Friday, July 11, 2014

The try that revived New Zealand back play

What the first great Test-winning streak by the All Blacks highlighted was the way in which New Zealand's backs were unencumbered from the dreadful 10-man rugby that had dominated the days from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s.

Games could go from line-out to line-out with halfbacks or first five-eighths kicking the hard-won ball directly back to touch a few more yards down the sideline. It was like the creeping artillery barrages of the First World War.

Occasionally there were break-outs when teams over-powered their opposition and a reminder was provided that backs did have skills worth promoting.

Coach Fred Allen led the revival of back play for the All Blacks. Their tour to Britain and France and 1967 was the proving point that it was possible to play a 15-man game. It wasn't an instant revolution but the seeds were sown. It also helped the Allen's manager on the tour was Charlie Saxton, who had penned a coaching manual of significance in the late-1950s which was also aimed at expanding the style of play. It was the ABC of Rugby.

There was another factor in the development and it was the demonstration that players had the skills, they only needed to be encouraged to use them. First five-eighths Earle Kirton demonstrated that in the 1967 Test against England, while during that tour Bill Davis showed their was still a case for the classic type of centre to make outside breaks while also setting up his outsides.

It was Davis who told journalist Wallace Reyburn, "It is marvellous to go on the field now and know that you are no longer one of the forgotten men in the three-quarters but instead they are working up there in front to get the ball back to you, for you to run with it."

Fullback Fergie McCormick was efficient coming into the backline, especially on the blindside, and forwards were also encouraged to run with the ball in hand.

But if there was one outrageous breaker of the mould it had to be Grahame Thorne. He burst onto the scene having been selected to play in the first All Blacks trial for the 1967 tour, after he had been selected to play for New Zealand Under-23 against Taranaki.

The dazzling centre was told by coach Fred Allen to have a go on his own at half-time so when the chance came he did and he scored a startling solo try. A more orthodox second was scored later and suddenly Thorne found himself in the final main trial to be played a few days later at Athletic Park in Wellington.

Again he scored a key try, the result of a scissors movement. Sadly, coverage of the two trials does not appear to have survived in video.

But being selected for the All Blacks tour to Britain and France helped ensure that graphic evidence of Thorne's ability has been retained. 

It was against West Wales, where the All Blacks were being given a bit of a tickle-up but then as T.P. McLean wrote: "Grateful indeed were the New Zealanders, therefore, when, after twenty-seven minutes, Thorne, seizing a pass at least 70 yards distant from the relevant try line, reached that line by a sensational series of sidesteps and sprints. You could see him making up his mind to beat a man, you could watch him doing it and you knew that the opponent knew that he was going to be beaten, and it was all deliriously intoxicating."

Reyburn described the try: "The young centre came in at a tangent and taking the ball at full tilt headed straight up the middle. He evaded three would-be tacklers and then appeared merely to run past the full-back, to score a sensational 80-yard try under the posts." Thorne had been a dash of colour in a monochrome crowd, he said, but his reward from Fred Allen had been to be bawled out and told he should have passed.

J.B.G. Thomas provided the Welsh version. "The All Blacks eventually scored after 25 minutes' play through a lovely cut through by Thorne, who straightened out and ignored Steel outside him to cross between the posts."

And film of the try is HERE.

Sadly, Thorne was never given the chance to make the centre position his own and after the 1970 tour of South Africa was lost to the New Zealand game.

But in partnership with Bill Davis, he ensured mid-field back play was not forgotten and set the trend for players like Bruce Robertson, Joe Stanley, Frank Bunce and Conrad Smith to make their marks with the national side.

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