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15 August 2014
For the past 50+ years, it is men like Colin Meads, Wayne Shelford, Sean Fitzpatrick or in modern times Richie McCaw who have been judged the players who have best epitomised the traditional view of an All Black - tough, proud, skilled and committed. But let us not ever forget the story of Maurice Brownlie, one of the earliest great All Blacks forwards.
Meads was a favourite of mine I guess when I was growing up, But around rugby men of generations before me it was Maurice Brownlie who was still being cited as the greatest All Black forward. Many a rugby expert would look at a promising young forward and say, “He’ll never be another Maurice Brownlie.” He was the Meads of his time and the strongman of All Black teams in Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and at home during the 1920s.
Brownlie was one of three brothers - the others were Laurie and Cyril - who represented New Zealand, and helped launch the first great Hawke’s Bay Ranfurly Shield era. Laurie, the youngest, represented the All Blacks first, against New South Wales, in 1921. Knee injuries cut short his career, but he did inspire Maurice and Cyril to get serious about their rugby. Maurice made his All Black debut in Australia in 1922, where his physical, robust game had local sportswriters in raptures.
Cyril became a quality forward, particularly adept in lineout play, but Maurice was the glamour player of his generation. He was a loose forward who had pace, ball-handling skills, ability to kick, courage and, most notably, something perhaps called 'rural strength.' His work on the Puketitiri farm he and Cyril shared helped him develop tremendous body strength. There are stories of Maurice bounding up hills, a sheep under each arm, and of him pulling the family car out of the river. He was big in his time at 1.83m (6ft) and just over 89kg (14st), but played well above that weight.
Maurice Joseph Brownlie was born in Wanganui in 1897 and attended St Patrick’s College, Wellington, but it was in Hawke’s Bay that he made his rugby reputation. By then he’d served with two brothers, Cyril and Tony (who was killed at Ankara), in the Palestine during World War I.
His mentor was the great New Zealand rugby identity Norman McKenzie, who molded the All Black-studded Hawke’s Bay combination of the 1920s. McKenzie played Brownlie at lock in his rep debut, against Manawatu, but never did so again. “Maurice had too much ability to waste in the middle of scrums,” McKenzie explained. So Brownlie became a loose forward who could grind his way up the touchline, or could power clear in the loose, a 1920s version of Meads.
He was at his peak on the 1924-25 Invincibles tour of Britain. Even alongside brilliant forwards like Cliff Porter, Jim Parker, Jock Richardson and brother Cyril, Maurice was outstanding. He scored 11 tries in his 30 tour games and was described as the best forward in the world.
His greatest match was against England at Twickenham on January 3, 1925, the day Cyril became the first player to be ordered from the field in a test. Cyril received his marching orders from referee Albert Freethy for kicking a man on the ground, though no-one ever did find an English player who had been kicked.
Maurice, seething with the injustice of it, played like two men and inspired the 14 remaining New Zealanders to such heights that they walloped 15 of England’s finest 17-11. Maurice scored a barging, charging try in the second spell. He had Parker ranging up alongside him, but never considered passing. “Jim, I wouldn’t have passed it out for 100 quid,” he said later.
Brownlie was the pillar of the Hawke’s Bay side which defended the Ranfurly Shield 24 times from 1922-27, and in 1928 he led the All Blacks on their first tour of South Africa.
Though the series was split 2-2, the best result a New Zealand side achieved in South Africa for 68 years, it was not an entirely happy tour. There were questions about Brownlie’s leadership qualities. Mark Nicholls, Brownlie’s vice-captain, was omitted from the first three test teams, which caused the accompanying writers, including Nicholls’ brother, Syd, to mutter about poor selection and team leadership. Brownlie fell into the strong and silent mould, but commanded tremendous loyalty. Alan Robilliard, a team-mate on both his major tours, said that in South Africa Brownlie led by example and was a good talker and mixer. “He was a giant of a bloke,” Robilliard recalled.
Jock Richardson, the Invincibles vice-captain, agreed. “He was quite taciturn and didn’t have a lot to say at team talks, but when he spoke he was sure of an attentive audience. Maurice was my idea of a captain. He’d talk up when he had to, but didn’t shout his mouth off. He could be firm and inspired confidence.”
The All Blacks in South Africa were handicapped by having to leave behind their Maori players, including the incomparable George Nepia, and by the unavailability of Bert Cooke. “If we’d had Nepia and Cooke, we wouldn’t have lost a match,” Brownlie said later.
Still, Brownlie’s form was good and in the fourth test, won 13-5, he was outstanding. Unusually by today's rugby standards, as a forward it was Maurice Brownlie who made the kick-offs for New Zealand, and for Hawke’s Bay. He really could do everything.
The South African tour marked the end of his test career, though he played for Hawke’s Bay against Great Britain in 1930. By then he was married and living in Gisborne, and his interest in rugby was waning. Brownlie played 61 games for New Zealand, a record that stood for nearly a quarter of a century, and scored 21 tries.
For such a phlegmatic personality - he was seldom ruffled, even though he received plenty of physical attention - he had strong superstitions. Perhaps because of his war background, he would not talk to opponents before a game, treating the contest like a battle. And he became famously attached to a pair of faded blue dungaree shorts. Hawke’s Bay’s shorts were black, but Brownlie was the exception, and would invariably take the field in his trusty and battered blue favourites.
Because Maurice and Cyril were so close, it must have been a devastating blow when Cyril died in 1954. Less than three years later, Maurice was dead too. Many locals felt the DDT he came into constant contact with during his farming years might have caused his ill-health.
Brownlie was an excellent all-round sportsman. He was a good young cricketer, a single handicap golfer (left and right-handed), an excellent shot, and as a boxer in 1921 lost the New Zealand heavyweight final to fellow All Black Brian McCleary. But it was in rugby that he left an indelible mark. It is easy to picture him, jaw set; straight dark hair brushed back, sleeves rolled up his thick forearms, a solid athletic frame, and ready to lead Hawke’s Bay or the All Blacks into battle.
He left memories of a supreme player, the Meads or McCaw of his era. “He was the greatest side-row forward I ever saw,” Norman McKenzie once wrote, “because he was great in every aspect, but particularly his ability to lead his forwards out of a corner, yard by yard up the touchline. For sheer tenacity, he was tops. He wasn’t the lineout jumper Cyril was, and was only a passably quick runner, but he could kick well with either foot and had a formidably strong mind.”
FOOTNOTE: I had a couple of contacts with the Brownlie story - and indeed with younger generations of George Nepia's offspring. Firstly in 2007 I was invited to speak at a rugby function in the small Hawkes Bay town of Wairoa, where the family had lived for generations. There a young man was pointed out me. His name turned out to be Cyril Brownlie. He indeed was the grandson of the older Cyril, and Maurice Brownlie was therefore his great-uncle.
The morning after the dinner I was invited by Cyril and his father Jeff (a former Hawke's Bay rep too) to visit the old Brownlie homestead. There I was kindly permitted to rummage through a old suitcase containing the memorabilia of the two brother’s tours with the All Blacks. It was a moving experience for me and the generosity of the modern Brownlie family was greatly appreciated. Especially when a faded French jersey with number 5 on the back was gently lifted up. It belonged originally to Maurice Brownlie's marker from that most famous 'Invincibles' tour.
I later heard that a fellow by the name of George Nepia was living in Wellington. After a few calls we met and it turned out the young man was indeed the grandson of the great All Black fullback George 'Senior.' Way back George senior had been a teammate of the Brownlie's at Hawke's Bay and for the All Blacks - and indeed George was a man who spent some of his years living in Wairoa.
The George I know is a resident in Oriental Bay, Wellington, and is an accomplished sound recordist working in the TV industry. Therefore he and I had much in common. And yes - he too has a young son - named George as well!
I felt it was logical that the two younger men should meet. I raised the subject with Martin Crowe, the ex-test cricketer who was in 2010 a most enthusiastic executive producer of SkyTV's 'Rugby Channel.' They flew the two with famous names, Cyril Brownlie and George Nepia, to Auckland for their own TV 'Special.' It was quite a night for us all, as I was permitted to quiz them - and they discussed with great clarity of memory what their famous forebears had offered to the game of rugby and to their families.
It was great for me to touch in some small way the story of Maurice Brownlie - the great one - and those around him in rugby all those years ago.
Stories like these remind me that the All Black story never ends. Yes, it certainly has its 'now' and its 'recent past' but it also has 'glory days of yore' which we must never forget.
On this day he captained the AB test team for the 52nd time, thus passing Sean Fitzpatrick's old record of 51. NZ beat Australia by 23-22 in Sydney
OLYMPIC GAMES RUGBY
The advent of the Rugby World Cup in 1987 seemed to silence the calls which had surfaced from time to time for the return of rugby union for the fifth time to the programme at the modern Olympic Games.
Three countries took part in the rugby competition at the Paris Games in 1900, France beating Germany, 27–17, in one match and Britain, 27–8, in the other. Most of the British team came from the Moseley club. Its loss to France may seem a surprising result, given the modest standard of French rugby at that time, but the British players had spent 24 hours traveling from London before match day and were reportedly exhausted. France was awarded the gold medal, Germany the silver and Great Britain the bronze.
At the fourth Olympic Games in 1908 in London, only two nations took part: Australia, which was touring Britain at the time, and Britain itself. The English county champion side of that season, Cornwall, was chosen to represent Britain. Australia won 32–3 at White City Stadium in London.
At Antwerp in 1920, at the first Games after World War I, the underdogs, the United States, won the gold medal, beating France in the final by 8–0. The French team had been the favourite to win, as five of the team had recently appeared in the Five Nations championship.
In both 1908 and 1920 only two teams had entered the games, but in 1924 in Paris a proper, if small, tournament took place. Most publications claim that France beat Romania 61–3 (although the French records say 59–3). The United States also beat Romania, by 37–0. In the final the United States met France.
The game was a classic, which the Americans won, 17–3. More than 30,000 French spectators watched in alarm as their team suffered such a humiliation at the hands of the Americans (many of whom had never played rugby before). As the end grew nearer and the result was inevitable, the Americans were jeered by the crowd and one visiting supporter was knocked out after being hit in the face with a walking stick. At the medal ceremony, the playing of the United States’ national anthem was drowned out by the booing and cat-calling of the crowd. Police protection was needed for the departure of the American team from the Stade Colombes.
Before the 1928 Games there was a vote by members of the International Olympic Committee over whether rugby should be included at Amsterdam. IOC members were inclined towards individual events rather than team sports, and there was also a demand for a greater opportunity for women to take part. There was a theory, too, that the British rugby-playing countries did not strongly endorse the sport’s continuation at the Games. One of rugby's greatest supporters on the IOC, Baron Pierre de Coubertin of France, had retired in 1925.
The vote was lost, and rugby never regained an official place at the Olympics. In the 1936 Summer Olympic games in Berlin, the so-called 'Hitler Games' rugby was included again, but as a 'Demonstration' sport. Four countries took part; Germany, Italy, France and Romania. France beat Romania 19-14 in the final.
In the years ahead a number of countries expressed support for the 15-aside version of rugby to return to the Olympic programme. There were especially strong attempts in 1980 (endorsed by the Soviet Union) and in 1988 (endorsed by South Korea) to have rugby re-admitted to the Games programme. Both attempts failed.
A significant moment for rugby next came in 1994 when the IRB was endorsed into the Olympic movement as a full sporting member.
In 2002 the International Rugby Board, encouraged perhaps by the presence of an ex-Belgian rugby international, Jacques Rogge, as the new IOC President, rugby tried again but this time with the idea of sevens rugby being included for the Beijing Summer Games of 2008.
This again failed, it was said that one factor being that women's teams were not included in the IRB planning. By 2009 with a World Cup for women having been (hurredly) put in place the passage for sevens to be included in the Rio de Janeiro Games of 2016 was made easier.
This happened in October 2009 in Copenhagen when the full IOC Congress endorsed the sevens version for both men and women. In fact the first appearance of sevens rugby will be at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China in August, 2014.
[Additional note; There is one player in Olympic rugby history who deserves special mention. He is Daniel Carroll, the speedy wing from Sydney, Australia, who was a gold medalist with the Australian team at London in 1908, and later settled in America. He played for the United States in the Olympics of 1920 and won a rugby gold medal for that country, becoming the first and only player to win two Olympic rugby gold medals. He was also coach of the 1924 United States team.]
What was significant about J.I.Rees (Wales) and W.R.Logan (Scotland) captaining their countries against each other in 1937?