A victory for tactical planning
October 30, 2012
Fran Cotton played a key role in the destruction of the All Blacks back in 1972 © PA Photos
There is no doubt that November 22 is one of the resounding dates on the calendar, with the precise nature of the resonance a matter of age and outlook. For those of us of a certain age, it will be forever more the day on which President Kennedy was shot in 1963. Those younger and more focussed on specifically sporting interest will instead naturally gravitate instead to the date, exactly 40 years later, on which England won the World Cup with Jonny Wilkinson's extra-time drop goal.
This was not, though, the first memorable November 22 in English rugby history. Another 40 year gap separates us from that date in 1972, recalled in his memoirs by Fran Cotton as "the pinnacle of John Burgess' coaching career". That it certainly was, but the significance of the meeting between North-West Counties and the All Blacks at Workington was greater than a personal landmark in the life of one of the smartest and most abrasive among English rugby's pioneering coaches.
It was the 86th time, stretching back to 1905, that an English team, other than England, had met touring All Blacks. The statistics of those previous meetings were stark - a home record of Played: 85 Lost: 85 For: 281 Against: 2067. Of those previous 85 challengers only six had got within 10 points of the New Zealanders, a mere 15 had managed double figures and no fewer than 36 had been nilled. The average score was 24-3.
Ian Kirkpatrick's All Blacks had already lost their unbeaten record, to Llanelli, but had carried on in England where their predecessors had left off - defeating Western Counties, Cambridge University and London Counties by a combined 97 points to 18. Burgess, Cotton recalled, was determined from the first that his team would do better. At a squad session held at Fylde in August he 'spelled out how we were going to beat the All Blacks' so convincingly that 'not one person sitting in that dressing room on a hot summer afternoon believed we could not do it'.
It was a midweek match played on a wet afternoon in front of 12,000 spectators, but the All Blacks selected something a little stronger than a 'midweek team', including five players who would start against Wales 10 days later. They found their opponents not only highly motivated, but tactically prepared - as Cotton recalled: "It was not just about dedication and hard work, but more importantly about tactical planning."
Burgess used the short line-out on the counties put-in to both win ball and break up the All Blacks' rhythm, and when the tourists had put-in placed Cumbrian flanker Dave Robinson at the front of the line to stop blind-side moves and England centre Chris Wardlow at outside-half to ensure that his fearless crash-tackling had maximum effect.
Nor were they to be intimidated. Cotton recalled that "the first scrum erupted when Whiting, the All Blacks prop, punched me in the face, to which the reaction was sufficiently telling that peace reigned thereafter".
It was as tight a contest as that opening promised, with the All Blacks leading 10-9 at the break, through a try (then worth 4 points) by wing Grant Batty and two penalties by full-back Trevor Morris to the Counties try by wing Stuart Maxwell, converted by outside-half Dick Cowman and a drop goal by Wardlow.
The All Blacks scored again through wing George Skudder, but the Counties struck back with another Cowman penalty to take the game into its final stages with the score at 14-12. A few minutes from time All Blacks scrum-half Lin Colling was injured. As replacement Sid Going prepared to take the field, Burgess intervened - pointing out that the rules of the time required that the departing player be certified unfit by the match doctor before the replacement was allowed to take the field. This, Cotton recorded "led to a heated exchange between Going and Burgess which was to spill over into the after-match functions".
Stuart Maxwell, here in his Richmond colours, crossed for the North-West Counties on that famous day © PA Photos
While all of this was happening, the North-West Counties called yet another short line-out. Cotton recalled that they "threw the ball to the back where Tony Neary tapped it down to me. I barged through before linking with Dick Cowman, quickly the ball was moved to Wardlow and on to winger Stuart Maxwell who scampered over in the corner. 16-14 to the North-West".
And there the score remained until the final whistle went, ending 67 years of history. Cotton, chaired off the field by delirious fans, records that All Black skipper Ian Kirkpatrick "demonstrated that he not only knew how to win, but also how to lose. It was unfortunate that certain members of his team were unable to conduct themselves in a similar manner".
Veteran Welsh critic JBG Thomas reckoned it a slightly more meritorious victory than Llanelli's a few weeks earlier, yet it is far less remembered. While Max Boyce has something to do with that, the more potent factor is that the Scarlets' victory fits into well over a century of continuous history as the main focus for a community's loyalties. Regional teams were, by contrast, occasional flags of convenience flourished in the face of touring All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks.
For players like Neary and Cotton it was a spur to future achievement while for others like Robinson and Maxwell, who unlike brother Andy never made it into the England side, it was a lifetime peak. For Burgess it also represented a highpoint. He was to coach Lancashire to county championships, take charge of England for a single not terribly happy year - 1975 - and later be president of the Rugby Football Union and put his name to one of those periodic commissions of inquiry which addressed the endemic weaknesses of the English game.
It was a life full of purposeful activity and achievement, but it is hard to believe that it ever felt better than on that wet day 40 years ago at Workington, when an English non-Test team at long last downed the All Blacks.
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