Wilbur Smith the novelist has an acronym AWA which stands for Africa Wins Again; an acronym he uses to indicate that things tend to go wrong in Africa.
At university we had a saying ‘Africa is not for sissies’ which we normally used when things were getting a bit tough.
Africa is a harsh, hard continent; something that came as no surprise to the war veterans in the 1949 touring All Black squad. What was a surprise was the fierceness of the tour matches. The unrelenting competiveness of the provincial teams. That competitiveness in combination with the touring itinerary, the Africa scenery and the extreme weather (freezing cold in the mornings on the Highveld and hot as hell in the afternoons) conditions made war veterans feel like they were on the war path again.
Kevin Skinner recall how the 1949 second world war veterans were making comparisons between the 1949 touring conditions and WW II service in Africa. “It felt to them like they were right back in the war” Skinner recalls. “Those South Africans were big and heck, every game was like a Test,” Skinner revealed. “She was a hard road to hoe. The war was over but we were all saying it, we had a hell of a fight on our hands.”
The challenge couldn’t be met and the series result still screams out in painful black ink. Not only does the 0-4 loss remain New Zealand’s worst in its rugby history, the year blots a proud heritage because a virtual All Black third-string team lost their home series 0-2 to Australia at the same time. Six test matches played and six matches lost reads the 1949 record books and that is not something any New Zealander wants to talk about or being reminded off.
What made the 0-4 white wash at the hands of the South Africans –in the test matches- worse was the fact that AB also suffered three losses and three draws in the 20 other matches. There has always been some consolation for the Kiwis in the fact that nearly every fixture was grim and low scoring. The South African teams struggled to cross the tryline but they managed 35 penalty goals in total, compared to the All Blacks’ 15.
Legendary full Bob Scott had a brilliant tour in all respects but one. His goalkicking boot was consistently wayward, something that haunts him to this day.
Picture of Bob Scot who was hailed a ‘rugby genius’ by the South African media.
“It always lived with me as great disappointment,” the 88-year-ol recalls. “I was probably part to blame, in some ways, because the goalkicking was so important.”
After more thought, Scott isn’t so hard on himself, remembering that most of his penalty kick and dropped goal attempts were from close to the halfway line.
This argument –that New Zealand’s penalty kicks were further from the posts- was put forth by Winston McCarthy in his book ‘All Blacks on trek again’ when he realized that the evidence did not support his initial views that New Zealand were penalised more than the South Africans in the test matches. One can see the more penalties in the New Zealand 25 area as referee favouritism but it can be indicative –as Craven suggested after the tour- of South African pressure and an obsession by the 1949 All Blacks to rather suffer a penalty than a try. Only 7 tries were scored against the All Blacks during the entire tour. Craven stated that his impression was that the All Blacks would do anything in preference to having a try scored against them. In ‘Danie Craven: Springbok story – 1949-1953’ he states that a number of penalties awarded to South Africa in the test matches should have been penalty tries.
Penalty attempt spots in the four test matches by South Africa and New Zealand respectively can be seen in the table below.
Penalty attempts by South Africa
Penalty attempts by New Zealand
The 1950 New Zealand Rugby Almanack starts –as can be seen below- its account of the 1949 tour with an elaborated discussion of referee issues stating: “There is something obviously wrong when an International side finds difficulty in finishing ahead in matches in which there have been more tries scored by their XV’s than by the opponents.”
1950 New Zealand Rugby Almanack on the 1949 tour
The few tries scored against them became indisputable evidence for the majority of New Zealanders that they were cheated. Ignored is Craven’s counter that the penalties were the results of an attitude of rather give away a penalty than allowing the opposition to score a try. Ignored is the fact that some of the penalties should have been penalty tries. The fact is that several of the penalties against the All Blacks in the first test were for obstruction, a far greater offence against the spirit of the game than winning by kicking penalties. The referee, Eddie Hofmeyr, later gave a detailed and convincing justification for each of the penalties Geffin had converted.
Ignored is also the fact that New Zealand had enough penalties –which they couldn’t convert into point- to have won at least two of the test matches.
“In the end there were little things. You look at the scores, there was nothing in it,” says Bob Scott. “It’s hard to hide when it’s four losses but it came down to a penalty here or a dropgoal there. And you can’t blame referees . . . I’ve never gone along with that.”
Kevin Skinner doesn’t agree, joking that glasses wouldn’t have gone astray for referee Eddie Hofmeyr – who had allowed legendary South African No.8 Hennie Muller to dominate the series through some odd ruling at the scrums and lineouts.
At lineouts and scrums Muller took up position 8 to 10 meters infield right opposite the New Zealand five-eight and totally destroyed their three-quarters with devastating tackling. Craven revealed in the Craven tapes: “Hennie Muller destroyed them in 1949. The All Blacks perfected an attacking move involving their centre pair Elvidge and Fred Allan or Goddard. They did it in the opponents 25. It almost always resulted in a try. We needed a counter for it. I instructed Hennie not to put his head into the scrum when the move was on the charts and to take position opposite Elvidge. Hennie did it and his tackling on Elvidge and Allan was so destructive that they stopped to even try the move.”
Winston McCarthy on Hennie Muller in his book ‘All Blacks on trek again’
First let me tell you that Hennie Muller is an excellent and intelligent footballer. He can run, he handles like a back, he kicks with either foot, and above all, he knows what he is doing on the field. Make no mistake, Muller is a footballer.
And furthermore, what he does and where he stands when a line-out is in progress is strictly legal. Of course, there are times when he beats the gun and gets off-side, sometimes without being detected, but there are few of us who haven’t done that.
Nevertheless, he was a thorn in the side of the All Blacks, particularly during line-out. Invariably he took position right out in the field near enough to opposite the New Zealand second five-eight. If New Zealand got the ball he immediately moved on to either Allen or Elvidge, getting there at the same time as the ball.
If the ball was put to the ground in the line-out, Muller was too wise to linger off-side. He turned and moved back on-side, not hurrying of course. But the Law doesn’t say you have to hurry; all you have to do when in an off-side position in these circumstances is to make a genuine effort to get behind the ball. He did that. He was quite legal in all he did.
I have been asked what Muller did when his own side got possession. Did he stand and obstruct the New Zealander going in to tackle the Springbok with the ball? Well, maybe he did, but it was never apparent. He would turn to trot back on-side, or just turn ready to be on deck if he were needed; and it would take a very good a to say that Muller was obstructing under the circumstances. No, I must reiterate that Muller was strictly legal in everything he did.
But for all that he was a menace, and there can be no doubt that the style of play he adopted in the line-outs is one of the biggest killers of rugby as it should be played. For the sake of the game something will have to be devised to stop that type of play . . . .
Hennie Muller response in his book ‘Tot siens to test rugby’
It was rather flattering to read that McCarthy wanted to legislate me, or rather my type of forward out of the game.
About me standing deep in the line-out, I did so only on the New Zealand throw-in. I found that if I came in close the All Black wings ‘bowled’ the ball in deep to their centres (standing shallow in their half), a dangerous move if the throw-ins is straight, and Henderson was particularly good at it.
As I see it the job of the number 8 in the line-out is to make the opposing fly-half part with the ball in a hurry. The All Black forwards, when they took the ball in the line-outs, very seldom, to my recollection, put it on the ground to curb my coming through on to their fly-half. Their obvious counter would have been to keep the ball among the forwards and form a loose scrum, as is standard practice in South Africa. Instead, when the All Blacks won the ball you invariably saw the scrumhalf pass it to the fly-half.
It was almost automatic. It didn’t occur to Savage to play the ball back to his forwards. There was, in fact, a rigidity, a lack of flexibility about the All Blacks’ play as a whole that was surprising in such obviously keen students of the game. Syd Nicholls criticized the New Zealand forwards for what he termed their ‘persistent adherence to the Otago school of play’. By this he meant that they made a fetish of rucking in an effort to feed their backs from the loose; they threw themselves into the loose scrums almost in a spirit of frenzy but in this department got little change out of the Springbok or any provincial pack for that matter. And the fact that our referees do not allow the rucks to go on as long as in New Zealand no doubt hampered them.
Regarding my so-called ‘killing’ of back play. Throughout my career I’ve traded on one simple mistake made by nine out of 10 inside backs –and it was made by the All Blacks. This is that the man running with the ball didn’t force me to tackle him thus taking me out of action. By coming up fast on the inside of the fly-half I have often been able to change course on to the inside centre, at time the outside centre and on occasion (in my fiery youth!) even to the wing, thus ‘running the line dead’ as one might put it, without much ground being gained by the opposition due to premature passing and without me having to actually make a tackle.
I have no doubt that if the New Zealand fly-half Kearney, had in the first instance drawn me properly and allowed me to tackle him before letting the ball go, I should have been far less of a ‘menace’ to their outside backs.
Skinner, however, saves his fiercest criticism for assistant manager Alex MacDonald, the 66-year-old who coached the team. MacDonald played for the All Blacks in the early 1900’s and captained them 12 times but was unqualified for the role, says Skinner.
“We never had a coach. Alex MacDonald, this old soul, he was thinking 1905 and it was 1949. You’ve got to be able to get the guys to put your body on the line for them and we didn’t have that.”
“I look at it this way, I felt that we lost only one game,” Says Skinner. “The second test, I think weren’t up to scratch. The other two, we were dead unlucky.”
Picture of All Black coach Alex MacDonald
As was the case in 1928, only white New Zealanders were welcome.
The cloak of South Africa’s apartheid regime had been lowered a year earlier and the All Blacks took their own silent protest with them by never performing a haka.
Manager Jim Parker explained at the time, “The war cry is creation of the Maoris and as we have no Maoris with us we are not giving the war cry.”
Picture of team manager Jim Parker
Another problematic issue –apart from the so far mentioned tour itinerary, poor coaching, refereeing and Hennie Muller– was fitness. The All Black team was selected eight months before the tour started and one would think that that would have motivated the selected players to get as fit as possible. The opposite seemed to have happened namely that with their positions secured the selected players had no pressure on them to make the team and slacked off in training. This was exacerbated by the 26 day sea voyage –the last one by an All Black team. The cruise was an eclectic mix of boredom, morning training rituals and entertainment and they arrived in South Africa so out of shape that they specifically requested a longer training period and were given 4 weeks in Hermanus. They started their first match with a hiss and a roar playing enthralling rugby scoring 11 points against a strong combined western province university side in the first 20 minutes. They then ran out of puff, their structures went to pieces and in the end they ‘were the luckiest team ever to win an important match at Newlands,’ writes Danie Craven. This then became a pattern; playing well in the first 20 minutes and then struggling in the rest of the match. They constantly tried to rectify the perceived fitness problem as the tour progress to the extent that they left all their energy on the training paddock, according to Craven.
The 1949 All Blacks practicing scrummaging on the boat. The effect of 26-day voyage on team fitness was later given as a reason why the team unperformed in South Africa.
The South African interest in the tour was tremendous –it was the first tour to South Africa after the war- and Danie Craven who was the Springbok coach attended every single match they played in the run-up to the first test. Craven was quick to identify some issues in the All Black team that he exploited in the test series.
Apart from the fitness issue he noticed a couple of other things like that their whole pattern of attack was centred on mid-filed trusts and rucks but that their line-outs lacked method and that their scrums was poor. Craven writes in ‘Danie Craven Springbok story: 1949 to 1953’: “The All Blacks did not rely so much on passing the ball out to the wings. They tried to penetrate in the middle of the field with their centres, especially the inside centre. When they did let the ball out to their wings the cover defence helped also, for the whole backline circulated on a follow-the-ball principle, even in attack, so that a centre often took the ball on the outside of the wing.”
“The advantages of their system were largely outweighed by a serious drawback which becomes manifest in that first game after the tremendous onslaught of the first 20 minutes fell away. The forwards and backs acted as separate entities.”
He noticed in particular that they had big slow loose forwards that had difficulty getting to the breakdown and linking with the backs. He realised that a fast roaming loose forward could cause havoc as they overly relied on the brilliance of their midfield backs Morrie Goddard, Ron Elvidge and Fred Allan to break the defensive line. They also relied heavily on the brilliant Bob Scott to create something from the back to get winger Peter Henderson into play.
He also noticed the passing weakness of their halfbacks and the fact that their scrummaging hasn’t caught-up to new scrum formation structures. So poor was the New Zealand scrum that NZ coach Alex MacDonald famously asked Springbok coach Danie Craven to help them with the new scrum formation (see insert below).
NZ scrumhalf Savage getting caught behind the scrum by Louis Strydom. The poor scrum and slowness and weak passing of the NZ halfbacks made their inside backs sitting ducks for the fast roaming Hennie Muller.
A horrendous and energy sapping train trip to Rhodesia in between the first and second test match had particular demoralising effect on the tourists. Winston McCarthy writes that the team was never the same after the trip to Rhodesia showing signs of travel weariness and extreme fatigue after an 8 day train trip.
The trip included a visit to the Victoria Falls which the team enjoyed but a train crash on their way back -after two exhausting matches against Rhodesia- which send the players flying out of their bunks ruled Otago lock Charlie Willocks out of the second test and took its toll on the team.
Elvidge, who was medical doctor, spent the night of the train crash tending to the injured but was unsuccessful in trying to save the life of a coal-trimmer who was trapped in the engine cab.
Fred Allan and Des Christian survey the damage in the aftermath of the train crash on their way back to Pretoria after an exhausting trip to Rhodesia.
Picture of the 1949 touring itinerary.
Bob Scott (Auckland)
Jack Goddard (South Canterbury)
Bill Meatess (Otago)
Eric Boggs (Auckland)
Ian Botting (Otago)
Peter Henderson (Wanganui)
Ron Elvidge (Otago)
Morrie Goddard (South Canterbury)
Fred Allen (Auckland, captain)
Keith Gudsell (Wanganui)
Jim Kearney (Otago)
Jim Kearney (Otago)
Neville Black (Auckland)
Graham Delamore (Wellington)
Larry Savage (Canterbury)
Bill Conrad (Waikato)
Bill Conrad (Waikato)
Neville Thornton (Auckland)
Jack McNab (Otago)
Pat Crowley (Auckland)
Lachie Grant (South Canterbury)
Charlie Willocks (Otago)
Harry Frazer (Hawke's Bay)
Lester Harvey (Otago)
Morrie McHugh (Auckland)
Ray Dalton (Otago)
Johnny Simpson (Auckland)
Des Christian (Auckland)
Kevin Skinner (Otago)
Norm Wilson (Otago)
Has Catley (Waikato)
The 1949 series was controversial as a whole; characterized by a lack of tries, lots of penalties and fierce defence. It left the New Zealanders with a feeling that they were cheated and the South African public hugely dissatisfied with the way in which the rugger was won. The third test victory were described by home critics as a ‘test flop’ after the Springboks yet again relied entirely on the boot of Okey Geffin to pull the wagon through the ‘drift’.
It was only in hindsight that it became clear -after a brilliant tour to the UK in 1951/52 - to the South African public that the side of 1949 provided the foundation of great attacking era in Springbok rugby. Media and public only then -after the 1951/52 EOYT- started to appreciate the accuracy of Felix du Plessis post 3rd test remark, ‘people who blame us for not scoring a try don’t realise what good defenders New Zealand are’.
There were a number of excellent players in both sides but only four are really synonymous with the 1949 series namely Hansie Brewis for his memorable try in the second test; Bob Scott for his elusiveness through-out the series; Hennie Muller for his destructive tackling and Okey Geffin for his meticulous kicking.
Hansie Brewis scoring his remarkable try in the second test
Picture showing Bob Scott eluding Louis Strydom. Scott was described by Hennie Muller as the greatest footballer alive.
Hennie Muller demonstrating his ‘smother’ and ‘ripper’ tackles.
Okey Geffin busy with his meticulous setting of the ball.