Wednesday, 5 November 2014

1983: England v New Zealand (Rugby Union)

When it came to the 1983 Autumn international between England and New Zealand, it was hardly a case of England expects. With only two wins in twelve matches against the All Blacks, history was not exactly on England's side, and events in the past twelve months were even less encouraging. No wins and a bottom-placed finish in the 1983 Five Nations was a far from ideal start for the new England coach Dick Greenwood, and with New Zealand looming on the horizon in November, it did not look as if things were about to get better.

That said, the make-up of the New Zealand tourists did provide tiny seeds of optimism. In the days of amateurism, business commitments stripped the squad of the services of five pack members who had helped to crush the British and Irish Lions 4-0 in the 1983 series - John Ashworth, Andy Dalton, Gary Knight, Gary Whetton and Andy Haden - along with scrum half David Loveridge. With full back Allan Hewson also injured for the trip, New Zealand had a few selection headaches before the tour began.

Originally the painfully inexperienced squad was expected to be broken in during a tour of Argentina, but when this fell through, the British trip was slotted in as a replacement. Even though Scotland and England were both struggling at the time, New Zealand's newcomers would face a stern test of their character and temperament, during a tour that would also take in six matches against club and divisional sides. "Rebuilding any international team, you have to prove that you can go through the pressure games, and the sooner you do it the better," commented coach Bryce Rope, as the team arrived in Britain. But with so many new players, the New Zealanders did seem strangely vulnerable.

Led by winger Stu Wilson, 15 of the touring 26 players had not played international rugby - seven would earn their first cap against Scotland - and there was a strong belief that many of the divisional sides would run the tourists close. The curtain raiser against Edinburgh was not expected to cause New Zealand any problems though, and so it would prove in a comfortable 22-6 win. However, the visitors' pack looked average, with a number of penalties conceded throughout (Edinburgh missed six attempts) although tour openers are often a none too accurate assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of a team. The forthcoming fixture against the South of Scotland would provide a much sterner examination of the state of the touring party though.

"Frankly the younger lads are a bit apprehensive about facing what is virtually a national side, especially so early in the tour," stated the refreshingly honest New Zealand manager Paul Mitchell prior to the match at Galashiels. The South of Scotland XV contained only three players who had not represented their country, and many predicted a famous victory for the home side before the kick off.

That New Zealand then went and won 30-9, scoring five tries in the process, opened a few eyes to the task ahead for Scotland and England. "They were faster to every ball and had six or seven men supporting the one in possession while we had maybe three or four," bemoaned the losing skipper Roy Laidlaw. Proof, if it was needed, that although the squad was weaker on paper, New Zealand would be as competitive as ever.

Wins over the North (27-21) and London (18-15) added momentum to the tour, victories built on a domination of possession and a strong third quarter of the match. The win over the North finally saw New Zealand concede a try, although the tourists were never in danger of losing, and the London match developed into a scrappy affair with penalties and flashes of indiscipline commonplace during a less than thrilling 80 minutes at Twickenham. New Zealand's knack of giving away penalties during matches was becoming an issue though, yet the tourists mainly attributed this to a perceived lack of quality in the refereeing and the interpretation of the rules by these officials.

So far so good. But the party knew that the biggest tests were still to come. A strong Midlands side landed the first blow, defeating New Zealand 19-13 in front of a 17,000 crowd at Leicester, the Divisional side boasting seven of the England team that would later play in the international at Twickenham. The display of the Midlands forwards - Nottingham's flanker Gary Rees in particular relentless in his efforts - allowed the backs to enjoy a lot of the ball, half backs Youngs and Cusworth pegging back the All Blacks with superb kicking, and the centres of Dodge and Woodward were not afraid to run at the opposition back line. Dusty Hare's kicking was the icing on the cake, as the Midlands managed to hold on to a six point lead and put a dent into the confidence of the New Zealanders.

Coming just before the Test against Scotland at Murrayfield, the Midlands loss provided the first clue that New Zealand were fragile, and that cracks had perhaps been papered over during the early part of the tour. Eight changes from their previous Test against Australia in Sydney, including six debutants in forwards Brian McGrattan, Scott Crichton, Gary Braid, Albert Anderson, and backs Andy Donald and Robbie Deans, highlighted the unusual instability surrounding the team as they prepared for the first international of the tour. Scotland had never beaten New Zealand in a Test, but with the inexperience of this All Blacks team, now seemed as good a chance as any to break this duck.

Scotland came agonisingly close to climbing their Everest, a 25-25 draw their just reward on a day when they came back twice and refused to give in. All seemed to be going well for the visitors, as they led 16-9 and 22-15 at different points, but although the line-out worked well, their work in the loose was ineffective. Scotland fought back, levelling the match through a late Jim Pollock try, and when Peter Dods' conversion narrowly missed, New Zealand fans breathed a sigh of relief. New Zealand may have won it late on, but the draw was seen as a fair result.

Again the standard of officiating frustrated New Zealand. The near thing at the end of the match had seen New Zealand surge over Scotland's try-line only to be held up, referee Rene Hourquet awarding a penalty to the All Blacks. To the annoyance of the visitors, this decision was overturned after the intervention of line judge Brian Anderson, not the first time that the official had awarded a penalty against New Zealand, and this, along with Hourquet's tendency to penalise the southern hemisphere side throughout, left New Zealand with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

They may well have out scored Scotland three tries to one, yet the fact remained that poor refereeing or not, New Zealand had not been quite good enough to kill off their opponents and their concession of penalties was hurting them badly. A comfortable 18-6 win over the South and South West Division with a side containing only five players who had featured at Murrayfield at least got the tourists back to winning ways, but the forthcoming Test against England was all of a sudden not looking like the formality many may have predicted at the start of the tour.

So what of England? After the disastrous 1983 season, there was the inevitable look in the mirror in relation to the English domestic set up, some questioning if the national team were best served with the current County Championship structure, and the lack of a domestic club league (the same issues were still being discussed when Australia visited England in 1984). The immediate concern to the England selectors were twofold though; who would skipper the side to face New Zealand, and could a squad be selected that would stop the rot that had slowly set in since the 1980 Grand Slam?

Peter Wheeler was handed the captaincy, the Leicester hooker the fourth man to lead England in the past eighteen months, as the search for a successor to Bill Beaumont rolled on. At 35 and with 44 Test caps, Wheeler certainly had the experience, and after being overlooked by the Lions he had a point to prove (as did a lot of the England team). With a match arranged against Canada (not given Test status by the RFU), Wheeler and England would at least not go into the New Zealand contest completely cold.

"We hope to establish the basics against Canada," revealed England's latest skipper. "Get things like scrummaging, lineouts, ball distribution to the backs right". The subsequent 27-0 win was a useful exercise, even if the conditions on the day were atrocious, and as the weeks progressed, fourteen of the England players who would take the field against the All Blacks on November 21, would get to see some action against the tourists before the Twickenham date (Cardiff's John Scott being the odd man out).

One of England's starting XV had certainly been around the block and was fully deserving of his first cap. Gosforth's 34-year-old prop Colin White had at last earned the recognition most felt he merited, his story of perservance made that much incredible by the fact that five years previously he had lost three of his fingers in a forestry accident.

"It's lucky I am a loose-head prop because I still have my left hand for binding, and the thumb on my right hand for pushing," the man known as Stumpy to his Gosforth colleagues informed the press before his debut. "I feel fitter than I've done ever, and twice as fit as a lot of the lads I'm up against that are ten years younger than me".

England's other debutant would be the Bath flanker Paul Simpson, rewarded after displaying good form at his club and having played well against New Zealand for the North, topping off his performance by scoring a try. In all, England had made five changes from the side beaten in Ireland in their last Five Nations match, and included six players from Leicester.

After the draw in Scotland, optimism surrounding England's chances began to grow in the press. "Today must represent England's best opportunity of reversing a substantial imbalance for many a day," wrote David Hands in The Times, adding "he (Wheeler) knows equally well that these New Zealanders are vulnerable, because of their age and inexperience". The Daily Mirror's Chris Lander was also bullish. "Running at the All Blacks is the best way to topple the world champions' crown and should bring England's long-awaited first victory against the mighty All Blacks in seven matches which stretch back to 1936".

However, as soon as the match commenced it became apparent that to underestimate this New Zealand team would be foolhardy. Pinning England back into their own territory in the opening exchanges, Robbie Deans gave the visitors an early lead via a penalty after England had been guilty of obstruction, and early running from the likes of Wilson, Steve Pokere, and Craig Green (in for the injured Warwick Taylor) highlighted just how dangerous the All Blacks were. Gradually England bedded in though, high kicks troubling Wilson and Deans, as two offside offences allowed Hare to kick penalties and nudge England in front. It was a lead they would never relinquish.

It definitely was not a match for the faint hearted. Gary Pearce played for almost the whole match with a broken nose, John Scott needed eight stitches in a head wound, debutant Simpson ended up with a gashed forehead, and New Zealand prop Scott Crichton had to leave the field after damaging a rib, replaced by another new boy in Murray Davie. The worst incident, however, would involve a reckless tackle by New Zealand winger Bernie Fraser, which wiped out John Carleton, and saw the England man play no further part in the match. Nick Stringer came on for his second cap, with Fraser lucky to stay on the pitch.

Another high kick, this time from the boot of Dodge, almost resulted in a dream start for Stringer, the winger tackled just a metre short of the New Zealand line, as England continued to pile the pressure on New Zealand, not allowing their opponents to settle. A stamp by Jack Hobbs just before half time gave Hare another chance to add to England's tally, but he dragged his effort wide, and England had to be content with a 6-3 lead as the teams changed ends.

England continued to dominate as the second half began, keeping things tight and kicking rather than playing an expansive game, unsurprisingly perhaps given the poor championship showing and lack of confidence in the team. On a rare running foray, Mike Slemen came close to scoring the opening try of the match, Deans preventing the winger from scoring in the corner. The pattern was maintained though, with scrum half Nick Youngs enjoying a fine match, and after great work from the Leicester man, and a clever kick from Woodward, Stringer threatened again, only to run out of space on England's right flank.

Eventually the pressure had to tell. From a line-out, England set up a rolling maul, New Zealand having no answer as Maurice Colclough went over for his first and only try at international level. Hare's excellent conversion put England in dreamland, a 12-3 lead after 51 minutes of a match that was going perfectly to plan. But New Zealand were not about to lay down, and stung into action they began to turn the screw, as England fans looked on nervously and possibly wondered if time could go any slower.

Immediately New Zealand camped in England's 22, and just four minutes after Hare's conversion, they were back in the match. Frantic England defending could not prevent Davie pushing over for a try converted by Deans, and with 25 minutes remaining England's lead was back at just three points. What had only a few minutes before looked like a comfortable position, was all of a sudden too close for comfort for the home team. For all their hard work, England could not shake off their determined opponents.

England held firm though, and as the time ticked away a first home win over New Zealand since 1936 drew nearer and nearer. It looked as if the win was in the bag when Gary Braid played the ball in an offside position, Hare stretching England's lead to 15-9 with just two minutes remaining, but in the words of BBC commentator Nigel Starmer-Smith "You've not beaten New Zealand until the final whistle's gone".

Desperation forced the All Blacks to throw the ball about in an adventurous fashion, Green tackled just a few metres short of the line, as the whistling crowd temporarily held their collective breath. After what seemed like an eternity, referee Alan Hosie blew the final whistle, and England's players and supporters could begin to celebrate a rare victory in 1983, and an even rarer triumph over New Zealand.

"Maybe now we have laid to rest the folk tales of Prince Obolensky's 1936 try," said Wheeler after the match, referencing the Russian prince's memorable two try debut in England's last home win over New Zealand. "Forget the Russian prince, let us promote the leegend of the Marquis Maurice de Colclough". Wheeler, who had gone into the game with a dislocated left thumb, would now be out of action for five to six weeks after breaking a bone in it, but this did not dampen his mood. For a man who had been overlooked for the Lions tour to New Zealand, the victory was doubly sweet.

For New Zealand this was a tour of discovery. They may well have lost the battle at Twickenham, yet the war would eventually be won in the shape of the inaugural World Cup in 1987, and in retrospect the tour of Britain was a useful exercise in sorting the wheat from the chaff. Of the sixteen players who played against England, four would never again represent the All Blacks, including skipper Wilson who had announced early on in the tour that he intended to retire.

A further six would play a further five Tests or less, and only two players would make it as far as the 1987 World Cup (Craig Green and Alex Anderson). Their next Test against France in June 1984 saw the return of their old front five, Hewson at fullback, and a debut for John Kirwan, along with a return to winning ways. Between July 1984 and August 1986 the team were unbeaten. Sadly the same could not be said of England.

In the euphoria of England's victory, many were carried away on a wave of misplaced optimism. Articles talking of Grand Slam bids and the brave new world under Wheeler and Greenwood flooded the newspapers, the press understandably feasting on the England victory after the previous famine in 1983. "If last season proved a dark age for England rugby, we may have witnessed a renaissance at Twickenham on Saturday," wrote Hands. His next sentence was wise, however. "Time and the new year will tell whether a reformation is just around the corner".

Time did in fact show that the New Zealand win was an unusual high for English rugby in the mid to late eighties. Just two wins in Five Nations matches in 1984 and 1985 saw the back of Greenwood, and it would take until 1988 for the situation to truly improve. Of course, none of this seemed to matter in November 1983. A weakened New Zealand team it might have been, and a false dawn it proved, yet as an England player or fan you simply had to appreciate the happy occasions when they arose at the time, as you never knew when the next would arrive.

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