The original World Cup
October 28, 2011
Tiny White looks to shift the ball © PA Photos
'Absolutely shagged'. Richie McCaw's first words to a television interviewer after captaining the All Blacks to their World Cup victory seem destined for the game's annals. It was natural, unvarnished, unpretentious and caught a national mood of relief as well as triumph.
McCaw also echoed, consciously or not, words spoken on the same ground 55 years earlier, on what may be the one previous occasion when New Zealand has been as desperate for victory as it was on October 23rd.
It is easy, and perhaps accurate, to describe the final victory over France as the biggest match and the most important win in New Zealand's remarkable rugby history. But if such comparisons are to have any meaning, they must take account of the world before 1987, when there was no World Cup to provide a focus for every four-year cycle of the international game.
Given the importance and infrequency of major tours - when the Springboks came to New Zealand in 1956 it was only their third visit in 35 years, while the All Blacks had been to South Africa twice in the same period - it can be argued that these series, more often than not for a de facto world title, mattered as much in their day as World Cups do in ours.
And however desperate the desire of New Zealanders for victory in this World Cup, it is hard to imagine that it was any more intense than the atmosphere in 1956. Rugby was even more dominant in New Zealand society than it is now, unchallenged king of a sporting - and to some extent cultural - monoculture in a much less diverse society than that of 2011.
New Zealand's leading current historian James Belich has the top-class academic's distaste for hyperbole and, with a background in military history, is disdainful of lazy war-based metaphors. But he writes in his Paradise Reforged, 'New Zealanders whose memories stretch back to 1956 may remember that the country went to war that year - not with the Egyptians over Suez, although that came quite close, but with the New Zealand rugby union team'. It was, he adds 'a frenzy not far short of group hysteria'.
New Zealanders still had bitter memories of the 1949 tour of South Africa, in which their 4-0 defeat was widely attributed to home-town refereeing giving the Boks the stream of penalties that swung matches in which the All Blacks scored more tries.
The Boks were desperate to retain their record of never having lost a series to the All Blacks - or to anybody else since the 1890s, long before their defining rivalry with New Zealand had started.
It made for a series of extraordinary physical ferocity. At the end of it Peter Jones, the Northland fisherman who was the hero of the deciding test, stood before a radio microphone and proclaimed himself 'absolutely b******d'. Like McCaw's response it was natural and unvarnished, but it was spoken to a rather different country. New Zealand in 1956 was still distinctly strait-laced. As late as 1970 it was possible for Tim Shadbolt, early in a long and colourful career that continues to this day as Mayor of Invercargill, to be arrested for public use of the word 'bullshit'.
Jones's words went out on national radio and into New Zealand legend. Given the awareness New Zealanders have of their rugby heritage, and that McCaw certainly has of the role of the All Blacks in their society, it is far from impossible that he was channelling some unconscious recall at the moment of triumph.
The 1956 inspired two magnificent accounts- a contemporarily journalistic tour book The Battle for the Rugby Crown by New Zealander Terry McLean and a retelling in 1991 by Warwick Roger Old Heroes, that is the nearest thing rugby has to Roger Kahn's brilliant baseball memoir The Boys of Summer.
New Zealand led 2-1 after three tests - taking the lead after recalling prop Kevin Skinner from retirement to reinforce a pack that had been dominated physically in the first two matches. Skinner was a veteran of 1949 and undoubtedly one of the finest props ever to play for New Zealand. He was also, as South Africans invariably point out, a former New Zealand amateur heavyweight boxing champion. In the third test he subdued opposite number Chris Koch before shifting to the other side to tangle with Jaap Bekker, an old enemy from 1949.
Roger's account, based on a host of interviews as well as his own personal recall, shows that by the time of the fourth test the rivalry between the two teams had hardened into genuine dislike. A personal memory is of flanker Bill Clark, interviewed in 2002, telling me 'The truth is that we couldn't stand them'.
The final test, won 11-5 by New Zealand, was highlighted by two events. The first was Jones's try, a 40 yard solo charge after a line-out. A former schools sprint champion who brought exceptional athleticism as well as the power of a 6ft3in, 230 lb frame to playing number eight, Jones was to score more than 200 tries in his rugby career, but none remotely to approach the impact of this one.
The second was the kick administered by a South African to All Black lock Tiny White five minutes from the end. Roger remembers 'It looked as if we were seeing a paraplegic made before our eyes'. It did not turn out that badly, but it meant that White - a magnificent forward who had become the most-capped All Black during the series - ended his international career on a stretcher. The perpetrator, Bekker, owned up more than 40 years later, but died just before making the trip to apologise in person. He would in any case have found White unimpressed. The All Black lock said : "Perhaps he knew and felt the need to clear his conscience, but it took him an awfully long time".
The intensity of the series left mental as well as physical marks. All Black Ross Brown admitted that he took three months to start sleeping properly after the series ended. One team-mate told full-back Don Clarke that 'If I had to play under this strain for very much longer, I'd end up needing psychiatric treatment'.
Perhaps most telling is Roger's observation of a famous photograph showing Springbok manager Danie Craven addressing the crowd. As he points out 'The All Blacks had won, the Springboks had been crushed, but everyone looks drained. One man has his hand to his chin and appears to be in deep thought. There isn't one happy face in the whole crowd'.
Here at least is a contrast with 2011, but many New Zealanders will confirm that even as they partied after reclaiming the world title, relief was as strong an emotion as triumph. If one possible explanation for the similarity between McCaw's and Jones's words is unconscious recall, another is that their emotions, 55 years apart, were extremely similar as well.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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