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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.
New Zealand's sevens team had won four gold medals in a row from 1998-2010 but on this day at Glasgow in the final New Zealand fell to Kyle Brown's South Africam by 19-12. A great rugby era had ended.
MCBRIDE, WILLIE JOHN
Ballymena and Ireland
63 internationals for Ireland 1962–75
17 internationals for British Isles 1962–74
One of the outstanding figures of world rugby who, in his time, set a record for most international caps by an individual player, and who gained great respect as a leader.
During the latter days of his playing career, William James McBride became known, as ‘Willie John’. He was an imposing lock, immensely powerful in all aspects of forward play, who specialised in giving only good ball to his halfback whether from lineout, maul or scrum. He had enormous determination and his rivalries with other top players of his day, such as Colin Meads of New Zealand and Frik du Preez of South Africa, were worth traveling miles to see. Perhaps his greatest attribute was his ability to inspire others to play with equal dedication. Perhaps it was a commentary on rugby in its time that those three men became firm friends after their rugby days were over.
In his time McBride knew success: as pack leader for the 1971 Lions in New Zealand, as captain of the 1974 Lions in South Africa and as captain of Ireland in its first championship win in 23 years, in 1974. But he also knew defeat: 26 of his games for Ireland were losses. From those varying results McBride emerged as a player of true character and greatness. He never gave in. He was idolised at home and deeply respected abroad.
McBride, then known as ‘Bill’, began his international rugby as a lock for Ulster in 1960–61, marking the great South African, Johann Claassen, in a Springbok tour game. The young McBride was one of nine new caps brought in by the Irish selectors for the match against England in 1962. Even though he was not in the winning team that day, or indeed that season, he was chosen soon after, as a 21-year-old, for the British Isles tour of South Africa. His courage was epitomised that season when he played the last part of the game against France with his left tibia bone broken.
South Africa in 1962 was a baptism of fire. The young Ballymena man played in two tests: both were losses. He also suffered the pain of defeat in New Zealand in 1966 when the All Blacks wiped aside the Lions by four tests to nil. Two wins against Australia were small consolation.
In 1968, on the Lions tour to South Africa, McBride was again in the losing team, and it was not until 1971 in New Zealand that he smelt the sweetness of victory.
His ultimate performance was with the British team of 1974, which won its test series with the Springboks so dramatically. On that tour McBride, the captain, exhorted his men to ‘take no prisoners’. They reacted superbly to his leadership demands and did not lose a game on tour. Their three test victories, with a draw in the fourth test, represented the biggest humiliation for a major ‘home’ team in rugby history.
On that tour the cry ‘99’ was also used. It was said that McBride had previously suffered at the hands of All Blacks and Springboks in the physical side of the game. He was determined that there should be no more. Thus ‘99’ called for all his players to get alongside their team-mates and if necessary physically fight the opposition together. It was a controversial tactic but one which McBride and his team felt was necessary.
Between his Lions tours he added to his tally of Irish caps, building towards the massive total, in that time, of 63. His five Lions tours, three in all to South Africa and two to Australia and New Zealand, added another 17 caps, bringing his total to 80 caps. Thus he became the world’s greatest cap-winner, an honour he kept until his fellow Ulsterman Mike Gibson passed it in 1979.
In all his test matches McBride scored only one try, against France in his second to last game for Ireland.
After his retirement in 1975 he was, for a time, the Irish coach. In 1983 he was manager of the British Isles team in New Zealand.
What did the famous Welsh and British Lions hooker Bobby Windsor achieve on his 42nd birthday?