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14 July 1956 – Carisbrook; Dunedin

First test; All Blacks 10 / South Africa 6 

Test matches are won by taking your changes. The prevailing thought after this test match was that New Zealand deserved to win mostly because they took their chances while South Africa made it easy for them by: employing the wrong game tactics; making poor decisions on attack; and with frequent annoying ball handling errors. Reg Sweet writes in his book ‘Springbok and Silverfern’: “New Zealand had three chances throughout the match. New Zealand took them; and so New Zealand won. It was as straight forward as that.”

The Springbok forwards surprised everyone and were without a doubt the better team in the scrum department pushing the All Blacks meters back on repeated occasions. New Zealand fashioned some strategies to counter Claassen in the lineout as the game progressed -making it a bit more of an even contest in the latter stages of the match- but South Africa still won the lineout contest comprehensively 28-35. South Africa won the scrum count 12-21. Reg Sweet wrote: “New Zealand’s pack, astonishing sight, was attempting to heel at times while obviously on the back pedal.”

These three picture shows Johan Claassen in action in the first test. Claassen was outstanding in the line-out. The All Blacks were aware of the threat that Claassen posed and the surprising feature of their team selection for this match was the amount of line-out specialists selected in the AB team. As the match progressed the New Zealand team were able to develop some strategies to counter Claaasen but he still lost the line-out contest by a relatively large margin.

Terry Mclean in an outstanding piece on this match in his book ‘Battle for the rugby crown’ wrote this about the Springbok pack: “. . . Van der Merwe was beating the daylights out of Hemi in the scrums, Walker and Bekker were crunching Irwin and Clarke, Claassen was playing with divine inspiration and du Rand was extracting the last possible ounce of fury and fire out of the pack as a whole.

Pre-match faith in the power of the All Black forwards to lick the daylight out of the Springboks had produced a degree of superiority complex even among the All Blacks; and what they felt when the found themselves being ignominiously pushed back yards and yards can only be imagined. All through the first half, until the more serious of a distressing number of injuries to a distressing number of players compelled the retirement of Irwin, the All Blacks were getting a hiding in the front row and an even bigger hiding, principally because of Claassen in the lineout.

So high and distinctive was the morale of the Springbok pack that in the second half, when with Ackermann and du Preez off the field, it was six men pushing against seven, the forwards were still capable of taking complete charge of the play for minutes at a time.

See the two video clips in the video section which clearly demonstrate the Springbok dominance in the scrum during this test.

Ballboy Murray Deaker is quoted in Roger Warrick’s book ‘Old Heroes’: “My particular hero was Mark Irwin, the Dunedin doctor who was captain of Varsity. He was a handsome man with huge muscular shoulders. Us kids were all convinced that Irwin would pulp their front row.

Well it’s history that just the opposite happened, and I watched it from a distance of only three or four yards. Whenever I think back now about sheer physical power in sport that’s what I recall, and now when I watch any sport I ask myself, “Are they as powerful as the 1956 Springbok forwards who popped out Mark Irwin, the man I, as a twelve-year-old who used Bull workers and followed the teachings of Charles Atlas, thought could lift up the world?”

So where did it all go wrong? How did they lose the test with all that ball, with all that forward dominance? There were three aspects to it I believe after studying 8 reports and watching a video of this match; tactical over-planning culminating in not taking chances and wasting possession; rucking inferiority and injuries.

Over-planning or too much emphasis on a pre-conceived master-plan seems to me, to have been the major problem. The South African team spend hours in planning out the match and went onto the field probably too set in how they wanted to play the game with the result that they didn’t play heads-up (play what is in front of them) rugby anymore. The pre-conceived game plan also made them tentative in execution and that cost them twice; once throwing an intercept pass and another time making the wrong decision when they had ascendency in a try scoring position. Reg Sweet writes: “Was it all planned in advance? Was it over-planned? Where there ‘strict instructions’? A design for victory which had slavishly to be followed to the bitter end? Perhaps there was too much ‘tactics’ on the blackboard, too little left to instinct and imagination.”

Here is Maxwell Price’s –who was touring with the Springboks- take on this issue:

By the time the test match arrives, Craven tries to have his team to work as one in all the basic duties of the game –whether they be scrummaging, rucking, line-out work, passing, backing up, tackling or covering. He aims to have each player absolutely certain in his own mind that he has command of each particular facet of the game in which he play a role and that he will be an infallible link in the team. Craven works out the pattern of the game. He knows what is at his disposal, then he studies the strength of his opponents, the possible style of their game and, of course, the conditions. Craven then works out his plan for victory, and everything that his team does during the period immediately before a test is concentrated on that plan.

Now it all sounds pretty good and dandy but there is an old Afrikaans truism that would sound something like this in English ‘Too much of a good thing turns it into a bad thing’. In this case Craven went overboard and had the players sitting sometimes for up to 2 hours in extensive pre-match planning and task allocation -for every thinkable position on the field- sessions for the last 6 days before the test.

McLean writes: For the six preceding days Craven put his men through a preparatory routine that could only be described as extraordinary. You could have thought that they were being conditioned for a lifetime of religious solitude or as pioneers of an aerial assault upon Mars.

I had never seen anything to match the intensity of Dr Craven’s methods. It was impossible to reconcile these with the recreational aspect of Rugby; and it was difficult to believe that the national honour ought to be quite so deeply involved in anything short of actual war.

The problem with such elaborate planning and role identification/defining and pre-planned play for virtually all quadrants of the field is that it communicate a subtle message of no confidence in the players ability to make decisions on the field; the subjective message to the players are that they are not allowed (if not inadequate) to make decisions on the field. You end up with players thinking what they should do instead of reacting too the situation. Too much mind; resulting in tentativeness and reacting either too slow or by doing the wrong thing.

Mclean writes that in his opinion all the planning produced a mental block in Ulyate’s mind before making the following remarks: “Only –only in all honesty, the 40 000 who were present had to admit that Fortune had been not unkind to the All Blacks. For one thing, it had given them Ulyate- Ulyate who kept on with the tactical kicking until a blind man would have known what was coming, Ulyate who twice in the second half was actually breaking into gaps when he kicked.”

The stab through grubber was clearly part of a pre-conceived tactical plan and the Springboks overdid it especially in the first half when they enjoy forward dominance and when they should have run more with the ball. Reg Sweet writes: “Obsession for the tactical kick lost this test, and if its use on this pointless, guileless scale was predetermined it had become the biggest argument that test had ever known against a system, if that was what it amounted to, which could not permit the player to mould his movement to the changing picture of the game. Ulyate was the pivot, and Ulyate short-kicked with a frequency he must have hated. It was neglect of running opportunities which was completely unnatural in an out-half who had shown such rapid appreciation of the movement for the strike in a full test series just the year before. It looked like a master-plan misfiring, and doing so because it was inflexible.”

Rucking skills were seriously lacking in the Springbok team and it was a ball lost at the ruck that resulted in the first New Zealand try. Generally speaking the Springboks with the forward dominance they enjoyed should have won this match but were unable to hang on to the ball and recycle it swiftly at times when try scoring opportunities presented.

The superiority of the All Blacks at the ruck was in my mind the difference in this test match and series. It is as a matter of fact still the difference between the two countries. New Zealand’s rucking skills had a progressive evolution and the process actually started just after the Second World War under the tutelage of the coach of the kiwi army team, Charlie Saxton. Accurate handling with every man in the team running, passing and backing up at maximum speed was what Saxton promoted.

It was a stuttering evolution sort of a one step forward two steps backs process because administrators and senior players doubted the process; just as is the case in South Africa at the moment. It was Fred Allan -still the most successful coach in All Black history- who gave this process a start in the All Black environment after becoming convinced of the merits thereof while playing for the above mentioned Kiwi army team and after applying this with his Auckland team which saw them going unbeaten for a remarkable 25 successful defences of the Ranfurly shield in 1963.

Fred Allen had to go to the extreme length of challenging Colin Meads to a personal dual to prove his point. The 49 year old Fred Allan challenged an inform 33 year old Collin Meads that he would beat him in a one to one challenge to the tryline from 25 yards out and succeeded. Allan was convinced that the best way to play rugby was to hang on to the ball and not to kick it and his point was that a skilled runner can beat any defender in a one to one challenge. He believed that if you hang on to the ball long enough your skilled runners will eventually end-up in a one to one situation where they will be able to score.

The All Black did not play like this in 1956 but the influence of Saxon’s army team and Allan’s years as Captain and ‘coach’ of the 1949 All Blacks as well as the work of people like Vic Cavanagh permuted New Zealand rugby and rugby teams all over the country started to show increasing structure and cohesiveness at the tackle ball. Maxwell Price writes: “In spite of their set scrum disadvantage, New Zealand forwards were very much in the picture when the ball went loose. At the line-out their play seemed somewhat crowded, but when the line developed into a ruck, the ball usually came out on their side.”

McLean writes that until the South African loosies, Retief, Ackermann and Lochner began to obey the call of wide open spaces –some 15 minutes after the start- New Zealand were scarcely in the hunt in concentrated forward play. With all three loose forwards tending to play lateral instead of direct South Africa were not optimising their forward dominance to full potentiality. Notice in this clip how South Africa messed-up a scoring opportunity from a scrum 5 meters by playing backwards and lateral.

Notice also in the following clip how Ron Jardon’s intercept try resulted from Ackermann running too lateral. Direct rugby and structured, aggressive rucking to maintain possession and set play up for the backline was not part of the South African game in 1956.

Notice in this video clip on the link belwo how New Zealand produced their first try by rucking South Africa off the ball.

There was much in the South African media (as this picture indicates) before the test about the fact that Jan Pickard was not selected to play in the first test. Some felt quite correctly that South Africa’s loose forwards were too similar in style and playing to loose and lateral.

After about 20 minutes in the first half New Zealand saw -after a high kick by Jardon- that the Springboks were not handling the high kick well. They changed tactics and started to hoist the ball. Dryburg handled some of the situations well but the other backs seemed to find it hard especially when the forwards were thundering down on them. New Zealand’s first try followed soon upon the change to the up-and-under tactics. From one such kick Dryburg got to the ball a little late and was caught in possession close to the Springbok goal line. He (Dryburg) was rucked off the ball; there was a bit of a mix-up but New Zealand ruck the ball clean a second time before Vincent (No9) more or less passed the ball along the ground. Tiny White stormed through picked up the ball and scored under the crossbar.

The next try came within minutes after the first one. Ulyate gathered a ball in the loose and shifted the ball down the line. Ackermann was up in support and Dryburg was in the line as well. Jardon was the only defender and South Africa was in a good position to score. Ackermann running too lateral and just that one step too far tried to get an overhead pass to Peewee Howe who had two players in support. Jardon uncertain what to do back pedalled but as Ackermann lobbed the pass he darted forward and caught the ball. He slipped as he began to run but recovered and then set off on a run that saw the crowd go ballistic cheering him step by step to the tryline. He converted the try himself.  

This picture shows Jardon breaking free after intercepting the ball on his way to score his try.  

Some more pictures of Jardon and Paul Johnstone who were in a fierce battle on the wing.

There were numerous injuries during the game and South Africa had to complete the game with 13 men and NZ with 14 men. It was only the no replacement rule that prevented more players from leaving the field. 

There were injuries to Brown, Dixon (twice), Archer, McIntosh, Buxton, White (twice), Lochner, and Irwin, Ackermann and Jan du Preez left the field. These pictures show Ackermann and Jan du Preez getting carried off the field.  

Howe scored for South Africa soon after Ackermann left the field with a displaced cartilage. The try resulted from a scrum and Strydom skipping his flyhalf send the ball to his centres. The ball went to Johnstone who headed straight for the corner flag pulling the defence with him. Almost at the line he swung his body inward, saw Howe in support and passed. Howe dashed over for a brilliant try which Dryburg failed to convert.

South Africa possibly received its biggest setback when Jan du Preez also had to leave the field. Lochner consequently had to move to the wing and this totally broke-up the Springbok loosetrio who was clearly living up to their reputation. Their ferocious tackling kept the New Zealand backline honest and with Lochner shifting to the wing Retief was left to do the work of three men.  

Daan Retief had to do the work of three men after Ackermann left the field and Lochner had to move to the wing to cover for du Preez who left the field with a broken leg.  

These two pictures show the two teams. The names of the players who played in this test match can be seen here. Just as a side note the numbers on the jerseys were quite different as the fullback was No1 and the loosehead prop No15. Essentially the forwards had the double digit numbers (10-15) on their backs and the backline were wearing all the single digit numbers 1 to 7.  

Tiny Hill in action during the test. Hill normally a lock was picked as No8 to provide New Zealand more line-out option.

There were a bit of history and irony in the selection of both Captains. The New Zealand Captain pat Vincent was playing in his first test and it is interesting to note that the same honour was bestowed on George Aitken when New Zealand played against the 1921 Springboks. Both of them were dropped -Vincent after the 2nd test- and never played for New Zealand again. Salty du Rand the Springbok captain also followed history. In every other previous tour to New Zealand the Captain of the first test was not the touring Captain. In all three instances South Africa lost the first test. In 1981 the same thing happened with Wynand Claassen.  

Salty du Rand equalled Boy Louw’s record of 18 test caps with his match but it was his first as captain.  

These pictures shows Coenraad Strydom in action during the first test. Strydom had a good game on scrumhalf flinging his passes so much further than Vincent could manage and breaking quite magnificently on a couple of occasions. He also impressed with his fast service and just missed with a dropkick attempt.

More adventure (keeping the ball in hand and less tactical kicking) in the first half could have seen South Africa made this day their own. They persisted with the kicking strategy right up to the end of the match. In the last five minutes South Africa had two final chances to edge closer and potentially win the match. They elected not to kick for goal but hoist it high in the hope to force an error and score a converted try. The kicks were too low and there were no more loose forwards to chase after it.

It was New Zealand first victory over the Springboks since the first test of the 1937 series.

Click here to see a video clip of the first test.