Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fred the Needle tells his story

New Zealand rugby literature had always had a gap in it – until now.

The country's most successful coach of the All Blacks Fred Allen, his 100 percent record is almost Bradmanesque – the only reason it doesn't match that description is that his time at the helm was much shorter than the great Aussie batsman - has finally committed his life story to print.

Fred the Needle by Alan Sayers and Les Watkins. Published by Hachette New Zealand.

But in many ways his influence, on the game especially, was as significant as that of Bradman in cricket.

Allen, whose own playing career was marked by the spark of brilliance he injected as a lively and constructive first five-eighths, had the All Blacks from 1966-68 and, to the regret of many, decided to forsake a job he must surely have loved because of the politics of the Kremlinesque New Zealand Rugby Union of his day.

Allen did things differently, like allowing top-flight sports journalist of his day Alex Veysey into one of his team talks during a tour of Australia. Allen had thought it was only for background but somewhere along the way the wires got crossed and Veysey filed the story for the next day.

Allen's team talks were regarded as well worthy of hearing but the alickadoos back in the Huddart Parker building in downtown Wellington were unimpressed.

Sharing Allen's style with the world wasn't deemed appropriate. So rather than wait to be shot down, especially after he had refused to accede to the NZRU's request not to take Colin Meads, Ken Gray and Bruce McLeod on the famous 1967 tour to England, he resigned.

Normally it might not have mannered and the New Zealand rugby goliath would have rattled on. But New Zealand, in their unbeaten state, were shaping for a crack at South Africa in 1970, and a chance to finally win a Test series in the Republic.

However, Allen was not going to be the coach and to the eternal regret of his players, and the New Zealand public he wasn't at the helm when the tour occurred with the usual result.

All is told in full in his autobiography, penned by Alan Sayers and Les Watkins.

The great coach also talked about his desire to rid New Zealand rugby of the stodgy 10-man game which was almost strangling all who embraced it – a dreadful form of kick to touch, lineout, kick to touch, lineout, all the way down the sideline until reaching ground close to the line and pressuring the opposition into a mistake and scoring a try.

Allen had played his rugby in the spirited days after the end of World War Two with the famous Kiwis team which toured Britain, France and Germany to win a special place in rugby's annals for their celebration of life in rugby, freed from the restraints of conflict.

He wanted his team in 1967 to play similarly – and they did, unleashing a 15-man game which great Lions coach Carwyn James said later had transformed the game forever. James, four years later would coach the British and Irish Lions to their only series victory in New Zealand.

Because of his ability to inspire, there are many stories in his book that have not been published previously and they provide a sometimes emotional understanding of the forces that made him. His military service, his tough upbringing and his frustration on the 1949 tour to South Africa where New Zealand lost 0-4 are all part of the fabric of his life and have been faithfully recorded in a book which ensures his example will never be lost.

When placed alongside the earlier book written in partnership with TP McLean, Fred Allen on Rugby – more of a coaching book, the Allen method is well and truly captured for posterity.

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