Saturday, June 24, 2017

Fifty years on from one of the great rugby tours

Much attention has focused on the 30-year anniversary of the first All Blacks team to win the Rugby World Cup in 1987, but also worthy of celebration is the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 All Blacks.

If the inaugural World Cup champions played a leading hand in revolutionising the way rugby was played in their time, then the honour of changing a fixation, and adapting quickest to new laws to speed up the game must go to Brian Lochore's side of 1967.

The side toured Britain and France, the Irish leg of their tour was cancelled due to a foot and mouth outbreak in England, and were unbeaten when living up to coach Fred Allen's statement at the beginning of the tour that they were going to run the ball and British and French fans should make sure they took the chance to watch them.

Their feats may seem like ancient history to the modern generation of rugby fans but to those who lived through their era they managed a revolution in the game and changed rugby forever.

It has become fashionable, especially in the midst of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, to claim the 1971 Lions had a huge impact on All Blacks rugby. To an extent they did, especially in scrummaging, and they did show, in their provincial games only, that it was possible to run the ball from everywhere.

But in terms of impact the fire was lit by Allen and Lochore's men, with not a little of assistance in terms of intent from tour manager and captain of the famous 1945-46 Kiwis Charlie Saxton.

Their mix created a huge impact in Britain and their feats have been recorded for the more recent rugby fan by Alex McKay in his book, The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks (Published by New Holland).

The coach of the 1971 Lions, Carwyn James and journalist John Reason, said in their 1979 book The World of Rugby, "…it was the statement of faith in 15-man attacking rugby, after years and years of ten-man attrition, that made the 1967 All Blacks so important in the development of the game."

They also added, "For at least 60 years, New Zealand had played in nothing like the same style, but by making such a commitment to attack, the 1967 All Blacks did the game of rugby football throughout the world a service which even they probably did not appreciate."

For British & Irish Lion and Wales flanker John Taylor was just at the start of his international career when playing for Wales against Lochore's team at Cardiff Arms Park and he recalled to the reviewer that he and his team-mates were well aware that they were facing something new in the game with the way the All Blacks were playing.

And while the score was only 13-6 to New Zealand in the Test Wales had been well beaten, he said.

McKay has set the scene for the tour by looking back at the time and the condition of rugby. He saw it from a close angle having often been a ball boy at Okara Park in his home town of Whangarei. In researching the book he travelled to New Zealand from his base in Australia and spoke with as many of the surviving players as he could.

Having worked in academia he wanted to write the story in a more free-writing style in telling the stories of what he was a diverse range of individuals who moulded into such a successful team.

After so many years he was impressed with how honest the players were.

"I was really impressed with them, I didn't expect that," he said.

They had been a literal Band of Brothers and he felt a central part of their story was what they had done after their careers was over. In the case of the 1967 side it is a remarkable contribution to the game.

Lochore's subsequent deeds are well known and are reflected in his position as patron of New Zealand Rugby. But others like: Earle Kirton, Ian Kirkpatrick, Colin Meads, Graham Williams, Alistair Hopkinson, Waka Nathan and Sid Going had significant coaching careers while others like Malcolm Dick, Ian MacRae, Kel Tremain and Meads again had been involved at a high level of administration.

Chris Laidlaw, Tony Steel, Ken Gray and Grahame Thorne went on to careers as politicians while Jack Hazlett had a significant career in business. Bill Davis also represented New Zealand at softball.

All of this is revealed by McKay and demonstrates why this was such a special side and deserving of a revered place in New Zealand rugby history.

McKay has left no stone unturned and it is significant that he has highlighted that not everyone in the side was enamoured with Allen and his methods, which is a healthy balance in any appreciation.

The story of the side deserves a special place in New Zealand's burgeoning rugby literature and McKay has filled a significant gap in that regard.

The presentation of the book is effective, if disappointing for the number of errors not detected in proof-reading, but that aside it captures its subject splendidly and that after all was its aim.

The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks by Alex McKay. Published by New Holland, Price $35.00