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South Africa 41 / Nelson Combined 3

The 1956 Springboks had two matches left to start playing as a team before the first test, it was not about notching up results anymore it was time for the forwards to start playing as a pack and for the backline to show some polish.

Since the very first Springbok tour to New Zealand in 1921 the Springboks and the All Blacks have fought fiercely for supremacy in test rugby. Frequently the All Blacks have challenged strongly, only to falter with success in sight. In 1921 they won the first test, lost the second and found themselves drawing the third and final test zero all in appalling weather conditions. Mark Nicholls outplayed the legendary Bennie Osler in the fourth test of the 1928 series to square the rubber for New Zealand. In 1937 they took a demanding lead early in the second test –after winning the first- just to see the Springboks gunning into top gear scoring 2 tries in the second half to win the test and square the series. The 1937 boks then went on and totally outplayed the All Blacks in the third and final test scoring 4 tries to none.

Humiliated 4-0 but quietly fuming about referees the 1949 All Blacks left the shores of South Africa with the belief that they have what it takes to beat the Springboks. It was a belief that did not penetrate their inner bowls. The worry was palpable and locals feared the ‘boks to the extent that it seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

New Zealand have not been held back because they lacked the will or because they faltered under pressure. They have fallen short in 1937 and 1949 mostly because they were outgunned in the pack. Phillip Nel’s 1937 side scrummed them into submission and the 1949 All Blacks were so behind the ball game with new developments in the scrummaging department that they even called in the help of Danie Craven. The 1949 team learned quickly and showed vast improvement during that tour not only shipping the knowledge back to New Zealand but playing well enough in the last two test matches to create enough changes to at least square the series. Had those changes been taken, an entirely different story might have been told today about the 1956 Springbok tour.

Resolute but not convinced that they have the ability to beat the Springbok monsters upfront the local rugby fraternity was following every aspect of forwards play in 1956 with feverish intent. Quite understandably -considering the venerated fear for the South African forwards- Jaap Bekker the South African strongman was the most talked about and most feared player in the Springbok side.

Picture of Jaap Bekker dancing.

Yet the misses told them of a South African team no longer at ease with itself, and clearly lacking the cohesiveness, team work and directness of their predecessors in the forwards department. Valiant performances –including a ‘David-like’ win of biblical proportions by little Waikato- of local provincial forwards packs offered repeated consolation and renewed tempered hope that the ‘rugby crown’ of world supremacy was within their grasp.

South Africa’s strength since Hennie Muller the playmaking ability of pacy outside backs linking with loose forwards fast enough to dash around most provincial wingers. It concealed a deficiency. The pace of the loosies and the outside backs created dependency on it; caused neglect of direct play; loss of structure at lineout and insufficient commitment and vigour due to lack of bulk in the loose trio at the rucks. South Africa’s lack of authority and directness at the mauls, rucks, and at the tackle ball became abundantly and progressively translucent as the tour progressed. Media scrutiny and criticism of these deficiencies in combination with the passionate crowd support and plucky, relentless opposition -determined to prove their worth against the ‘world champions’- left the South Africans staggering against the ropes.

Probably expectations were too high. Seen in another light, South Africa have performed exceptionally well so far on tour. It is no small thing to adapt a style developed and based on harder, dryer and faster surfaces where the ball bounces higher to a style suited for the softer ground conditions of New Zealand. Peewee Howe explains: ‘Playing conditions between our two countries differ widely. On hard grounds the ball generally bounces away from the marauding hordes, whereas in your country it slithers and slides, ending up really close to the action. This is why the home teams have generally been the victors in the series in both countries.’

Unrealistic expectations in terms of how they should win psyched the boks into being way too hard on themselves and doubting their ability. Honest self-assessment would have revealed that the 56 Springboks went unbeaten through Australia -something that not even the 1937 Springboks could manage- and that they won most of their matches in New Zealand some in extremely trying conditions. The loss against Waikato in fairness more the result of being caught off guard by the ferocity and warlike intensity of a team that prepared for 7 months to be competitive against a opponent they considered to be invincible and consisting of giants. It was the kamikaze commitment they encountered, tactical blunders because of unfamiliarity with playing conditions in New Zeland that cost the Springboks that match.

Against Nelson combined not even ten tries scored at pace could lighten the criticism directed towards Springbok forwards play in the media. It did not conceal or hide the insidious disease of lack of directness in South African forwards play from the knowledgeable New Zealand rugby supporters. The main talking point post match was not the 10 tries scored by the Springboks but the amount of ball the Springboks saw wrestled from them in the mauls and rucks and 15 minutes of woeful scrummaging against a vastly inferior team.

McLean writes: The Springboks had a good, but not wholly satisfying romp. For a startling 15 or 20 minutes of the second half, the Springboks suffered themselves to be pushed around by forwards they vastly outweighed and to be upset by backs who could not compare with their men. A most notable deed was performed by Simpson in four times beating van der Merwe for heels on the Springbok loose head. Scarcely less notable were the three or four exemplary dribbling runs of Jeffries, the first of which yielded 25 yards of ground, and the rapid foot-rushes by Jeffries, Barton and Egan which exposed lamentable deficiency in the ground defence of Gentles, Ulyate and, unexpectedly enough Dryburg.

Mclean continuous and writes that the best features of the match were the superb running by van Vollenhoven, the signs of developing form in Kirkpatrick, the greater willingness of Ulyate to use his backs and the general improvement in the form of Gentles.

Van Vollenhoven scored 4 tries, Gentles two, and Johnstone, Nel, Dryburg and Lochner one each.

The most interesting player to oppose the Boks this day was No. 10 for the combined side, Guy Bowers.

He had toured the UK, France, and North America with the All Blacks in 1953-54, initially as the 2nd string first five eighth (flyhalf) to Otago No. 10, Laurie Haig – the tactical master of the Otago rucking game. When the All Blacks lost a game against Wales they should have won easily (they had 80% of the possesion and territory – just like the SA vs Aussie quarter final of RWC 2011), the press, particularly T P McLean and radio commentator Winston McCarthy started singing the praises of the younger, more adventurous Guy Bowers as an alternative.

Debating and disagreeing over the merits of players is standard rugby discussion now, but at the time it split NZ in two, in a way people felt uncomfortable about. NZ was a very insulated place in the 1950s!

Realistically, Bowers had no chance of playing for the All Blacks in 1956. An “expansive attacking” No. 10 was definitely NOT what NZ needed that year to beat the Boks!

Mclean wrote about Bowers in his book ‘Battle for the rugby crown’. He stated that he personally looked forward to this game more to see Bowers than either the Springboks or the Combined team.

Bowers was however a huge disappointment on the day as the midfield defence of the combined team was ripped open by the South African attack.

Maxwell Price also refers to Bowers and state that he was a handful occasionally on attack -mostly because the South African loosies gave the Nelson halfbacks way to much space- but rather indifferent on defence.

 Information about the teams that played in this match

The pitch was in appalling condition very muddy and the grass quite long after two days of heavy rain before the match. This picture shows mud smeared Chris de Nysschen and Piet du Toit after the match.

Paul Johnstone scoring his try in this picture but notice the long grass and muddy surface in the background.

This picture shows du Rand on the left and van Vollenhoven on the right ready to score one of his four tries.  

Tom van Vollenhoven scoring two of his four tries in the match against Nelson. Van Vollenhoven’s running was one of the best features of this game according to Terry McLean.

This Dr. Craven quote which appeared in a local newspaper summed up the Springboks general appreciation of the situation at this stage of the tour:

‘We can do much better than we are doing. Injuries have been the main trouble, and because of them we have been unable to build up a team, but we are still below par in our play. We know that our forwards are not near the mark that they reached last year and in the trails. I think we have the rucking difficulties solved, but we are not yet playing as a pack. We are playing too much as individuals in the pack. In the backs we have the speed, but we still want polish.’