‘The mighty All Blacks’
The first time I took substantial notice of New Zealand’s legendary national rugby union team was 1967, when they were touring the UK and France at the same time as our rugby league Kangaroos.
Being raised in a rugby league family, I had heard of the Kiwi league outfit, before the All Blacks, in particular the Kiwis’ 1965 campaign against the Kangaroos.
My father, Jon also had told me about the likes of George Menzies, Henry Maxwell, Ron Ackland, Mel Cooke and Jock Butterfield, who he had seen during Kiwi tours of Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Kiwis drew bigger crowds than the All Blacks in Australia, the obvious reason, the fact rugby league is far more popular here, just as union is far more popular ‘across the ditch’.
Jack Pollard’s ‘Gregory’s Guide to Rugby league’ one of the few sporting books in the library at Murwillumbah High, when I was a student there in the 1960s, described Kiwi league players as something of a phenomenon in the 13 man code, given they were a minority group of sportsmen, in a small country, that was a giant in the ‘amateur game’ of union.
“But they (the league players) are all lilywhites themselves,”Pollard wrote. “While payments to league players in Australia and Britain are soaring, and France still signs players from union, the fees of New Zealanders stay at the same level – nothing.”
When our Kangaroos toured Britain and France in ’67, I followed the tour, largely through the writing of Sydney Telegraph journalist, the late Mike Gibson, who had a broad outlook on sport, filing references to the All Blacks, in some of his reports.
The following year, when the All Blacks toured Australia, I followed their exploits in the papers, in particular the match against Combined Services when league star, Bob Fulton, who was a national serviceman, turned out against New Zealand.
It is one of the great sports trivia questions. Who played in a league World Cup final (against France) and against the All Blacks in the same year? Answer: ‘Bob Fulton’.
He was given a dispensation, because he was a member of the armed forces, just as British league great, Alex Murphy was able to play at Twickenham (the home of union) when he was doing his National Service.
Believe it not, despite my (well deserved) reputation as the most ardent of rugby league men, I have covered a few rugby union matches, the most notable the Bledisloe Cup clash between the Wallabies and All Blacks at Eden Park, Auckland on June 29, 1985. (See ‘False Economics’ on this website).
The All Blacks won 10-9, but I thought Australia was the better side, and I wasn’t the only one. Even some members of the Kiwi media brigade thought the Wallabies were hard done by.
Brisbane’s ‘Telegraph’ newspaper had sent me to Auckland to cover the Union on Saturday and the League Test the following day. The paper could not afford to send the union (Wayne Smith) and league writer, so ‘Smithy’ missed out.
Noted New Zealand rugby correspondent, Terry McLean, was one of those covering the Eden Park match alongside me, and he had an article in match program, about Australian Rugby.
He wrote that when the Wallabies clicked, they played the best rugby to be seen at international level.
“They come from a nation of great soldiers; thus they have a discipline which the French, the most talented players in the game, cannot consistently accept,” McLean wrote.
The curtain raiser to the Bledisloe Test was a Trans-Tasman under-21 clash, with the New Zealand side including future Newcastle Knights league player, John Schuster, while the Australian side boasted future South Queensland Crushers’ inaugural signing, Anthony Herbert.
New Zealand won 37-21 and the ground announcer asked the fans to provide a standing ovation. I believe that is something that should be spontaneous, and not requested.
I noted that one of the Life Members of the Auckland Rugby union at the time was F R (Fred) Allen, who I had read about in ‘The Game’ magazine, an English publication, which my parents, Jon and Lola Ricketts, subscribed to, on my behalf.
It was a toss-up as to what gave me the most joy when magazines lobbed over the fence in those days – ‘The Game’ or another English publication, ‘Lion’.
But I digress.
The All Blacks’ amazing record in the second half of the 1960s was partly a tribute to Allen’s coaching ability, and he won the fans over by allowing the backs, for so long the forgotten men of the All Blacks, to express themselves.
As a player, Allen, a five eighth, had come into his prime at the outbreak of World War II, but he was still good enough to captain the All Blacks after the cessation of hostilities. He played six Tests, four against Australia and two against South Africa.
As a coach he didn’t molly coddle the players.
“Don’t stop for autographs. You look like a bunch of sheilas”, he was heard to say on the training paddock.
He’d be hauled up before the PC brigade now.
1 The All Blacks
2 Kiwi league star, Mel Cooke
3 Australia’s Kangaroos
4 Former All Blacks player and coach, Fred Allen
5 Eden Park, Auckland.