissen (1947-48), R.J. Adlam (1953-1954), A.R. Townsend (1955-59), A.C. Labuschagne (1956-64), K. Sclanders (1969-72), R. Pitcher (1971-78), H. Moore (1978), J. de Kock (1974-76), Stompie de la Porte (1978), J. de Waal (1980), C. Kelly (1980), G. Hines (1983), B. Kankowski (1988), N. Veldsman (1986) and Kevin Putt (1992-98). One shouldn’t forget the great services of Hansie van Rooyen who is still actively involved.

The club has also produced a number of prominent administrators as well including one of their favourite sons Chris Edwards who together with his late wife Erica became institutions in rugby circles all over the country. Edwards served as President of the KZNRU between 1999 and 2001. The other well administrators include Dave Thomas Ralph Lyle, Mick Kelly, Mike Harrison, John Adlam, Paddy Kelly, and Doug Curry to name a few.

Although the club has never won any major KZNRU silverware they have had their name engraved on the Junior Murray Cup and have been a huge force in contesting the Premier Division Moor Cup in years gone by often finishing in the top four position on the log table. They played in the final of the Murray Cup knockout competition in 1980 losing by the narrowest of margins to Maritzburg Collegians.

Besides beating Citroen Durban Collegians this year one of their most memorable matches was beating the Collegians juggernaut of 1978 at Kings Patk (Absa Stadium) under their captain courageous Natal No 8 Hugh Moore. Not long after that they sadly lost their Premier Division status in 1982 after Railway Police beat them in the promotion relegation match that year. Their years in Second Division fortunately didn’t last too long and they reappeared in the Premier Division in 1986 after winning the Wylie Cup and annihilating all their opposition in the process.

In 1990 they had to once again play in the promotion relegation match and destroyed Pinetown Rugby Club in the process to retain their Premier Division Status. They never looked back from that year on finishing well up on the Moor Cup log standings except for their two lean years of 1993 and 1994.

The club has had their fair share of New Zealand players passing through their ranks including Kevin Putt with Vaughn Going a nephew of the legendary Syd Going, Geoff Hines a flanker of remarkable skill who represented Natal, Stewie Gemmell and Chris Costello the other Kiwis who wore the Rhino’s strip with destinction.

Indeed the club has come a long way since those distant days and they have done the game proud. Now as they go forward with their sponsors Thanda Private Game Reserve it’s a safe bet to say they have done all for the right reasons and that is for the love of the game. So it’s apt for their sponsors name Thanda to be attached to this fine club for Thanda is the Zulu word for love and yes for the love of the game we all hold dear. May the legacy of Zululand and Rhinos rugby continue to grow under African skies.