ASK many of those who watched Tom van Vollenhoven at close quarters what made him great, and they will no doubt single out his blistering pace and agility.
But few will be able to tell you that the foundation for this imperious athleticism came from the gymnastics halls of Bethlehem, South Africa, rather than the rugby fields where he made his name.
Such qualities, however, were familiar to former Saints team-mates of the Flying Springbok, who would often marvel at his ability in training to perform somersaults or back flip manoeuvres known as a ‘flick flacks’.
So, perhaps, it came as no great surprise for those friends to learn why the legendary Saint, now aged 79, is making a visit to the UK this week.
It turns out the sporting gene – and more crucially the gymnastic trait – is woven into the DNA of the Vollenhovens.
Tom’s granddaughter Bianca Mann is a leading artistic gymnast and has been selected to represent South Africa at the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre for Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games.
Proudly watching her will be Tom and his wife Leonie, who stopped off for a visit to see old friends in St Helens before heading North.
At Greenalls Social Club in Eccleston they were greeted by 20 players from Tom’s era, including Glyn Moses, Alex Murphy, Brian McGinn, Austin Rhodes, Alan Whittle and Peter Harvey for a family friendly gathering organised by Geoff Pimblett.
Peter presented the legendary winger with a players’ tie and recalled how Tom's own gift of a tie to former Saints director Mel Preston, had been worn at the funeral of Saints stalwart Wilf Smith recently.
Afterwards Peter said: “Everyone will know that Tom was probably the finest winger ever to play for St Helens, but far fewer will know that he was also an excellent gymnast – a near perfect role model for Bianca.”
In fact there are those who believe gymnastics was the catalyst for Voll’s career in rugby.
His biography ‘The Flying Springbok’ tells how he had battled a weak chest as a youngster, making him susceptible to cool weather.
But after mithering his father he was allowed to join his elder brother at a gymnastics class and the exercises proved beneficial, clearing the disability that doctors feared would prevent him from taking part in sport and providing the platform for his journey to an athlete.