Sports books revisited, No.3
It's said that it is important to maintain a healthy balance and that due consideration should be given to all sides of an argument before making a judgment on all manner of events.
That thought kept running through the brain when revisiting J.B.G. Thomas' account of the 1972-73 tour of Britain and France by Ian Kirkpatrick's All Blacks, The Avenging All Blacks.
Thomas was among the first of the British rugby critics who used to provide New Zealand rugby fans with all manner of angst for his reported comments on games involving the All Blacks. He and T.P. McLean were seen as journalistic rivals, much in the manner of the great Australian poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, forever competing over the justice or injustice of the award or non-award of Bob Deans' try in 1905. The comparison with the poets is intended as an example, not of their literary capabilities.
In maintaining that sense of balance it must be said the McLean had the ability to upset the British in the same way as Thomas did antipodean readers.
Overall The Avenging All Blacks was a disappointing read. If Thomas made the point that the All Blacks were insular, uncommunicative and dour once, he made it ad infinitum throughout the book.
Halfback Sid Going came in for plenty of treatment, as he did on tour for his perceived inaccurate feeding of the ball to scrums, a campaign waged throughout the media all tour. Going's truculence toward the media was understandable given the pressure that had started against him a year earlier during the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.
But as Going explained in Behind the Silver Fern, British medical officials had tried to have him ruled out of the tour with an 'irreparable ankle injury' after the first tour game. Going felt he was being set up from the outset.
There was a sense of hungover triumphalism as a result of the Lions' success in much of Thomas' coverage of the tour. He didn't attend every game, a broken arm restricted his ability to travel, but he called on New Zealand scribe Bob Howitt to fill in the blanks for him.
In terms of a contribution to the annals of rugby literature, the most valuable part of the book is the foreword by Lions' coach Carwyn James, a man who cast his own influence over the tour by coaching Llanelli to beat the All Blacks in their second game of the tour, and for working with the Barbarians in the outstanding tour finale in which Gareth Edwards scored his outstanding try.
Even now James' words ring true: "The strength of New Zealand rugby is, and in fact always has been, in the power of its forwards, in the magnificent way they support and back one another up, the way they drive into the ruck and the next ruck, and in the contrived way they set up artificial platforms for delivery of the usable ball. The pattern is machine-like in its precision; it calls for dedication discipline; it is highly technical and teachable, and it is governed and controlled by the coaches who are very much in command of the game they know, and will not allow it to develop into an area which they do not comprehend or is not coachable."
At the same time, James said the rigidity of the approach while suggesting strength was also inhibiting and with that in mind the strength became a weakness. James believed the loss to Llanelli inhibited Ian Kirkpatrick's side causing them to play a game based around their loose forwards and halfback Going.
James believed, after seeing the attacking potential of the side unleashed late in the tour at Leicester and Neath when 40-point scores (four-point tries then) were posted, that if they had started their tour again, with the benefit of what they had learned, they would have been a formidable side.
Presciently James noted: "The question facing New Zealand rugby thinkers now is this – can they afford to stick to their traditional pattern, play the Going type scrum-half and neglect the genius of generations of exciting players like [Bob] Burgess, [Bruce] Robertson and [Bryan] Williams. I think not."
Hindsight is a wonderful thing and James' view was not long in being borne out, especially in the late-1970s, the late-1980s and, of course, since the introduction of the professional game.
Like many British journalists, Thomas placed too much emphasis on referees, in his case determining who were good chaps and deciding who had the best interests of one side at heart, and that one side wasn't the All Blacks. He also had his say on the Murdoch incident although, unlike a good wine, it hasn't aged well as time has revealed more pertinent facts. As a representation of the time, it could best be described as typical of the day.
It should be said, in the interests of the aforementioned balance, that New Zealand's journalists struggled with the tour, McLean titled his own account They Missed the Bus.
But longer-term benefits of the tour did occur. New Zealand's back play did advance. Future tours were much happier and the side did achieve much recognition for their travelling to Belfast to play Ulster in the midst of Northern Ireland's troubles. It wasn't all bad, and that deserved to be recognised.