The McLook rugby collection

A personal collection that tells the story of Springbok rugby

Third Test – Lancaster Park, Christchurch, 18 August 1956

New Zealand 17 / South Africa 10

Skinner: “From what I’ve read over the years you’d have thought the fighting in that third test lasted the entire game, but that simply wasn’t true. There were only two punches – one that floored Koch and the one that stopped Bekker.”

Don Clarke: “Kevin Skinner is quite a modest man but I saw his knuckles after the match.”

Most New Zealanders older than 60 still class this test as one of the greatest sporting events of their lives. It was the day New Zealand took one step closer towards becoming rugby world champions; the day they moved one step closer to payback for 1949.

The whole country was emotionally charged; losing was not an option. Winning was non-negotiable and the victory as a consequence a huge relief but it was the manner in which the All Blacks constructed the victory that make it -to this day- one of the if not the sweetest All Black performance for the old guard kiwi rugby supporter.

The All Blacks played with an unquenchable passion ignited and blown to full fruition by the selection and superior performance of three All Black legends. To be fair every single All Black played himself to a standstill in this test but the test is remembered mostly for the performances and influence of three new selections. Kevin Skinner was brought back from retirement to sort the South African front row bullies Koch and Bekker. Peter Jones was added to the loose trio to counter Retief, Ackermann and Lochner while Don Clarke was added at fullback to sort the All Blacks woeful kicking display during the second test.

Clarke made his presence felt within the first three minutes by landing a morale boosting 45 yards penalty kick; Skinner made his presence felt in the first minute when he knocked Koch down with a right hook whose whack on impact could be heard five rows deep. Within two minutes of kick-off the steaming cauldron that was Jones had twice overflowed in breaks-away from lineouts, writes McLean in ‘Battle for the rugby crown’. Where Skinner derailed the Springbok front row with his fists and presence, Jones was like a run-away human tank that destroyed everything in his path while Clarke meticulously landed every penalty forced by a rampant All Black pack that were hammering and beating the Springboks into their own area.

Don Clarke kicking his first penalty in the third test

Most South Africans, when asked, will probably state that the Springboks lost this test match because of Kevin Skinner. Craven made no secret that he believed Skinner with his dirty tactics had a decisive impact on the outcome of the match. In the Craven tapes (recorded in the mid-eighties) he said that they used Skinner to punch the South African front row into submission. It was I believe not only the punching but also the arrogance and gamesmanship of Skinner that got to the Springboks and that resulted in a kicking incident (an attempt to get Skinner) in the fourth test that ended the career of lock forward Tiny White. Skinner had a swagger and an unbearable super superior attitude that even took the referee by surprise. He warned Koch once and then knocked him down before setting his sights on Jaap Bekker. When Koch swung at him in full view of the referee he not only got penalised but Skinner used the incident to belittle the South Africans with smirk and attitude and then rubbed salt into their wounds by shifting over to the other side of the scrum to sort Bekker. He sorted Bekker with good scrummaging technique but mostly with fist and a constant barrage of mock and sneer.

For Craven, the South African players and supporters it was this sneer and belittling as well as the fact that he got away with the punching (not once penalized) more than the hitting itself that left a lasting acrimony and animosity. You ask what hovers at the bottom of the Piet van Zyl referee tackling; the Johan le Roux ear biting; the Bakkies Botha head butting and the Dean Greyling forearm smashing incidents and you can trace it right back to Kevin Skinners conduct in this match in my personal opinion.

Every true South African rugby supporter knows about Kevin Skinner and he was and probably still is, as Craven said, the most hated All Black in South Africa. Craven’s attitude soften in later years but he was quoted once saying that Skinner would not be welcome in South Africa and that he would not even greet him if were to come face to face with him again.

Fred Labuschagne wrote of Skinner: His name will always be synonymous with the 1956 tour –at least as far as the South Africans are concerned. Long after the kicking exploits of Don Clarke and the rhino-like charges of Peter Jones are forgotten, South Africans will recall the flying fists of the former amateur heavyweight boxing champion of New Zealand. He will always remain what Danie Craven will be to New Zealanders – the most discussed and controversial figure of that unhappy series.

 

 

Kevin Skinner

It always amazes me how Kevin Skinner came out of the 1956 series smelling like a rose. In interviews on the 3rd test of the 1956 series he projects a dignified attitude of rightfulness and saintliness. In his own mind he obviously didn’t do anything wrong and so convincing is he of his own rightfulness that he was -over the years- able to convince the New Zealand public of his ‘innocence’ (or the justness of his actions) to the extent that he is still regarded as a folk hero of saintly demeanour.

A folk hero who stood up to the Springbok bullies and who showed them up for what they were; bullies who succumb the moment some-one had the guts to confront them.

Fact is he had quite a few weeks (if not months) to plan exactly what he was going to do and how he was going to do it and he executed to perfection bargaining on the fact that the referee will first warn him before sending him off. His strategy was to sort Koch and Bekker early in the match with clean and well planned hits and then let them retaliate and get penalised. His total disregard for rules and for proper sportsman behaviour –especially the fact that he got away with it- took the South Africans totally by surprise. They didn’t know how to react and -like we all seems to do in situations like that- they stood back to assess the situation.  This standing back to assess and strategize is generally regarded in NZ as a sign of cowardice; typical bully-shown-up-gutlessness. When they did retaliate they were penalised as can be seen in this paragraph by McLean in his book ‘Battle for the rugby crown’:

In the eighth minute, Koch gave away a penalty by attempting to throw a punch. D.B. Clarke turned that into the second goal. “I don’t know who the New Zealander was,” said the referee, “but if the punch I saw landed, his head would have been parted from his shoulders.” The New Zealander was Skinner. Dr Craven was grieved. “The punch that is seen in the open is not the first punch,” he proclaimed.

Skinners reasons

Skinner’s reasons for knocking down both the South African props are a bit vague. 

Chris Koch apparently was knocked-down for his ‘illegal’ tendency to storm through the line-out and interfere with play on the All Black side. Sort of what Owen Franks lately seems to specialise in. Jaap Bekker was punched for his intimidating staring down of opponents and for pulling down on his opponents outside arm while scrummaging. I am not sure how that is illegal apart from the fact that it apparently prevents the opposing prop from seeing the ball going into the scrum.

Also in some interviews he actually didn’t really punched them he just ‘nudged’ them while in others he does admit that he pre-planned it and knocked them down.

To Skinners credit he retained from calling the South Africans bullies but expressed himself as follows regarding what transpired during the third and fourth tests of 1956:

Once you pull on the silver fern, if you’ve got anything in you at all, that should give you the kick you need. You were, after all, in a kill or be killed situation. We weren’t going into thinking we were going to have a soft time. Fear? Yes. The Afrikaner is a great one to try you out. He’s not a bully, but he’s used to having his own way. It was the same on the rugby field; they wanted their own way and would ride you until you said, “Hold on a minute, bugger this” and bared your teeth a little. Then they’d settle down and play rugby.’ 

Justification

It is interesting to note that when it comes to discussing Kevin Skinners behaviour in the third test the New Zealand authors to a man starts off with elaborated explanations of how South African front-row tactics since 1921 has been to intimidate and use illegal tactics to dominate opponents. So as if New Zealand front-rowers are innocent in this regard; so as if this justifies Skinners behaviour. Here are an example: Spiro Zavos in ‘Winter of revenge’ :The 1921 Springboks had ‘nasty habits, one that was called ‘bollocks squeezing”, they grab you by the balls. They weren’t very admirable that first Springbok side.  

This rough attitude has been maintained over the decades. In 1994, Sean Fitzpatrick had his ear bitten. And in 1996, in the first scrum of the first test, at Christchurch, the South African hooker John Allan smacked his head into the forehead of Fitzpatrick. Dominance in the forwards, even if it has to be established by thuggery, has been a trait of the Springbok style.  Zavos then went one and argue that Skinner actually ‘saved’ the 1956 series by ‘communicating’ to the South Africans that illegal and dirty play would not be tolerated because once those guidelines were in place the teams settled into playing dirty free decent and at times exhilarating rugby. 

As the above quote so clearly demonstrate the word punch or hit are avoided when Skinners tactics are discussed instead terms like coming to agreement or setting things straight on how things should go in the front-row are utilised.

1949

Whenever Skinner is mentioned there is also invariable reference to his encounter with Jaap Bekker in 1949 during the Northern Transvaal match. Clearly a subtle way to leave the impression that Skinner had some unfinished business with Bekker.  

Winston McCarthy in his book on the ’49 tour “All Blacks on Trek” wrote: 

There was an incident during the game, when Skinner took a man-sized swipe at front-ranker Bekker. The referee spoke to both players and a penalty was awarded against the New Zealander. After the match I was speaking to the referee, and he said to me, “It’s a pity that the spectators do not watch the game closely. When Skinner punched at Bekker and the crowd roared, they apparently did not see what Bekker had done to Skinner just previously; he had pounded the New Zealander in the ribs with both hands, and it’s only natural that Skinner would retaliate.” I said, “So seeing that there were faults on both sides, you gave a scrum?” “Oh, no” replied Mr de Villiers, “I penalised Skinner!” 

The truth is there was no real hate between either Koch or Bekker and Skinner after the ’49 tour. In fact they were relatively friendly with each other; Koch even visited Skinner’s mother during the Springboks earlier stay in Dunedin.

The 1949 experience did however prepare Skinner in more than one way for this encounter. Skinner was properly schooled as a young 22 year old in the art of scrummaging on the 1949 tour but more importantly he understood the South African front row tactics and had a plan.

In Fred Allan’s biography written by Alan Sayers and Les Watkins I found the following information -provided by Skinner in an interview- which illustrate this point

The Boks’ whole idea was to crash band and intimidate. They did this in the lineouts as well as the scrums. They tried you on and you had to let them know you weren’t going to stand for it. 

With this team the main problem was in the lineouts. That’s where most of the dirty work had been going on. And not only were they good at it, they getting away with it. I certainly wasn’t going to allow New Zealand to be beaten by illegal play. I’d been through it all in 1949. That’s why I made my mind to do something about it. 

In the first lineout of the third test, prop Chris Koch came through on the All Black side. Skinner warned him: ‘Do that again, Chris and I’ll belt you.’ But Koch ignored Skinner’s warning and in the next lineout the big Springbok again barged through, a mile offside. Some spectators reckoned they heard the whack. Fifty-three thousand fans saw Koch go down and stay down. 

‘He was such a big guy I couldn’t miss,’ Skinner says. ‘I knew I was taking a big risk, but felt sure the ref would have given me a warning before sending me off. Anyway, it worked, and Koch never tried it again. But he didn’t like it –he kept glaring at me. I think he would have liked to have another go. And I got a lot of pleasure out of seeing the looks on the faces of the other Springbok forwards. 

The trouble in the scrums was just as bad. The Springbok prop Jaap Bekker was giving our other prop, Ian Clarke, a terrible time. So Ian and I decided to change over. The first thing Bekker did was give me that intimidating looks of his. Then he started making a real nuisance of himself and when I wouldn’t budge he deliberately put his shoulder into me hard as he could. I could see his clenched fist, too, and I knew that he was looking for a change to pop me. So I got in first –a real beaut to the side of the head. He would have gone down if he hadn’t had his arm around the hooker. There was a decent scuffle for a while, but the ref settled it down and from then on we had no more trouble.

This picture shows Bekker staring hard at Skinner after Skinner punched him in the face with the referee at last joining the action by warning the players. A bit too late for the South Africans but proof for the New Zealanders that the referee was ‘in control’.

McAtamaney and Irwin

The fact that both the props (Irwin and McAtamaney) that played in the first and second tests got injured is also brought up.  Authors make absolutely certain that they write in such a way that the reader has little doubt that the injuries was caused by illegal tactics on the part of the South African props. For instance Irwin according to the scribes got his ribs cracked after he was lifted out of the scrum and McAtmaney chest was so swollen and full of cuts and bruises after the 2ndtest that he vowed never to play test rugby again.  

Fact is that McAtamaney was never really injured as he reveals in Warrick Roger’s book:

I never got injured. I was back at work on the Monday. The third test team was selected before the second test was even played. They wanted to bring Kevin Skinner from retirement to sort Bekker and they made me the scapegoat’.

 

McAtamaney was something of a folk hero at the start of the 1956 tour. People was sort of in awe of his size and strength. For him to get trampled by the Springbok'bullies made the Springbok props vicious villians in the eyes of the public. Here McAtamaney get measured by the medical docter. An event documented and photographed because he was 'so big'. 

Being vague

Lastly, actual reference to what Skinner did is very vague and the emphasis is almost entirely on how he ‘warned’ Koch and Bekker first for what he regarded (and therefore incontestable fact in the eyes of New Zealand scribes) as illegal tactics before he ‘explained’ to them that he is not going to tolerate their behaviour.

So there is elaborated attempts to firstly justify Skinners tactics and secondly a play with words that make it sound not so bad and or statements to that regard like the following sentence by one scribe to end his piece on the third test: This was the test in which fighting was first seen as such, but Mr Fright soon brought an end to it and, when all’s said and done, it was not by any means the worst outbreak that has occurred on a Rugby field”. 

I am not exactly sure what ‘in which fighting was first seen as such’ means but the emphasis is clearly that Mr Fright interpret a swing by Koch to Skinners head as fighting an took control. I can’t help to wonder here –tongue in the cheek I would add- whether it would have been seen as fighting had Koch’s swing made contact because when Skinner’s punches did Mr Fright did not feel the need to take control.

From a New Zealand perspective Mr Fright ‘took control’ which per implication means that Skinner’s behaviour stopped and therefore per implication had no effect on the outcome of the test. Fact that he only ‘took control’ after the damage was done and when the South Africans were starting to retaliate in an attempt to regain forward dominance is of course totally irrelevant to the whole debate.

Click here to see interviews with Skinner and some other ex-players who played in this series.  

This post-match emotional reaction regarding Skinners tactics is understandable considering the passion, seriousness and fierceness under which this series was played but the true hero of the All Black victory in my mind was Peter Jones.

Daan Retief said after the 1956 series that Peter Jones was the best loose forward that he ever saw. A pretty big statement considering the fact that he also saw Hennie Muller in his prime but one that he persisted with in 1960 when he said after tourist match against Northern-Transvaal that Peter Jones is the greatest forward I have ever seen, bar none.’

Peter Jones charging through like a rampaging Rhino. He was unstoppable in this test and dominated the breakdowns with sheer speed and bulk. 

The lasting impression of this match writes Maxwell Price in his book ‘Springboks at Bay’ will always be the play of the New Zealand pack. The Springboks were made to look ragged at the rucks due to lack of numbers at the collisions and because of a hesitancy to fall on the booted ball. Price writes that the New Zealand forward pack was one of the strongest and most hostile that he has ever seen in international rugby. The Springboks team were constantly in reverse gear due to aggression and work rate of the New Zealand forwards in particular Jones, Hill and Duff.

The primary aim of the New Zealand in this match was to prevent the Springboks from playing their speedy, passing, loose forward-backline interlinking game. Early forward dominance was prime aim and they utilized short inter-passing wedging moves from lineouts and scrums to pull the South African loose forwards into the tight in order to neutralize them. They also employed the tactic of continual use of short and long kicks, writes Spiro Zavos in his book ‘Winters of Revenge’.

The short kick over the scrum or line-out forced Lochner to fall back to claim the ball.

This allowed the All Black forwards –arriving simultaneously at the ball due to the shortness of the stab through or punt- to wrap Lochner up and ruck him off the ball or at least to slow the ball down and to put pressure on scrumhalf Tommy Gentles. If the ball did come out on the South African side Gentles under pressure had difficulty controlling it and the ball was toed through again and the process then repeated. If New Zealand got the ball back from these rucks Ponty Reid on 9 hoisted a long up and under on Viviers. The All Black backs thundering down on the shaky Viviers then either wrapped him up or forced a poor clearance kick.

This tactic caused so much consternation among the Springboks that a full-page cartoon by Nevile Lodge in the Sport Post, showing a towering kick falling to the ground with the Springboks scattering in all directions calling ‘Yours!’ to their team-mates became an instant classic (see picture below).

The two-kick tactic worked because the 10-meter radius offside rule was not strictly officiated according to Craven but also because local referees allowed over vigorous rucking. Poor old Tommy Gentles had a torrid time behind the rucks as Maxwell Price who drove him to the hospital after the match testifies. Reg Sweet in his book ‘Springboks and Silverfern’ writes: Gentles took a pounding that would have caused many a big man –which he was not- to flinch, if not to funk outright. How he stood up to it is a miracle of the match. When it was all over, Gentles took a deal of patching up. He was spotted, leopard-like, with bruises and boot-marks about the body and above one eye swelled an ugly cut.

 

 

Tommy Gentles was under extreme pressure as these two pictures show. The All Black tactics was to rush through at every opportunity and to keep it tight by putting the ball with short punts behind Gentles and then to ruck the Springboks off the ball. The first picture shows Gentles almost getting decapitated by Peter Jones and the second picture show Skinner kicking the ball out of Gentles hands.   

The teams

The selection of the New Zealand team elicited great anticipation after an ‘emergency’ or ‘secret’ meeting with selectors and men who run New Zealand rugby by Aucklander Tom Pearce after the second test. Essentially the selectors were told that time for experimentation was over. From now on a proper –and that meant win-at-all-cost – team would be selected, or else.

In a tense atmosphere Pearce told the council: ‘Gentlemen, so that I cannot be misunderstood, I’m going to take the unusual step of reading my remarks to you. After I’ve finished I’m going to leave my address on the table.’

The selectors listened and selected the team the nation wanted. Seven alterations were made to the team that played in the second test. Apart from Clarke, Jones and Skinner Bremner on 10 was replaced with Archer and Vincent on 9 with ‘Ponty’ Reid who led Waikato to victory in the first tour match. McIntosh was dropped to make way for ‘Tiny’ Hill on the lock and Hemi was brought back as hooker.

Ponty Reid punting in the third test. The long and short punt was the primary All Black tactic in this match and Reid played his part brilliantly in executing that game plan. 

The All Black and Springbok teams for the third test can be seen in the picture below.

The Springboks made some changes too, dropping Johnstone, Kirkpatrick and Pickard in favour of van Vollenhoven, Rosenberg and Ackermann. Retief moved back to No8 as Ackermann was selected on the flank.

Not everyone was happy with the omission of Pickard as it was felt that the Springboks were again reverting to the loose-forward linking game with seagulls by picking Lochner, Ackermann and Retief in the loose-trio.

Extended team talks before the third test in front of a black lecturing board lasting up to two hours was not well received by the players and some complained about it in their letters home.   

Brief summary of the match

The Springboks kicked off. Koch was knocked down by Skinner in the second line-out. After three minutes van der Merwe was penalised for offside play and Don Clarke succeeded with a 45 yards penalty. 3-0.

Six minutes later Koch was penalised for a wild swipe at Skinner and Clarke turned it into 6-0.

Rosenberg made an excellent break and changes for a try looked superb when he cross-kicked. The changes for a try looked even better when Ackermann secured the ball. When Ackermann broke through with the ball the changes looked extremely bright but the opportunity went up in smoke when his pass to a man on his inside went forward.

The All Blacks swamped back into the danger zone and Gentles was pestered behind the scrum. Reid kicked through, snapped it up and flung it to Gray. Gray moved the ball to Dixon on the wing who was around van Vollenhoven to score out wide. Controversially, Clarke conversion was adjudicated by Ian Kirkpatrick and a New Zealand line judge as being over after it slithered against the upright. A decision that photographic evidence later showed was wrong and that also later forced the Springboks to try and play attacking rugby when they could have held a 1 point lead.

Score 11-0 which was also the halftime score after the All Blacks came close to scoring on several occasions and with Viviers failing with a penalty.

How the Springboks closed the gap to within 1 point from the lead in the second half deserved to be written in letters of gold write Reg Sweet in his book ‘Springboks and Silverfern’. It was pace and positioning and combined play of supreme quality that took them to 11-10 in Sweet’s partisan opinion. Nevertheless, the Springboks showed fine fighting spirit and scored two excellent tries. The second one generally regarded as the best try of the series.

It started in the 7th minute of the second half with Rosenberg breaking away. The ball spilled backward when he was eventually stopped by Gray. Jardon fly-kicked the ball forward but Ackermann picked up and worked a scissors with Ulyate who send van Vollenhoven away with a long pass. Lochner recieved a pass on the outside of van Vollenhoven who created the space with sheer speed and was over in the corner before you could say ‘knife’ writes one scribe. Viviers kicked the conversion, Score 11-5.

Skinner moved to the other side of the scrum and there was a serious scuffle after the next scrum forcing the referee to warn the players that he will take action.

Archer the New Zealand No10 went off the field with a shoulder injury and Brown the outside center took up the flyhalf position with Bill Clark the one flanker moving to centre. When Archer returned to the field some 11 minutes later he took a roving position behind the backline.

In the 20th minute the Springboks manufactured the best try of the tour. Koch got the ball during a loose scramble, wiggled free and fed Gentles. Gentles made a brilliant breakaway and in a bewilderingly burst of accurate, well-timed handling the ball went from Ackermann to Bekker -running like a back- to Salty du Rand (some sources say Claassen). The big lock forwards looped a perfectly timed one-handed basketball type pass to Rosenberg who came at full tilt on an angle from behind. Rosenberg scored with a spectacular dive behind the post and Viviers converted to make the score 11-10.

Rosenberg on his way to score a most spectacular try in the third test. Of this try McLean writes: ‘The wonderful thing was the speed of every man and the certainty and celebrity of passing’. 

Anything could happen now and it was a question of who was going to make it happen.

It was Duff the New Zealand captain who made it happen when he walked up and down the next New Zealand lineout appealing personally to each of his players in turn. The forwards responded, and for the next 20 minutes South Africa was mostly on the defensive with the All Blacks adding two tries to their tally in the last 4 minutes.

This picture shows Duff controlling the ball in the line-out with his forwards forming a protective ring around him. It was Duff that took the New Zealand team to the next level when they were out on their feet and South Africa on the comeback after scoring to brilliant tries.

There was only two minutes left on the clock when Brown hoisted a speculator to the left-hand corner. Jardon took off in pursuit and at full speed with miraculous judgement he leaped high in the air to pluck the bouncing ball with his left hand almost out of Briers grasp before fly-diving with super human skill in the same movement into the corner for a try.

 

Cartoon by Nevile Lodge regarding the Ron Jardon try. It was Jardon that put the test out of South Africa’s reach four minutes before no time with a stunning piece of individual brilliance. 

This picture shows Ron Jardon (No2) throwing the ball into the lineout. The Springboks in the picture are Chris Koch, Bertus van der Merwe (hands on knees), Johan Claassen, Salty du Rand, Jaap Bekker (head showing behind du Rand) Dawie Ackermann (hands on knees third from last), Daan Retief and Butch Lochner.  

The crowd went ballistic and then totally crazy when with only seconds left the All Blacks scored another try. The Springboks tried to run from their own goal line and a ball that was thrown to Rosenberg went astray. Jones scooped it up and set off on a run to the right before whipping it to Dixon. From nowhere the veteran lock ‘Tiny’ White materialised took the pass and scored in the corner. Clarke missed with the conversion to make the final score 17-10.

Craven said after the match: We have no excuses. We were badly beaten at forward and they upset our backs.’ 

Doc Craven was, however, far from at peace and did voice his bitter resentment with Skinners conduct in the weeks and months that followed. Back in South Africa after the tour he stated that as far as he is concerned South Africa would not ever play in another test match/series against New Zealand due to Skinners behaviour and what transpired on the tour as a whole. It took some extraordinary measures from the IRB during the next board meeting in Europe to rectify the relations.

 

Bekker bleeding after one of the matches in New Zealand. Japie was a marked man and every prop forward in the country tried to prove his worth by getting his piece of Jaap. No wonder Jaap decided to retire from test rugby after the 1956 tour. 

This match was also the end of the road for Archer whose shoulder injury ruled him out of the final test which ended of his international career. Rosenberg and van Vollenhoven both played only in this test during the 1956 tour and later became prominent Rugby League players in England.

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