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Springboks 15 / New Zealand Universities 22

22 August 1956 – Athletic Park, Wellington 

Noticeably, conversation about the 1956 tour always detour to the match against the New Zealand Universities. Historically, it was the first time a New Zealand University team played against an international touring side but this match is synonymous with the 1956 tour for other reasons. The fact that the Universities team won is also not really the main reason why Kiwi’s still rate this match as the best match of the tour. It was the manner in which the Universities team won that delighted the New Zealand rugby fraternity. All the good football came from the home side. The backs demonstrated opportunism, sensible anticipation and application while the pack totally dominated proceedings. The game is nevertheless mostly remembered as the game of the great Ron Jardon ‘try-that-wasn’t’. A great howl went up in protest when Jardon was called back after a spectacular 65 meter run through almost the entire Springbok team (listen to Winston McCarthy commentary highlights of the match here) and old-timers almost without exception still mention the Jardon try to this day whenever the 1956 tour are under discussion.

The match has been lauded as an example of a classic rugby match. Fact is it was not really a classical match due to too many handling mistakes and a general lack of technical perfection but in context of the 1956 tour by far the most thrilling and exciting tour match.

From a South African perspective it was a despairing loss; the timing was despairing (immediately after the despairing 3rd test loss when the team was in need for something to lift them out of the depth of despair) and the manner in which they lost despairing in its effect on team morale. The series was gone; the team was struggling to pick itself up after the 3rd test humiliation when they encountered the university team who won them with their own game; running rugby. Blaming Skinner, the wet fields and the All Blacks kick-and-chase-style was a convenient way to justify inadequacies in the group. Losing against youngsters who played open Varsity running rugby (upon which South African rugby is ultimately based with Stellenbosch, UCT and Pretoria being the heart of respectively Western Province and Northern Transvaal rugby) in ideal conditions was an emotionally bruising bubble popping wake-up call.

The difference between the test side and the Saturday side was never more glaringly obvious than in this match. The selection ‘errors’ on the day -and in construction of the team as a whole even before they left South Africa- produced a midweek pack of forwards that was frankly appalling. Their tight work was virtually non-existent; they showed no drive, no cohesion; the line-out work was untidy; they were, in fact, little more than rabble. Chris Koch who was nursing a sore jaw after a gruelling time in the test the previous weekend should have been rested but was picked to play. Newton-Walker a prop was instead selected to play on the lock while Jan Pickard -who would have made a better lock- was included as number eight. It was, in short, a serious mistake to leave Lochner, Retief and Ackermann on the side while picking a lock at number eight against a fast moving student side on a dry field.

The Springbok forwards was bustled of the ball and it didn’t take the students long to realise there was no protection for the South African scrumhalf. Coenraad Strydom had as a consequence the worst game of his entire tour. Under extreme and constant pressure he was thrown completely out of his game and hassled into errors. This had an insidious effect on flyhalf Bennett Howe and the rest of the backline. Howe an elusive playmaker who can confuse his opponents –and to some extent his own-team mates- was a mixture of good and bad. Things were made worse by Rosenberg re-injuring his hamstring while Kirkpatrick normally a very accomplished rugby player seemed unable to hold a pass. Things went from bad to worse when Kirkpatrick and Howe swapped places (Howe moving to outside centre) in the latter stages of the match. On an individual basis a few Springboks tried hard like Koch, Johnstone (who was trying to find his way back into the test team) and Harry Newton-Walker. James Starke had a mediocre game in his second match after arriving in New Zealand as replacement for Basie van Wyk. Melt Hanekom won the tight head battle 3-1 but was frequently penalised by referee Tindill for ‘foot up’.

Jan Pickard (see picture above) considered by some to be the best leader in the group looked jaded according to one report. McLean (Battle for the Rugby Crown) had the following to say about Pickard’s performance/contributions in this match: Pickard, leader of the forwards, soon began speaking to them and by the tone of his voice instantly reminded me of some regimental sergeants-major whom I would still like to meet on a dark night when I had a cosh and they hadn’t. The forwards reacted to as we all reacted to the RSM’s and they even showed some wish to imitate Pickard after he had blatantly, and inexcusably put his shoulder into Jardon when the latter had parted with the ball.

This picture shows Basie Viviers in action against the students. The player in process of tackling Viviers is winger Diack and the university player behind Viviers is flyhalf Fitzpatrick. Viviers according to one report had a poor day with the boot and did look uncertain under pressure on occasion. About his general performance on tour the report states that he sometimes gathered the ball beautifully and that he sometimes kicked splendidly but that he never quite impressed as the complete fullback. He didn’t move smoothly –his laboured gait could conceivably have been due to the injury he suffered earlier in the tour.

The Springbok team that played in this match: Basie Viviers; Roy Dryburg; Ian Kirkpatrick; Wilf Rosenberg; Paul Johnstone; Bennett Howe; Coenraad Strydom; Jan Pickard; Chris de Wilzem; Chris de Nysschen; Harry Newton-Walker; James Starke; Chris Koch; Melt Hanekom; Piet du Toit.

The Varsity side by contrast was a side full of quality players at the peak of their physical prowess who had beaten Wellington and Manawatu in lead-up games. New Zealand University sides -like in South Africa- are not chosen entirely from full-time students. It includes graduates and other former students who continue to play for university clubs. There was experience, there was proper coaching and preparation, there was intelligence, and there was true athleticism and class in the Varsity team. Four players in the backline were All Blacks and two more namely Brain Molloy and ‘Tuppy’ Diack would later play international rugby for New Zealand. The pack had two All Blacks namely John Buxton and Bill Clark while Wilson Whineray and Des Webb were future All Blacks.

This picture shows the Universities captain John Buxton speaking over the announcement system to the crowd after the match. There was a festive post-match atmosphere with some speeches and lots of singing.

The University team that played against the 1956 Springboks can be seen in the picture above

The game

The game started with a try by the Springboks and finished with two quick tries by the University side. The first try came within 30 seconds after kick-off. Dryburg following through on a kick downfield by Howe was able to gather the ball and score when the ball jumped awkwardly for fullback Dineen.

This picture shows Dryburg being boxed in by three Varisty players, Hutchinson, Diack and Bremmer. Where the students defence were outstanding there could be no denying that their attacking plays –although very good- was helped by some shocking defensive lapses by the Springboks. Maxwell Price (Springboks at Bay) writes, ‘No South African international team should have tackled as weakly as the Springboks did on that day, and there was again the failure to fall on the ball to stop the foot rush’.

The students responded to Dryburg’s try with two penalties in the 3rd and 5th minutes of the game to take the lead.

Viviers tied the score soon afterwards when Whineray was caught offside.

Kirkpatrick won the race to the line to score the Springboks second and last try when De Wilzem hoofed the ball ahead after a fumble behind the Varisty scrum. Viviers missed again with the conversion to make the score 9-6 in South Africa’s favour. This happened in the 15th minute but by half time Varsity was leading 11-9 when Molloy (No8) broke around a loose scrum with Whineray supporting who then shifted the ball to flanker Clark to score.

This picture shows Ian Kirkpatrick scoring his try with Jardon to late.

Viviers missed with a penalty soon after half time but then succeeded with a 45-meter kick after an excellent run by Paul Johnstone.

The Springboks were in the lead for the third time (and last time) but there was no stopping the students. First, Clark dropped the ball with an open run to the line after Fitzpatrick (No10) broke clean through the Springbok backline. Some more weak Springbok defence then allowed Tanner to pick the ball up, break free, run a few meters, drew a man, and feed Jardon who raced around Dryburg to score under the posts. Dineen converted and Varsity was leading 16-12.

Viviers were unable to convert two more very kickable penalties into points while Dineen also missed with one.

Dryburg put the Springboks within one point (16-15) with a magnificent penalty goal from the touchline with about 10 minutes of play left on the clock. This penalty resulted from yet another good run by Johnstone.

This brought about the most exciting part of the match. McLean writes: …the situation with 10 minutes to play was that University had gained 16 points and the South Africans 15. Now began the most vital, enthralling and captivating kind of finish you could ever wish to see. It was so good that the memories of some unpleasant exchanges earlier in the game were erased and Viviers was able to say, with a ring of complete sincerity, “Thanks very much for a magnificent game. The better side won, make no mistake about that.”

First, Diack on the wing made a dashing run down the side-line and scored after some good work on the blindside by Molloy and Clark. THe Springboks responded by going on the attack after a good heel by Hanekom. Johnstone the blindside wing jumped into the line creating the overlap. The ball went to Kirkpatrick who spun to Rosenburg in space but Tanner intercepted spectacularly and started an unbearable exciting 60-meters run-chase to the line to score Varsities 4th try.

This picture shows Tanner scoring his dramatic intercept try.

Right at the end Jardon send the 44 000 spectators into a frenzy with an outstanding swerving run after he wiggled himself out of a tackle to score a try that was not because he stepped out half-way through his endeavour.

When the final whistle went Varsity recorded the highest winning margin against the touring Springboks, 22-15.

It was an emphatic victory. It was the ultimate indignity. Playing fast and mostly open football, the Universities had beaten the Springboks convincingly at a style and in environmental conditions that should have brought out the best in them.

The New Zealand Herald commented . . . “So, for the first time on tour, New Zealand backs took on the much-vaunted Springboks at the running and passing game, and by enterprise, intelligence and fine running beat the visitors at their strongest point. What was more, the University forwards, all magnificent workers, established a definite superiority over the Springboks. It followed that the touring team was beaten because it was beaten by a better team.”   

Basie Viviers addressing the crowd in the grand stand after the Universities match. Craven and Viviers were composed and serene in defeat and lavish in their praise. Craven said ‘the Springboks do not mind losing against a team playing such fine rugby as the Varsity team’. Viviers never more exemplary as Captain than in this moment spoke with perfect grace and simplicity, and before he could even finish the crowd was singing at the top of its voice, ‘For he is a jolly good fellow’. The crowd was then invited to farewell the Springboks by singing ‘Sarie Marais’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ where-upon Basie stepped-up to the microphone and said something like: “That was lovely, I shall tell my mother about you all”; a comment that melted many a female heart. ‘There was nothing else to do’ write Maxwell Price, ‘but to give the New Zealand University team full credit for their win’. Beneath it all there was however dreadful disappointment in the Springbok camp. The Springboks now had only one success (at Wanganui) in their last four games.

This cartoon of the Varsity victory is applicable in more than one way. The description below says ‘So far the rugby seemed to bring out the animal in (previous victors having had animals as tokens) us but with their well merited victory the students did something to restore the balance. It was the fifth Springbok loss but the first one that evidenced mostly recommendable sportsmanship by both players and spectators up to that point during the 1956 tour. Maxwell Price wrote that the violence and the deliberate obstruction in the forwards that he witnessed on the 1956 tour was a shock to him after many years of watching rugby. It was robust play carried to far; forward and breakdown techniques of aggression, dominance, pressure and interference where carried too far. Carried to a point where it might mean the end of rugby union if it is not corrected opinionated Price in his book ‘Springboks at Bay’. This match was in light of the general happenings (on and off the field) of the 1956 tour a breath of fresh air.