The 1956 series between the All Blacks and the Springboks was without a doubt the most intense and brutal series ever played between these two nations. It left lasting impressions on New Zealand and South African rugby and societies. This series of articles- on the 1956 tour- will examine firstly why this series was so intense and influential and will discuss secondly the nature of those long-term effects. While South Africans are quick to point that the Springboks lost the series due to dirty tactics -New Zealand introducing boxing champ Kevin Skinner to knock the South African props into submission- and poor refereeing the writings of Mclean (the battle for the rugby crown), Warwick Roger (old heroes), Chris Greyvenstein (Springbok Saga) and video interviews with ex-players (see here) reveals a slightly more complex scenario. Discussion of the above mentioned sources will reveal that the series outcome and the brutal nature of the series had much to do with the rugby history –previous contests, records, style of playing and general past – and undoubtedly the background and consciousness of the people in both countries. Overall, the mentioned sources reveal that New Zealand won the series because in the final analysis they were absolutely desperate to win and consequently more focused, unified and ultimately better prepared than the South Africans.
At the time of the 1956 tour South Africa haven’t lost a test series for sixty years namely since 1896. South Africa played its first ever test series in 1891 against a British touring side and lost all three the test matches (4-0; 3-0 and 4-0). A try was worth 1 point and a kick 2 points in those early years so the tourist outscored the South Africans with two tries and one conversion in the first and last tests and with a try and one conversion in the second test.
England toured to South Africa again in 1896 and won 3 of the 4 tests. South Africa, however, won the last test 5-0 and since then never lost a series again up to the time of this tour. By 1956 South Africa had won 37 and drawn 5 of 57 internationals against New Zealand, Australia, Great Britain (Lions), England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales and had scored a massive total of 597 points against 334. Losing only 26.3% of your test matches over 60 years is an impressive statistic by all accounts; the most agonising fact for New Zealand was that by the advent of the 1956 series they had yet to win a test series against South Africa with South Africa being the only nation against whom they have not won a test series.
Even more worrying was the fact that they had lost their last two series against South Africa in the most humiliating fashion. In 1937 they lost 2-1, at home, against Phil Nel’s Springboks but were completely outplayed with the South Africans scoring 5 tries to 0 in the 3rd test. In 1949 they were humiliated 4-0, away from home, complaining bitterly, afterwards, about the South African referees.
They were nerve-racked about the upcoming tour after the test series against the 1955 Wallabies revealed certain deficiencies among the All Blacks. It was a seriously concerned New Zealand that awaited a Springboks side who had also outclassed all opposition during an end of year tour to the UK and France in 1951/2; losing only one match against London Counties during the entire tour of 31 matches. South Africa was the most feared opponent and the biggest challenge/price in world rugby, by far, and the whole New Zealand nation went into a nerve-wracked state of anticipation and a fever-liked preparation for the oncoming series. Warwick Roger (Old heroes) writes;
Before the season started I went to hear Bob Scott (fullback of the 1949 All Black side to South Africa) and the radio commentator Winston McCarthy talk, one evening, about the coming tour. Scott held our interest with his low-keyed analysis of what went wrong in 1949 and what was needed to put things right in 1956. McCarthy was spell-binding as he catalogued the sins of the South African referees, the wiliness of Danie Craven – “This is a man who speaks with three tongues in his cheek,” said McCarthy, rolling his eyes and wagging his finger. Both were adamant that New Zealand had to defeat the Springboks if rugby were to survive and flourish in New Zealand. My hero Bob Scott cried visible tears as he told how he missed kick after kick at goal in 1949.
A test series lost 0-4! It was impossible! Now the Springboks were coming and it was to be a fight to the death. The country was unified behind our beloved All Blacks.
“There was one aim in life – to beat the Springboks”, reveal Bill Clark the Victoria University flanker who played against the 1956 Springboks in Roger’s book. “The three-test series against Australia the previous year had been seen largely as the start of a trail series to pick a side that would avenge the way they had treated us in 1949.”
After the 1955 series against the Wallabies a letter was send by the New Zealand selectors to every representative player urging that every effort be made to meet the Springbok challenge and providing a training schedule which was designed to have players peak at the right time. Waikato, against whom the Springboks were to play their first match in New Zealand, went into training under Dick Everest in December 1955.
Terry McLean writes in his book “The battle for the rugby crown”:
Having shed many a silent tear over the fate of the Forty-niners, and having vowed many a vow about referees and expert goalkickers, New Zealand prepared unceasingly for months, perhaps years. Radio programmes were devoted to the topic, “Can we beat the Springboks?”; the Council of the New Zealand Rugby Union made no demur to suggestions that every team matched with the Springboks should have two, or even three, preliminary canters and the hardest of heads, and the shrewdest, thought long and anxiously over ways in which South Africa might be mastered. New Zealand didn’t give a damn about a championship; all it wanted to do was to beat the Springboks.
Ian Clarke the All Black Captain and the wife of All Black halfback Ponty Reid are quoted by Warwick Roger (Old Heroes) on the intensity of this pre-tour preparations; Ian Clarke: “Social life was non-existent. I worked on the farm, I trained, and ate and slept, and always I thought about beating the Boks. They were the ultimate opponents, unbeaten in a test series. And 1949 had to be avenged. It was an obsession. Every phase of the game was played and replayed in my mind. Our whole household and farming operations were geared to rugby.”
Christine Reid: “To me, as wife with two small children and Ponty’s whole life wrapped up in rugby, it seemed that we were under siege. It was like going to war. The Boks had to be beaten no matter what the cost. The build-up went on for months.”
The team manager of the 1956 All Black team said to Danie Craven, two years after the series, when they met in Europe during an annual IRB conference: “Danie you never had a change. We planned that you would not win a single test. The fact that you actually won the second test was a major accomplishment for you and your team in itself.”
Where New Zealand was focused and unified in their preparation and ambition to beat the Springboks provincialism, Afrikaner nationalism, politics and arrogance combined to derail the South African effort. The claptrap started with the team selections and snowballed into the selection of team managers and the team Captain and kept on building momentum spoiling the South African endeavour as the tour progressed.
Provincialism reared its ugly head when it was revealed that the big five of South African rugby – Craven, Mellish, Lotz, Kenyon and Zeller- had secretly selected a team they wanted to tour New Zealand. The Northern Afrikaans speaking unions unified and voted for trails to be held and Craven was forced to relent but announced publically that the decision to hold the trials must rank as one of the biggest mistakes the board ever made.
Arrogance and Afrikaner nationalism reared their ugly heads when Salty du Rand took offense of some loud laughter the evening in the hotel room of the “no-hopers” after they have beaten the “probables” on the last day of the trails. Du Rand Captain of the “probables” stormed into the hotel room and eventually punched Jan ‘bul’ Pickard Captain of the “no-hopers” breaking his nose but only after some heavy argumentation during which du Rand told Pickard he is no real Afrikaner because he played for Hamiltons a pre-dominantly English speaking club in Cape Town.
Politics reared its ugly head when Pickard’s farther in law Dr Doenges – the Minister of the Interior of the Strijdom government- interfered and Salty du Rand -the vice captain during the 1955 Lions series and the first choice touring Captain- lost the Captaincy of the 1956 Springbok side.
An unfortunate row between Salty du Rand (on the left) and Jan Pickard (on the right) during the trails cost Du Rand the Captaincy. Du Rand was forced by Craven to apologise to Pickard and did so reluctantly but the rift between the three men was never healed during the tour and set off a chain reaction of decisions that affected the destiny of the touring side.
Arrogance, politics and Afrikaner nationalism reared their ugly heads in combination when God-fearing Afrikaans speaking Captain of the Orange Free State Basie Viviers was made Captain of the side. The nearest Viviers –generally regarded as past his best - got to a test spot was playing touch-judge during the 1951/2 tour. His Captaincy was resented by many of the players because they felt he was not good enough to play in the test matches but this was in all probability done on purpose by Craven and the rugby board to ensure that Salty du Rand would lead the team in the tests and in the more important matches.
Provincialism and Afrikaner Nationalism reared their ugly heads once again when the Transvaal Rugby Unions called a caucus and arranged a mass vote to get Daniel de Villiers –a lawyer and the vice president of Transvaal Rugby Union as well as a top referee and successful coach of the Diggers rugby club- appointed ahead of Craven’s favourite Basil Kenyon as assistant manager of the team. De Villiers had ambitions to coach the team and he and Craven simply did not get on and at some stage of the tour he threatened to return to South Africa. He was christened ‘Dangerous Dan” by the media due to his unfriendly demeanour and his open attacks on both South African and New Zealand media for their reporting of the tour.
It is very interesting that the Assistant manager – Daniel de Villiers- does not appear on this official team photo of the 1956 Springbok team. In all probability a consequence of the tension between him and Craven.
So Craven ended up with neither the team nor the Captain or the Assistant Manager he wanted and the tour started off with a team appearing perilously light on experience – only 8 of the 31 originally chosen had toured to Great Britain in 1951/2 and only 12 had played against the 1955 Lions.
The touring group eventually announced was however a fine blend of seasoned internationals and a number of exciting new prospects.
The team was promptly described as the ‘finest ever’ but there were a number of problems with the selected team due mostly to the impact of trails but also due to success of the 1951/2 Springbok team. Terry McLean writes:
For perhaps the first time in history, South Africa despatched abroad a team which was deficient in tight forwards. I should say that the trails were the cause of this. Everyone follows the flight of the ball in trails, the forwards are caught in the public mood of excitement and anticipation and the chaps who run like hares, handle like backs – a Rugby ball is not the most difficult thing to catch- and have luck to be at the death of some prolonged and swift movements almost invariably catch the eye and seem to be the answer to every problem. Such men as Pickard, chosen as a tight forward hungered for wide open spaces; and it was the impression that no fewer than 15 forwards in the original selection were below genuine international standards.
The South African players were also horrified, and I use the word advisedly, over the extent and ruthlessness of forward rucking in New Zealand. Brought up under a different style of forward play, they had never known such intensity of conflict for possession of the ball and they were ill-prepared in their minds to accept the need for it.
The extraordinary achievements and success of the 1951/2 Springboks captained by Hennie Muller -who on their tour to Britain and France lost just one game against London Counties- had a decisive influence on Springbok rugby. The 51/2 team -easily the best Springbok team ever to visit the United Kingdom's- primary trait, and strength was the ability of their forwards to run with the ball. This had a negative impact on the way rugby evolved in South Africa. In his book about the 1965 Springbok tour McLean writes:
An insidious disease of superficiality, it was said, entered South African rugby, and this brought about it was contended, the defeat of the Springboks of 1964 by France during a short tour and, worse, the incredibly ill stared expedition of the Springboks of 1965 who in five matches in Ireland and Scotland were beaten four times and drew once.
I would venture that the impact of the 1951/2 tour on South African forward play was already apparent during the 1956 tour not only in how they played but also with regard to team selections.
Basil Kenyon the man who led and coached a Border team -without any stars or Springboks- to a win and a draw against the1949 All Blacks could have changed this around but was sitting in South Africa due to provincialism. Fred Allan the 1949 All Black Captain as well as Winston McCarthy the official New Zealand broadcaster on tour described the 1949 Border pack as the best in South Africa and a pack who were coached as a pack and who played as one. The South African forwards never really played as a pack during the 1956 tour and was seriously outclassed in most matches in terms of cohesive forward play and dominating the tackle area; a consequence of Craven being a halfback and De Villiers –the assistant coach- a devotee of open running rugby with which he had much success at club level coaching the Diggers rugby club.
Danie Craven –just recently elected president of the South African Rugby Board- in his mid forties (46), still eager, ambitious and extremely competitive just had too much power and he made a number of judgement errors that not only pulled the team apart but also saw the team struggling with injuries. The amount of hamstring injuries –specifically finding the reason for the phenomenon- in the Springbok camp created a huge amount of interest in New Zealand and speculations as to the causes went wild. Craven’s training methods of having the players run at full speed and then turn 90 degrees either left or right depending on how he blew on his whistle was highly criticised but Craven argued that he used the same training methods during the 1951/2 tour in the UK with no ill effect.
Some other possible explanations for the amount of hamstring injuries were: firstly, that Craven pushed the team too hard on the training field during the early stages of the tour; secondly, the fact that it was the first team that travelled by plane to New Zealand and that the long sitting stiffened the players up. Eventually, Craven identified the shoes the team used as the culprit. Craven was much impressed with the rugby boots used by the 1955 Lions while touring South Africa; it was a new very light shoe and he instructed a shoe company in South Africa to manufacture similar boots for the team. These shoes however had no heal support due to a manufacturing/design flaw and that put the hamstrings in a permanently stretched position. The problem was solved by inserting an inner sole -that provided more heal support- and thereafter the hamstring injuries were no longer a problem on tour. Unfortunately, way to late to undue all the damage.
Injuries –in particular hamstring injuries – totally derailed the Springbok campaign. The problems started with Basie van Wyk breaking his leg on the Australia leg of the tour –before the first match was actually played- but escalated into “epidemic” proportions in New Zealand. In literally every single match for the first half of the tour there was at least one player either injuring his hamstring or being unable to practice and play in the upcoming game due to a hamstring injury.
Picture shows Basie van Wyk getting carried by team mate up a flight of stairs. Van Wyk broke his leg during a practice session before the first match in Australia and was a passenger for the rest of the tour. This injury also ended his career.
Due to all this infighting, the uncertainy in the team and the injury vows the 1956 touring party never found itself psychologically. The travelling was also extensive but losing the first match against Waikato; the fervour, baleful and fanatical booing of the crowds experienced in the first 3 or 4 games as well as the intensity at which the opponents came at them psychologically unbalanced the team.
Craven and the team had difficulty to comprehend and deal with the fervour and fanaticism of the New Zealand crowd support and Craven made the situation worse by publically criticising the New Zealand crowds and referees. Dr Craven could not reconcile the enthusiasm of New Zealand crowds for their own teams with the cordial and generous hospitality shown by the public off the field towards the team.
Specifically, the Springboks were distressed by the amount of rough play they encountered and felt that the huge crowd support created situations where referees simply condoned illegalities by local teams. So strong were the emotions that just before the second test the South African team management informed the New Zealand rugby union that they’ve decided to pack-up and leave for home immediately after the second test. The Springboks won the second test and decided to keep going but were severely distressed by what they encounter in the critical third test especially the fact that Kevin Skinner knocked both South African props into submission in the third test.
A bloodied Jaap Bekker. Bekker was knocked into submission and was so dazed that he walked around in stupor for most part of the match and afterwards. Craven revealed in the Craven tapes how Skinner had a method of running up behind a player and touch him on the shoulder when the player looked around Skinner would knock him down. According to Danie Craven Skinner did that with both South African props -Bekker and Koch- in the third test of the 1956 series.
Craven was so enraged by the tour that he as president of the South African Rugby Board informed the New Zealand Rugby Board two years later during the annual International Rugby Board meeting in 1958 that South Africa would not play against New Zealand again because of the way the South African team was treated during the 1956 tour. In the Craven tapes Clayton and Greyvenstein reveals how members of the International Rugby Board then locked Craven and Cuthbert Hogg –NZRU president- in a room forcing them to resolve the issue.
Referring to remarks made by Tom Pearce the Auckland rugby administrator at a public meeting that it was essential for any New Zealand team playing the Springboks to go the field with hate in their hearts T.P McLean wrote:
By these and other signs one formed the impression that the country …. had lost its sense of proportion about the tour. Nor could one wholly blame the Springboks for feeling … that they had been drawn into a holy war.
Considering the unified and intense preperations and national involvement of the New Zealand nation with the tour there was probably no side in the world that would have been able to beat the All Blacks in 1956. Regardless of that, South Africa greatly contributed to its own demise through all the aspects discussed above and that is probably the reason why Chris Greyvenstein entitled the chapter in his book –Springbok Saga- about this tour “destined to defeat” and why McLean considered “the Hamstrung tour” as a title for his book.