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June 23, 1956 - South Africa 8 / Wellington 6

The playing surface was not entirely dry as it did rain in the days prior to the match. The match itself was, however, played in magnificent sunny weather in front of 45 000 spectators. 

The Springboks forward play was still considered suspect by the critics in spite of some promising signs against the Manawatu combined team which was in all fairness a rural side and certainly not one of the highly rated teams in New Zealand.

The question remained just how much have the Springbok forward play improved after some really mediocre performances against Waikato, North Auckland and Auckland.

Wellington have beaten Auckland comprehensively and the game against Wellington was consequently seen as a match which could reveal whether the Springboks forward play have really made adjusted to the New Zealand style of play. The pressure was on and the New Zealand media made sure the Springboks knew that the Wellington match was some sort of an evaluation of their progress. Terry McLean reports this delightful exchange he had with some Springbok team members before the Wellington match:

Having long been an admirer of the Wellington method of playing the game, having, too, been a witness to a slashing defat of Auckland by Wellington at the tail-end of the previous season, I thought it not improper to tell some of the Springboks that they were bound to have a hard game. “Wellington beat Auckland by 37 to 11,” I said, “and it was a massacre.” “That’s nothing” said ‘Peewee’ Howe. “We beat Auckland by 6 to 3 –and that was a massacre, too.”

The Wellington side were loaded with incumbent All Blacks as well as previous and future All Blacks. Ron Jarden, Tom Katene, Jim Fitzgerald, Bill Clarke and Ivan Vodanovich (the man who would coach the 1970 All Blacks touring in South Africa) had all represented New Zealand while Don McIntosh and Nev MacEwan were to become all Blacks later in the 1956 season.

The Springboks in need of a good win against a top ranking side fielded a team that was very nearly their best. Salty du Rand, now fit, took his place in the pack, and the test players Gentles and Pfaff, were in partnership at half-back.

The Springbok team who played in this match was; Dryburg, Van Vollenhoven, Nel, Montini, Johnstone, Pfaff, Gentles, Lochner, Ackermann, Du Rand, Pickard, Retief, Bekker, van der Merwe, Koch.

The match is remembered in New Zealand as a match Wellington could easily have won due to a solid performance by their forwards but it is also recalled as a match that South Africa deserved to won due to outstanding defence and good backline play. Essentially South Africa took their changes while Wellington miss fired on a number of changes they had to clinch the match.

The match started in sensational fashion with Wellington scoring six points within the first eight minutes. Jarden first goaled a penalty after Howe was judged off-side close to his goal line. This penalty resulted from a high kick hoisted by Jarden which was fumbled by Van Vollenhoven showing -not for the first time on tour- vulnerability under the high ball.

Surprisingly, the Wellington team did not utilize this tactic again as the match progressed. A few moments later, from a scrum in the left-hand Springbok corner, a clearance kick by Dryburg was charged down by W.H Clarke and Dougan (No10) fell on the ball for Wellington’s first and only try in this match.

Wellington then camped in the Springbok half for very much most of the first half dominating the breakdowns but especially the lineouts with McEwan, Vondanovich and Tarpley being outstanding. Part of the problem for South Africa in the line-out was that Pickard -whose leap in the lineout had been much criticised in the New Zealand press- was penalised early in the match. This undoubtedly affected the Springboks forwards and disrupted normal structures at the lineout.

It was claimed in the press that the South Africans shielded their takers at the line-out and referees began targeting the South African line-out play. The irony is that the Wellington forwards were as guilty in this regard as can be seen on the photo below –which appeared in The Dominion the next day- showing the Wellington players “shielding their scrumhalf Makeham by blocking the South African forwards”. 

“Wellington gives the visitors a lesson in line-out play”, said the subscript of this picture and continuous by stating; “The halfback A.J. Makeham receives the ball from a solid line of black jerseys effectively blocking the South African forwards”.

It was the defence of Dryburg and Ackermann who kept the Springboks in the game while Wellington was dominating procedures in the early part of the first half. Terry McLean writes:

It may sound odd, but, like the Vicar of Bray, “this is true, I will maintain, Until my dying day, Sir,” that if it had not been for Ackermann, Wellington would have won. It was Ackermann who three times made tackles to end movements which looked bound to end in tries –tries which, as in the Waikato game, would have put the Springboks hopelessly far behind. In the 9th minute, Fitzgerald made a cut and Ackermann got him.

Within two minutes, Dougan feinted a pass to his right and having thrown Lochner and Pfaff off, sailed through. Ackermann thundered up and it was all curtains.

Then, in the 24th minute, Katene came bursting into five-eighths from the right flank and having been issued with a pass from Makeham made a bolt on the diagonal for the goalpost so 30 yards distant.

The Wellington backline of four additional men rippled into action in his support and if for an instant all action have been frozen you would have seen that only a bad pass or some such utter foolishness could prevent a try.

The only freezing that was done, however, was Ackermann’s grasp upon Katene’s shoulders, when the latter held on a yard too long. The wrestling was brief. Katene and ball bit the dust. It was practically the end of Wellington.  

This picture shows Ackermann sailing into Dougan (Wellington No10). It was Ackermann defensive work who won the match for South Africa in Terry McLean’s opinion.  

Tom Katene with Roy Dryburg around his legs –shown in the picture above- the highly rated All Black winger (the All Black ’56 version of Jono Lomu) was making crashing runs into Roy Dryburg’s infallible accurate tackles and there was little to admire about all his attempts to broke through the South African defence writes McLean as for all his savagery and bumping, bashing runs he kept dying with the ball.  

Some more action involving Tom Katene, Tom van Vollenhoven and Tommy Gentles.

By interval the Springboks –after being 6 points down and under constant pressure- were able to reduce the gap to 3 points by means of a spectacular try began by van Vollenhoven on the left wing. Gentles threw a pass in the Springbok twenty-five to van Vollenhoven who sprinted away before passing to Dryburg coming up from fullback on his inside. Pfaff, Howe (who sold Fitzgerald the sweetest dummy you could imagine –some sources has it as Gentles) all joined in with the later getting stopped just short of the line. Retief then got his boot to the ball for Brain Pfaff to fall on it when it crossed into the Wellington in goal area. Johnstone failed with the conversion.

There were cries of dismay from the seats in the south-eastern corner as some felt there was a forward pass in the movement.

This was the first of a number of amazing/controversial incidents.

In the twelfth minute of the second half there were again cries of dismay when Howe was awarded a try. L.A Clark was convinced that he forced the ball down before Howe got hands on it in the scramble in the in goal area.

This picture shows Howe scoring the winning try of the match after van Vollenhoven fly-kicked a low pass from Johnstone –who slipped through a gap after coming-up between Pfaff and Howe –into the Wellington in gaol area. Van Vollenhoven and Lochner are the two players on either side of Howe.

There were three more incidents. The next one came after made a fine attempt by Jan Pickard at kicking a penalty from 40 yards out. Ian Kirkpatrick –who was the touch-judge- raised his flag to signal a gaol while the Wellington touch-judge remained motionless. The referee over ruled Kirkpatrick disallowing the penalty which Kirkpatrick felt left the impression the he was trying to cheat. The body language of at least some of the Wellington players as well as the reactions form spectators sitting behind the goal post suggested that they agreed with Kirkpatrick that the kick was over.

In the 27th minute Bertus van der Merwe charged over the goal-line from the front of a line-out to score and spite of him and the rest of the Springboks being convinced that he scored the try was disallowed.

In the last minute of the game Montini broke and send van Vollenhoven over the line but the referee ruled a forward pass. Everyone now expected the final whistle to go but the referee had the match continuing for another seven minutes.

The stadium clock apparently got stuck and stopped two minutes short of full time. Everyone was obvious of what was happening with the crowd accumulating on the side line ready to run on the park, the radio commentators were constantly referring to the clock that have stopped and the players were starting to make the referee aware that the clock has stopped working. Brain Pfaff in desperation walked up to the referee and requested how much longer the match is going to proceed and that elicited such a sharp reprimand from the referee that he ruined his changes of blowing a test match, according to McLean.

The referee later told a newspaper that he kept his own time as the rules requested and the extra time was for time lost through injury stoppages during the match.

It was a close but deserved win for the Springboks at the end of the day but the Springbok forwards again did not impress. Terry McLean summed up the game in the New Zealand Herald as follows:

In winning what was without doubt the finest match of their tour the Springboks did not yet manage to look a truly outstanding team, but they did manage to look a very good one with a promise of even better things to come.

In his book ‘Battle for the rugby crown’ McLean writes that Wellington could have won the match had Makeham, who the previous year had looked very nearly the best halfback in the country, shown sufficient tactical sense to bring Jarden into the game, as a variant, to run the blindside to defeat the devastating work against Dougan of Lochner, the Springbok No8.

That evening Dr Craven gathered the team for a private talk in their hotel and nobody was left with any doubt that Craven was not entirely happy with the performance of the team. 

Retief on the charge against Wellington with Dawie Ackermann just behind him. The player on the ground –after being pushed-off by Retief- is Tarpley.  

Van Vollenhoven getting tackled in the Wellington match. 

Gentles making ready to pass after receiving the ball from a line-out with Ackermann, Retief Du Rand (with headgear) McEwan, Hutchinson, Sage, Pickard Koch and Van der Merwe in the background. The press was making an issue of the South Africa line-out men blocking defenders and the Springboks found themselves heavily scrutinized in this area of the game. Poor old Tommy Gentles ended up on the receiving end of the Wellington forwards stampeding through the Springbok line-out as a consequence of the Springboks being careful not to get penalised for blocking.