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7 july 1956 - Carisbrook, Dunedin

South Africa 14 / Otago 9 

Dunedin and Otago has to some extend been to New Zealand rugby what Stellenbosch and Western Province rugby were to South African rugby. Both University cities that lost their respective roles as gateways to the respective national sides due to the professional era. Today neither Stellenbosch nor Dunedin are the rugby powerhouses or talent accumulators if not developers it used to be.

In 1949 a relatively large contingent of the All Black squad was from Otago. In 1937 it was a massive shock to the New Zealanders when the star studded Otago team lost 47-7 against the Springboks. In 1956 the Dunedin based team coached by former All Black Charlie Saxton was a formidable team. Four of the side, John Hotop (No10), Lindsay Townsend (No9), Bill Lunn (No7) and Mark Irwin (No1) had played for New Zealand. Five more were to become All Blacks namely Russel Watt (No13), E.S Diack (No11), Howard Levien (No12), Frank McAtamney (No5) and Dave Gillespie (No8) while Bill Wilson (No15) was an All Black trialist.

The Springboks were mindful of the psychological importance of this match only one week away from the first test. They were also desperate to turn in a display good enough to lift confidence levels and consequently named a virtual test side.

The team was:

Roy Dryburg; Tom van Vollenhoven; Jeremy Nel; Paul Johnstone; Bennet Howe; Clive Ulyate; Coenraad Strydom; Butch Lochner; Dawie Ackermann; Daan Retief; Salty du Rand; Johan Claassen; Harry Newton-Walker; Bertus van der Merwe; Piet du Toit. (The original team included Buckler on fullback, Dryburg on centre and Jan du Preez on the wing but with Buckler and du Preez still unable to play due to injury Dryburg moved to fullback and Johnstone and Howe were included as respectively wing and center.

Some overestimation of the true strength of the Otago team might have been on the cards and the Springboks sang like schoolboys on the bus after a convincing 14-9 win. They believed the Otago team to be one of the provincial teams with the strongest forward packs they were due to encounter on the entire tour. As it pans out the Otago pack averaged almost 10lbs (4.5kg) per man lighter than the Springboks putting the Springboks post-match contentment with their forward dominance in a bit of a different perspective. Terry McLean writes:

“Our toughest match,” said Danie. Going back to their hotel in the bus, and again in their team-room while they were having a drink or two, the Springboks sang their heads off as happily as if they were schoolboys who have been granted a holiday by a visiting V.I.P.

I was much inclined, continuous McLean, considering the factors as I see them, to dispute that the victory and the performance were as good as the Springboks thought them. In fact, I was, quite frankly, greatly disappointed in the display of the Otago team. It could not be compared with the great teams of the Cavanagh post-war period, or even with the 1950 team of the post-Cavanagh-war period. 

Dunedin turned out one of its coldest spells in years for the Springboks and in the bottom picture above Jan du Preez on the left can be seen with a newly acquired beany and Jeremy Nel with brand new thick jacket (in the middle) taking the piss out of Chris Koch with his motorbike attire. There is quite a marked temperature difference when you travel from the bottom of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island. The nippy wind down South necessitates some extra protection for the extremities like the ears, fingers and nose. The top picture shows replacements players Theuns Briers and James Starke being picked-up at the Dunedin airport by Roy Dryburg (far left) and Salty du Rand (far right).

The idea that the Springboks overestimated the win depends of course how you look at it. While Mclean were possibly influenced by his disappointment in the performance of the Otago team some of the other historical accounts about this match opinionated that Otago’s lacklustre performance had much to do with the Springboks dominance upfront and the pressure exerted by Retief, Lochner and Ackermann on the half-backs Townsend and Hotop (both international players). 

Townsend sending the ball away with Retief and Ackermann charging-up in Hennie Muller fashion to knock over the Otago inside backs. The speed of the Springbok loose men on defence and their back-up on attack was a feature of this match. The Springboks loosies had the Otago international half-backs baffled. McLean writes: Hotop dropped Townsend’s first pass and we shall now observe a minute silence while we mourn what went on between them for the rest of the game.

McLean in all fairness admits that the Springboks for the first time on tour looked like a team; that the forwards did look much better; a more effective pack than in previous matches; that there were magnificent touches to the visitors performance. His main grievance is not so much the Springboks performance but the fact that Otago in playing the wrong game tactics allowed the Springboks to look far better than he thought they were. He writes:

Otago’s policy was power, even to the extent of playing Gillespie, a lock, at the back of the scrum and McCredie, another lock, on the side. McAtamney, a prop, was out of position at lock and this choice was strangest of all; Kovalenski, whom he should have displaced, was spoken of by local newspaper as a “deceptive” forward but there was a great deal too much of too, too solid flesh about him to justify so strange a description.

The result of this emphasis on power was -writes McLean in another part in the text- that the home forwards were extra-ordinarily, even abominably slow in covering the ground and the backs were completely unhinged by the joint plunge into utter misery of Townsend at halfback and Hotop at first five-eighths.

Pleasantly for the true rugby connoisseur the Otogo decision to play a power game produced a forward tussle that lived-up to pre-match expectations with the lighter Otago pack competing in the set piece. The hooker, Stevens, matched van der Merwe scrum for scrum, but South Africa held a distinct advantage in the lineouts, which were dominated chiefly by Claassen and du Rand. 

Johan Claassen was magnificent in this match. He was almost laughably dominant in the lineout and an outstanding player in every aspect of tight forward play, writes Terry McLean.

There were complaints afterwards that the South Africans were obstructing in the line-outs and some photographic ‘evidence’ of it was produced stating that the Springboks developed lineout obstruction into a fine art.

Ironically, it was Craven who in McLean’s words ‘most imprudently burst into the dressing-room at the end of the game with the sour remark’: “We were playing 16 men.” Incidentally, the referee awarded 29 penalties in the game –nine of them to South Africa. Something like three Springbok tries –two by Retief and one by Lochner- was disallowed by the referee due to ‘off-sides’ and ‘hands-in’ so one can understand Craven’s frustration. Maxwell Price asked the referee afterwards about some of the penalties awarded and he stated that most was for infringements in the line-out. This seems to suggest the New Zealand media contentions to target the Springbok line-out strength was getting to the referees.

Some historical accounts of this match state that the Springboks should have won by at least 20 more points.  

Roy Dryburg missed with 6 relatively easy penalty attempts (6x3=18 points) and lack of support and some hard decisions by the referee saw at least four try scoring opportunities go astray. A knee injury to van Vollenhoven resulted in him unable to convert a 60 yards run into points and Ulyate despite playing relatively well were still kicking away possession instead of using his fast backline. Howe and Nel made brilliant and incisive line-breaks but persisted with inside passes –instead of spinning the ball to the wings- allowing the cross defence to close the gaps.  

This cartoon appeared in the South African newspapers when it was revealed that the injury Tom van Vollenhoven obtained during the Otago match will keep him off the field for at least two weeks.  

Clive Ulyate scored the Springboks first try after some inter passing between him and Nel. Ulyate was however again much to blame for Springboks not putting Otaga away. McLean writes: Ulyate was again the villain of the piece. He used the short grubber kick so much that his intentions could be, and was, read and he was strangely blind to the need of pressing home the advantage gained by the forwards by constant attack in the threequarters. Where Hotop was unmercifully harried by Lochner, Gillespie gave Ulyate so much room, especially in the second half, that the latter had both the time and space in which to thrust over the advantage line before getting the ball away. In the highest form of rugby, this is a chance that comes once in a blue moon and shrewed a young man as Ulyate should have been well aware of it. “He is not serious enough,” Craven testily remarked to me when we once discussed Ulyate. “He never has been serious.” Perhaps it was true.

Warrick Roger in his book ‘Old Heroes’ calls Ulyate the clown prince of the 1956 team and as can be seen in the top picture above he was principally an entertainer who enjoyed being the man of the moment. Roger also refers to a number of occasions where Ulyate seemed more intent on dating female fans during visits to schools and clubs than anything else. See how intently he seems to be staring at on one of the females in the bottom picture above.

South Africa scored in the first minute of the game when Dryburg slotted a penalty from 25 yards out. Otago came back doggedly and play swung round the half-way line for some time before Watt kicked a penalty to level the scores. There was some good attacking runs by Lochner, Ulyate and Strydom to take the springboks eventually close to the Otago goal line. Retief went over but was penalised.

Dryburg after 6 attempts succeeded with a penalty for South Africa to take the lead 6-3. This stung the Otago team into action and a determined forward rush by Gillespie and McAtamney took play to the Springbok line, where the ball was kicked into the ingoal area for Stevens (No2) to fall on it.

Five minutes before halftime some slick handling between Ulyate and Nel from a 25 meter scrum produced Ulyates try for South Africa to take a 9-6 lead.

After 23 minutes in the second half Strydom slipped around a loose scrum and sent the ball to Retief who ranged up next to him. Retief’s momentum carried him over for a try near the corner which Dryburg converted. 

Coenraad Strydom who started/made Retief's try can be seen in this picture. Strydom was a nippy little scrumhalf with a long pass and a fast clearance behind the rucks/lineouts and scrums. 

Daan Retief was one of the stars of the 1956 Springbok team. A hardworking flanker with lots of speed. Here he is on the receiving end of a high tackle. Retief played in 13 of the 23 matches including all four test matches and scored 7 tries.

Otago's second try and the last points of the match came when Diack on the wing anticipated one of Ulyate’s stab-through grubbers and burst into the Springbok defensive line where Lunn (No7) gathered to score 5 yards from the corner. 

This picture shows Lunn scoring Otago's second try with Jeremy Nel on top of him the other two Springboks just on the left of the try scorer are Van Vollenhoven and Strydom.

Vic Cavanagh the legendary Otago coach made a remark afterwards that the fast South African loose forwards play which was so devastating against the 1949 All Blacks on the hard grounds in South Africa might recoil on the Springboks on the softer fields of New Zealand. This proved to be prophetic words as the only test the Springboks did succeed in winning in this series was the second test when they were forced by injury to play Jan Pickard in the loose trio.  

Father and son: Respected Otago rugby coaches 'Old' and 'Young' Vic Cavanagh. The forward-orientated ‘Southern style’ associated with the Cavanagh's saw Otago become a force in New Zealand rugby. Rucking became a defining feature of New Zealand rugby largely through their influence.

Many rugby enthusiasts believe 'Young' Vic Cavanagh was the best New Zealand coach never to have coached the All Blacks. Many believe that he should have coached the 1949 All Black team in South Africa, especially as this included 11 Otago players. Others thought he was only interested in ‘his’ players. In the end he might have felt that he 'dodged a bullet' as the All Blacks were humiliated 4-0 in the test series.

Terry McLean, in his book, “Great days in New Zealand Rugby” explains why Cavanagh never coached the All Blacks:

“The career of Cavanagh…forms a study in the perils of a career in amateur sport in a small-minded community. After being appointed a South Island selector in 1948, he was acclaimed as the person most suitable to act as coach of the 1949 All Blacks in their visit to South Africa. He was actually bespoken of the appointment by the intended manager but was deprived of it when the New Zealand Council made the embarrassing discovery that it would not be possible to arrange the appointment of this man as manager.

Cavanagh was not disappointed and in 1949 his Otago team continued to win its matches even though 11 members of the first team were with the All Blacks in South Africa. At the end of the tour it was generally acknowledged, both by the All Blacks and the general public, that the New Zealand Council had made an appalling blunder in not giving Cavanagh the appointment.

Someone had to pay for this.

Not surprisingly, it was Cavanagh. At the start of the 1950 season not one New Zealand councillor could bring himself to cast a vote for this brilliant student of Rugby in the capacity of South Island selector. At this brutal and calculated snub, Cavanagh withdrew from all selectorial or coaching appointments in higher levels of the game. It was only at the start of the 1959 season that he was persuaded to return to committee work for the Otago Rugby Union”.

Cavanagh's three most famous coaching triumphs were the Ranfurly Shield challenge against the visiting Auckland team at Carisbrook in 1947, the entire 1949 Otago season, and Otago decisively and surgically dismantling the 1950 Lions, 23-9.

The 1947 Auckland team included greats such as Johnny Simpson, Pat Crowley, Fred Allen, and the greatest of them all, Bob Scott. At halftime they were utterly dominant, leading 12-3 (a huge margin in those days). There are all sorts of legends as to what Cavanagh said at halftime in the Otago changing room. Some say he tore strips off the players, and harangued them, others that he said nothing at all, until they got up to leave to play the second half, and used reverse psychology by dismissing them with the words, "off you go, girls"! More likely he let them stew in silence for about 5 minutes, then calmly and precisely outlined their faults, then explained how to fix it, and reassured them they had the ability to do so. Whatever happened, the game took on a complete transformation in the second half, and Otago won, 18-12.

There were 11 players from Otago in the 1949 All Black team to South Africa, yet despite having to build a new team, they retained the Ranfurly Shield against 7 challengers that year. One of the teams they beat was Waikato, whose assistant coach, Dick Everest asked Cavanagh to teach him all he knew. Seven years later the 1956 Springboks faced a Waikato team coached by Cavanagh's disciple, and lost that first game of the tour - probably in the first minute, courtesy of Otago-style rucking as explained here.