Fifty years on, Spiro Zavos

The Team that Changed Rugby Forever: The 1967 All Blacks
Alex McKay
New Holland Publishers, $35.00,
ISBN 9781869664725

 

On the afternoon of the first test between New Zealand and the British and Irish Lions, the 1967 All Blacks held a reunion in the Barbarians room at Eden Park. The reunion marked 50 years from the team’s epic unbeaten tour of Britain and France. A photo was taken of the 11 survivors who could make the journey to Auckland. It is a poignant portrait of a famous group of the boys of winter in the winter of their years. 

Many of the team are dead. Several others, still living, could not or would not attend the reunion, some of them for health reasons and others because of a self-imposed exile. The group is smiling, although Waka Nathan, wearing his All Blacks scarf, has a faraway look in his eyes. Chris Laidlaw, forever the outsider, is on the far side of the back row, with a slightly bemused look on his face. His great rival, Sid Going, has a clenched-teeth smile, but looks fit enough to make a trademark bouncy, low-sprung break through a pack of opposition forwards, as he did in his pomp. The captain of the side, and still the leader of the group, Brian Lochore, is casually dressed and presents a cagey, weather-beaten face to the camera. Colin Meads, the team’s iconic strong man, arguably the greatest player to put on the All Blacks jersey, now battling ill-health, is present as a small replica at the feet of the front group of players.

For someone like myself, who has watched rugby since the 1940s, there is a special resonance about this photo and the reunion it celebrates. It reminds me of the earlier 50-year anniversary reunion of the fabulous 1905-6 All Blacks (The Originals) in Wellington, held at the time of the New Zealand-Australia test (won by the All Blacks, 16-8). Billy Stead, one of the 10 survivors of the 1905-6 tour, criticised the then current All Blacks for not being as fit as they should have been. His remarks were reported by the dominant rugby writer of the time, T P McLean, who wrote a series of articles on The Originals that educated younger generations of New Zealanders like myself, who did not understand just how special this first All Blacks touring side to Europe was.

But, aside from Phil Gifford, the sage from Christchurch, there was little media interest in the 1967 edition of the All Blacks. Certainly, there was not the same interest in the 1967 team, 50 years on, especially from the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU), as there had been in the 1905 side 50 years on from their glory days.

It is timely, then, that the 1967 All Blacks, the “greatest All Blacks side”, according to Steve Hansen, a side that matched its on-field success with success off the field, has been immortalised with a fascinating book that is a social history of the team, its era, the impact of the team on how New Zealand sides played rugby and how the players coped with life after their retirement. The book is titled The Team that Changed Rugby Forever: The 1967 All Blacks. And the thesis of its author, Alex McKay, a new and interesting voice in the literature of New Zealand rugby writing, is this challenging assessment:

With an unbeaten record, the team is remembered not only for transforming the national style of rugby from a defensive to an attacking focus, but also for the highly productive lives so many of them went on to lead in and out of the game: of the 32 players, coach and manager, four went on to captain the All Blacks, three were knighted, and four others elected to Parliament. One also became High Commissioner to Zimbabwe and others succeeded in teaching, business, and farming.

I would add to this that, if he had not died as a relatively young man, Ken Gray would have been the first All Black to become prime minister.

This claim by McKay, though, that the 1967 All Blacks “changed rugby forever”, is over-reaching. It is not too much to argue, however, that the 1967 All Black team was the most influential New Zealand national side since 1946. The influence was due to two factors. First, the 1967 All Blacks wrenched the playing style of the national side away from an “unsmiling giants” obsession with forward power and back to the fundamentals of the “all backs” New Zealand game that was set by the 1905-6 All Blacks. And, second, with Colin Meads literally leading the way, a crucial addition to The Originals’ invention of the wing-forward position was added to the New Zealand game. This Meads addition has had a significant role in the recent dominance of New Zealand teams in world rugby at every level of the game.

It was the 1905-6 All Blacks who changed rugby forever with their profound insights into how the rugby game should be, or could be, most effectively played. They saw that systems could be imposed on the seemingly chaotic nature of play. These systems involved the creation of specialised positions in the forwards, with players selected for these positions with the body type to perform the essential task the position required. It needs to be remembered that the rest of the rugby world, including South Africa, still packed their scrums in the 1920s with the first forward arriving to the play going into the front row. The game, also, was to be based on the creed that a side using all 15 players would defeat a team relying mainly on its forwards, or its backs. Journalists of the day often referred to the 1905-6 as a team of “all backs”. The fullback, in this mind-set, was to be a runner (Billy Wallace), rather than a custodian. The organisation of the backs, too, was based on the notion of two playmakers, the famed five-eights system. And the link between the forwards and the backs, to provide a continuity of play demanded by the ensemble game, was the controversial wing-forward (Dave Gallaher).

Meads, and with him the 1967 All Blacks, come into this history of changing rugby forever with his contribution to wing-forward theory and practice. The traditional wing-forward, from Gallaher to Cliff Porter and through to modern greats, like Richie McCaw, played as a forward. Meads, with his aggressive running, the ball clutched in one hand like a toy, with his high-stepping swerve and thunderous pace, accentuated the wing aspect of the wing-forward play. This Meads ploy has led to big running forwards like Brodie Retallick and big wingers like John Kirwan, Jonah Lomu and Julian Savea. The current All Blacks successfully play several wing-forwards, some in the forwards in the Gallaher mode and some in the backs, but playing in the Meads mode.

McKay has based his book on extensive interviews with most of the surviving players from the 1967 tour. He has read virtually all the NZRU documents and a wide range of tour books, other rugby books and diaries. The opening section of his book, where he investigates “the archaeology” of the All Blacks, going back to the thoughts and practice of Jimmy Duncan, the coach of the 1905-6 Originals, provides a detailed and fascinating insight into the creation of the All Blacks tradition and intellectual property. This tradition is then linked to Charlie Saxton, the manager of the 1967 side, who was coached by Jimmy Duncan, and their coach, Fred Allen, who was one of the stars of Saxton’s team that based its play on Duncan’s methods and beliefs. The argument is successfully made that these two men re-established in 1967 the great tradition of the All Blacks, by insisting that their team “run the ball” whenever possible. This is the tradition that saw its greatest triumph in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final. It is fitting, surely, that Fred Allen, in a real sense an “onlie begetter” of the modern All Blacks method, was in the stand enduring the agony of the play and then the exhilaration when the final whistle was blown. The book ends with a coda in which McKay writes about what happened to the players when their rugby days were finished.

There is so much interesting discussion, insights, and stories on and off the field in the book that it is a constant delight. We understand at the end of the book that rugby is not just a game played well in New Zealand. It is a game that makes New Zealand the vibrant, diverse and smart nation that it is.

 

Spiro Zavos is a Sydney-based journalist and author who writes on politics and sport.

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