When I was a child, the main rugby competition was the Ranfurly Shield. There were no competitions like the NPC or Super Rugby and rugby was totally amateur.
In 1950 (when I was eight), Northland won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time ever. This really was a very big deal, so, on the long journey home from South Canterbury, the team stopped their chartered bus at every single town between Warkworth and Whangarei.
Because Maungaturoto isn’t on the main highway, we all went out to the Brynderwyn Junction to see them. The bus pulled up at the Coates Monument and the team (quite tipsy after being plied with drinks at every stop on the way) emerged from the bus with the “log of wood” held high. (The “log of wood” is a nickname for the Shield.)
I’m not sure how long they stayed, maybe only ten minutes, but we cheered and cheered and everyone’s smile was as wide as a mile. Finally, the team climbed back into the bus, and off they went, over the Brynderwyn Hill, to Waipu and points north.
For the next few weeks, there was “Shield fever” throughout the province. In the biggest town (Whangarei) most shops put big signs in their windows supporting the team and everyone was very excited indeed. Unfortunately, Northland’s reign as the champion lasted only three weeks. We lost a close match to Waikato and that was the end of that.
The captain of Northland’s Shield-winning team was Johnny Smith, who most people considered the best rugby centre in the country. The All Blacks website says that “there is little argument that Smith rates among the greatest midfield players ever produced in New Zealand”.
But, great player or not, Johnny was a Maori (Ngāpuhi), which meant that he wasn’t selected for the 1949 tour of South Africa. It sounds pretty incredible to our modern ears, but in those days South African rugby was still totally “white” and they secretly told the New Zealand rugby authorities they didn’t want any Maoris in our team. The All Blacks website admits that Johnny wasn’t selected because of “the unforgivable weakness shown by New Zealand rugby in meeting South Africa’s apartheid conditions”.
In South Africa, in those days, black and coloured spectators were literally fenced off into separate enclosures. So, because they were so badly treated, they used to cheer for the All Blacks instead of their own team. Decades later you could still see black families in the South African crowds wearing All Black shirts. I guess they’d always supported the All Blacks and could see no reason for changing, even though apartheid was long gone.
When I was at boarding school in Whangarei, I saw Johnny Smith play a number of times at Rugby Park (before Okara Park was built). He and his brother Peter (who played inside him at second-five-eight) were wonderfully entertaining. They had that magic sibling thing where each knew exactly where the other one was, so there were lots of “scissors movements” to confuse the opponents, and their “blind” passes to each other always came off. A wonderful memory.
Rugby games were much lower scoring in those days, with final results like 3-0 or 9-3 being quite common. This was partly because an unconverted try was worth only three points (it’s five points now), but there were other factors, too.
There were a couple of rule differences which made it much harder for a team to keep possession for long periods. You lost possession if you kicked a defensive penalty into touch (the opponents got the throw-in at the resulting lineout), and play was stopped more often for knock-ons (even a small fumble counted as a knock-on when you received a pass).
And grounds weren’t as well drained, so they would get very wet and muddy, making open play difficult. The ball was made of leather and would quickly get wet and heavy, resulting in more dropped passes and missed kicks.
In 1958 (when I was sixteen), my girlfriend was Carol Griffin (the photo on the right shows Carol and me in a studio shot taken by my friend Bill Killen). Anyway, you may wonder what this has to do with rugby!!!
Well, it turned out that Carol’s father was Ted Griffin who was the coach and sole selector of the Northland team for more than twenty years, and I met the famous man one day when I was invited to her home for lunch.
Ted (or, Mr Griffin, as I called him, very deferentially indeed) was a huge man. I was quite tall for my age (probably just under 180 cm), but he towered over me. Not only was he very tall (nearly 2 metres maybe), but he was a big strong man, too, with huge hands. I felt quite intimidated when I shook hands with him. He was one of those quiet gruff men who, maybe, was actually quite shy.