Blackest tour the ultimate test
NZPA's Daniel Gilhooly
July 22, 2009
Legendary New Zealand fullback Bob Scott was hailed as a "rugby genius" by the South African media © Getty Images
Comparisons with war are odious. To draw parallels with any sporting endeavour is rightly scorned.
Yet there is an unmistakable irony that half the 1949 All Blacks tourists to South Africa had served their country during World War Two. One who hadn't was a 21-year-old Dunedin grocer named Kevin Skinner, who would go on to become one of New Zealand's most revered props.
He recalls vividly the whisper among those teammates who had served in Europe and Africa as they traversed the republic for four gruelling months -- stopping only for another desperately challenging game of rugby.
"Those South Africans were big and heck, every game was like a Test," Skinner says. "She was a hard road to hoe. The war was over but we were all saying it, we had a hell of fight on our hands."
The challenge couldn't be met and the series result still screams out in painful black ink. Not only does the 4-0 loss remain New Zealand's worst in its rugby history, the year itself blots a proud heritage because a virtual All Blacks third-string team lost their home series 2-0 to Australia at the same time.
Sixty years ago today the All Blacks were a quarter of the way into a tour where not only were they whitewashed in the Tests but they suffered three losses and three draws in the 20 other matches. Nearly every fixture was grim and low-scoring. The South African teams struggled to cross the tryline but they managed 35 penalty goals in total, compared to the All Blacks' 15.
Legendary fullback Bob Scott had a brilliant tour in all respects but one. His goalkicking boot was consistently wayward, something that haunts him to this day.
"It's always lived with me as a great disappointment," the 88-year-old recalls. "I was probably part to blame, in some ways, because the goalkicking was so important."
After more thought, Scott isn't so hard on himself, remembering most of his penalty and dropped goal attempts were from close to the halfway line.
"In the end there were little things. You look at the scores, there was nothing in it," he says. "It's hard to hide when it's four losses but it came down to a penalty here or a dropped goal there. And you can't blame referees... I've never gone along with that."
Skinner doesn't agree, joking that glasses wouldn't have gone astray for referee Eddie Hofmeyr - who had allowed legendary South African No.8 Hennie Muller to dominate the series through some odd rulings at the scrum. But Skinner saves his fiercest criticism for assistant manager Alex MacDonald, the 66-year-old who coached the team.
MacDonald played for the All Blacks in the early 1900s and captained them 12 times but was unqualified for this role, Skinner says.
"We never had a coach. Alex MacDonald, this old soul, he was thinking 1905 and it was 1949. You've got to be able to get the guys to put your body on the line for them and we didn't have that."
Skinner was one of 11 Otago players on tour and many believed their no-nonsense provincial coach, Vic Cavanagh, should have been in charge. Octogenarians Skinner and Scott - two genuine rugby giants of the post-war era and among just eight survivors from the 1949 squad - agreed the six months and one day away from home was an experience like no other.
As was the case in 1928, only white New Zealanders were welcome.
The cloak of South Africa's apartheid regime had been lowered a year earlier and the All Blacks took their own silent protest with them by never performing a haka.
Manager Jim Parker explained at the time, "The war cry is a creation of the Maoris and as we have no Maoris with us we are not giving the war cry."
The All Blacks - who were oddly selected eight months earlier after 16 trials - set sail from Auckland on the Tamaroa on April 13 for a 26-day journey. It was to be the last sea voyage for a major All Blacks tour. The journey was an eclectic mix of boredom, morning training rituals and entertainment. The team performed a version of Cinderella for other passengers, with hulking prop Des Christian playing the lead role. Captain Fred Allen was his Prince Charming.
South African interest in the tour was infectious, with the Danie Craven-coached Springboks having not played since 1937, when they toppled the All Blacks in New Zealand. War had postponed the return visit by nine years and crowds crammed into every game. Scott remembers a queue forming a day before their opening match in Cape Town against Western Province.
The All Blacks, many of whom were part of the Kiwi army team, were favoured to sweep all before them but it didn't take long to learn that South African forward play had advanced to new levels. The home sides all scrummaged destructively, something Skinner, Waikato hooker Has Catley and Auckland prop Johnny Simpson had adjusted to by the Test series.
Fred Allen, captain of the 1949 tour to South Africa, pictured at the Waka Nathan Cup Final in Auckland earlier this year © Getty Images
Indeed the trio, along with Scott and midfield backs Morrie Goddard (South Canterbury) and Ron Elvidge (Otago), were hailed by South Africa's press upon departure. Scott, labelled a "rugby genius" remembers the tour as much for its relentless bus and train travel, something that often left no time for training.
One rare break was a visit to the Victoria Falls and Zambesi River around two games against Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). A lowlight came days later when their train collided with another, sending the players flying out of their bunks. Most suffered knocks and Otago lock Charlie Willocks was ruled out of the second Test.
Elvidge, a doctor, spent the night tending to the injured but was unsuccessful in trying to save the life of a coal-trimmer who was trapped in the engine cab.
Springboks prop Okey Geffin
It wasn't the only one, according to Skinner. "I look at it this way, I felt that we lost only one game," he says. "The second Test, I think we weren't up to scratch. The other two, we were dead unlucky."
Unsubstantiated newspaper articles in New Zealand said the touring players had written letters home complaining about the refereeing but they expressed innocence when asked to confirm.
The players never lost their sense of humour. Forced to survive on two shillings and sixpence a day for expenses, they hatched a plot to cover the door charge when invited to a private function after the final Test at Port Elizabeth.
"You couldn't do a hell of a lot with that sort of money," Skinner says. "It was a little stunt we had going to get a little bit of extra money."
Christian told MacDonald his boots were ruined, and needed stg5 to replace them. MacDonald grudgingly agreed and the players could party, at last. Scott regrets the tour forced him to spend nearly a year apart from wife Irene and their two-year-old son Bruce, who had both travelled to her native England.
A more recent lament is that the Springboks have become such familiar rivals but he's pleased they remain the ultimate foe.
"Wales or South Africa, they're the important enemies," Scott says. "Touring South Africa, particularly, is tough. It's a tough country."
Skinner was able to take his frustration out on the field, famously being hauled out of retirement to "sort out" the Springboks front row when they visited New Zealand in 1956. With the series tied at 1-1, national heavyweight boxing champion Skinner helped them to a 3-1 triumph.
"I was the only one left playing from '49. I felt I had redeemed the boys to some extent."
New Zealand 1949 Squad:
Fullbacks: Bob Scott (Auckland), Jack Goddard (South Canterbury)
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery
Monday Maul takes in retirement talk, England reshuffles, France's unfair advantage and Scotland's communication breakdown
John Griffiths takes an analytical look at Week 3 of ESPN Scrum's Fantasy Rugby game - who should you have picked?