A Rugby Memory; of Maurice Brownlie - with a modern update

A Rugby Memory; of Maurice Brownlie - with a modern update

Young men in their own right - but with famous names from the Brownlie and Nepia families.

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.

 .....

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  • 22 August 2015 (2 years ago)

    Seagull

    Keith, I attended St Pat's Silverstream in the 60s (64-68) and there were two Brownlie brothers in attendance at the time........... J.A. (James / Jim) Brownlie (a studious type who was Head Prefect in '64 & had a bark on him when he needed to :)- ) and Nick Brownlie (same age as moi) who was a great 440yds runner/athlete and a back at rugby......... I heard that Nick owns/runs a charter fishing boat ....... my school yearbook shows they came from Frasertown.

  • 16 August 2014 (3 years ago)

    Plum

    Enjoying the read Keith so much history - go Wallabies