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1956 Springboks – First tour match in New Zealand

9 June 1956 - Waikato 14 / South Africa 10

The first match against Waikato is remembered mainly for two reasons; firstly, the massive three and a half hour welcoming procession; secondly, the fact that the Springboks lost the match. Here is a pictures of the welcoming procession. 

Jan Pickard leading the Springboks on the field against Waikato. Pickard, as captain, had awarded Waikato first use of the wind a decision Craven didn’t know about and which he regarded as a mistake. At half-time Pickard had the good sense, according to McLean, to replace Howe at flyhalf with Nel which put an end to the too many first half mistakes behind the scrum -between Gentles and Howe- and allowed the Springboks to get their backline moving with the result that they scored two excellent tries on the wing.

The first match in New Zealand was played against Waikato in Hamilton and this match -some believe- determined the outcome of the tour. Fred Labuschagne -one of South Africa’s leading sport Journalist at the time- wrote this immediately after the final whistle went according to Warwick Roger’s book ‘Old Heroes’:

Waikato kicked off. A high swirling ball which Pichard, as was his wont, awaited with monumental calm. With the ball arrived eight hoop-shirted terrors and the giant Western Province forward practically disappeared into the Mooloo mud under impact. Ian Clarke dribbled on. Buckler couldn’t stop the rush. Neither could Nel. Van Vollenhoven left his position on the wing to try and help, and the astute Ponty Reid switched direction as the ball came to him from the ruck. He gave the Waikato winger Malcolm McDonald an armchair ride to the bok line.

In just sixty seconds of hurricane rugby the Waikato side had practically wiped out the aura of Springbok invincibility. That dramatic first minute sealed the fate of the test series.

The Waikato side was psyched-up to the level of Kamikaze commitment and started to prepare for the match in December 1955. They were focussed to perfection and played themselves to a standstill. Alan Hayes who played on the flank for Waikato is quoted as follows in Warwick Roger’s book:

Seven months before the Springbok game, in December of 1955, we’d been asked to report to Cambridge for the first team talk of the squad of about twenty-five from which the team would be selected.

Then after Christmas, in the January-February period, a lot of us would get together at Rugby Park on a Sunday and work together in groups from the various sub-unions, mainly on getting ourselves fit.

We then had a three-month tour early in May, to places like Wellington and Palmerston North.

We had a final tam talk before a big steak lunch a day before the match and it was at that point that Dick Everest the coach read out his notes on the opposition. I recall quite vividly that I was told what my job was, what my marker Daan Retief’s attributes were. Dick had foolscap pages on these people. My job was making sure that the halfback didn’t run, that he had to be nailed. The usual stuff a breakaway’s supposed to do.

Bryce Cowley who played for Waikato on centre added: Dick had spies over in Australia watching the Springboks play there and noting down their strengths and weaknesses. He’d decided that their real vulnerability would show up if we could get them going backwards.

On whether they were concerned about the physical size of the Springboks or what the results would be Alan Hayes is quoted in Roger’s book saying that they didn’t think of those things; that they were only concentrating on what each individual in the team had to do -right from the start- to get their pattern going; to secure enough ball and to do something with it. The whole thing was such a buzz, he said years later, that we were going almost on nervous energy. As a result my recollection of the game itself is virtually nil.

Alan Hayes said he have never been so tired and sore after a match. The power of the Springbok scrum is something that he will never forget. No team in New Zealand that he would ever play against could match the bone crunching pressure of the Springbok scrum that day. While everyone else was celebrating and carrying on afterwards the Waikato team was like stunned mullets they were completely drained by the ferocity and intensity of the effort. 

It was a big party -before and afterwards- for the spectators. Here is MooLoo taking a walk on the paddock. The crowd gave Mooloo an ample amount of beer which Mooloo had no problem gobling down to everyone's delight.

Waikato launched themselves at the Springboks at the start of the game and scored a try in the first 60 seconds and then another by No. 8 Ron Pickering and led 14-0 at half time with Don Clarke adding a long range left foot drop kick. The Springboks didn’t know what hit them looking at each other shaking their heads as if to say, “What the hell have we struck here?” recalls one spectator quoted in “Old Heroes”

Look at the body positions of the four Waikato forwards, Hayes (No 12), MacDonald (No 4) and the one on the left as well as the one tackling from behind as they zoom in on Tom van Vollenhoven. They are going for the ball -in fact No 4 already have his hands on the ball and his shoulder in position to rip-; tackling in pairs and making ready to blow-over as they enter the collisions. In comparison the Springboks -Van Vollenhoven with the ball and Chris de Wilzem running up in support- are way to upright. It is obvious just looking at the body and leg drive positions of the players in this picture who are going to win the ball in the ensuing ruck.

A stunned Danie Craven, Viviers and other team members photographed in the pavilion as the Springboks are in process of losing the first match on tour against Waikato in Hamilton.

By half time Waikato knowing that they had the points on the board started to play a negative type of game focussing on spoiling and disrupting in full appreciation that if they allowed the match to turn into a scrap they had the Springboks beaten. It was still hard, hard rugby recalls Bryce Cowley and the Springboks came back with passion in the second half and it turned out to be a desperate, thrilling finish between men confronted with the horrifying thought that they were about to be beaten and men who were so tired that only guts and determination kept them going. 

There was a lovely try by van Vollenhoven when Nel sped past his man putting the winger into space to race to the goal line. Du Preez the other wing scored in the 66th minute of the match when van Vollenhoven broke out of a half tackle before running infield to link up with Nel who drew fullback Clarke to create space on the outside (see picture above showing Van Vollenhoven scoring his try). Both tries were converted by Pickard. 

This picture shows Jan du Preez scoring his try against Waikato 

Terry McLean ends his piece on this match in his book ‘Battle for the rugby crown’ with the following paragraph:

The psychological moment –so illustrative of the weakness inherent in the team at this stage of the tour- came within the last minute or two when Buchler caught the ball and began to run to the right.

Nel and du Preez were in a line about ten yards in front of him. Waikato was done for. It was a supreme moment for chancing the arm, for marrying up fullback and threequarters and letting Fortune deal out the cards as she might. One could see the thought enlarge itself in Buckler’s mind.

Then, abruptly, the light flickered and he put the ball into touch. South Africa was storming in the Waikato 25 a moment later when the whistle sounded once more –but this time it was the final whistle.

And Mooloo went stark, staring mad. 

This picture shows the Mooloo (Waikato token) on the left and Alan Hayes the flanker who played against the Springboks for Waikato on the right.

The Springbok team who played in this match were:

Buchler; van Vollenhoven; Nel; Rosenberg, du Preez; Howe; Gentles; Lochner; Retief; Claassen; Pickard; de Wilzem; du Toit, van der Merwe; Walker. 

This picture shows Tommy Gentles and the Springbok pack in action in the Waikato match. The Springboks first real contact with the New Zealand public was that night after the match at the Riverlea Cabaret ball but there was a language problem. Wife of Bryce Cowley –who played centre against the Springboks- remembers that the Afrikaners just stood and spoke with each other in Afrikaans while the girls from the nurses home who were their partners didn’t have much fun. Bryce Cowley sought out Tommy Gentles and he was apparently more than happy to talk and said to Cowley it would be a waste to talk to the Afrikaners. Cowley got the impression that Gentles didn’t get on well with them. Clearly not indicative of a happy touring group.

Every picture tells a story and the one above spins the tale of the Waikato game plan and how the Springboks lost. See the aggression with which the Waikato players try and get at Gentles (the Springbok No9) and see the ineffective rucking technique of the Springboks. Waikato won the game by storming through the lineouts and around the scrums and putting the Springbok halfbacks under pressure. The Mooloo men made no attempt to pick-up the ball on such occasions but followed a strategy of marauding foot rushes namely kicking the ball through and the Springboks had no idea how to deal with the situation. Rucking the ball up to create depth/front foot ball before you spread it was not part of the South African rugby mind-set.

Craven lamented afterwards speaking to Terry McLean “but it’s not attractive rugby” at which McLean -thinking of Craven annoying habit of telling everyone “we came here to win”- replied but it’s winning rugby. The 1956 Springboks never worked out how to deal with the marauding foot rush approach of the Kiwi’s and it cost them the series.

It took another 40 years before this concept (depth before width) was introduced into SA rugby by Ian Macintosh and before then South Africa would be humiliated at least once more in New Zealand with the exact same strategy namely in 1965 losing that series 3-1.

The Springboks brought a Springbok head as trophy to be handed to the first team who beat them on tour. Here Basie Viviers hands the trophy to Dick Everest the Waikato coach.

Norman McKenzie penned down the following observations about the Waikato game in the New Zealand Free Lance after the game:

The South Africans were ill-equipped to handle the going. Their boots carried ten studs each, and on some I believe I counted twelve, a setting that encourages the mud to cling and form a surface that deprives the studs of their real function.

He also writes that South Africa committed rugby suicide by deciding to play against the wind in the first half. The wind from behind would have allowed them to reduce the fanatical initial onslaught of the Waikato team. They could have used the wind to ensure that play took place in the Waikato half of the field and that would have helped to settle the nerves of the visitors playing in a strange land and on a playing surface none of them have ever encountered.

Regarding Waikato’s game strategy he writes that they used the up-and-under and that worked particularly well in the first half with the wind from behind. The fact that South Africa could came back into the match in the second half had much to do with the fact that the up-and-under lost it’s effectiveness against the wind.

Here one can see the Waikato game plan in action. Ponty Read is hoisting the ball with Bertus van der Merwe and Johan Claassen too late.

Waikato also used a strategy of throwing the ball hard into the lineouts which surprised the South African locks essentially neutralising the South African lineout as a threat as the Springbok locks were unable to catch the lineouts throws coming at express speed and with a lower trajectory.

Lastly, he writes that the South African backs tried desperately to get into open country in the second half. They succeeded three times and the results were two outstanding tries -each a rugby treat from seemingly impossible positions- the result of speed of foot and swift transfer of the ball.