National pride in our rugby heritage

Historic beginnings have sowed the seeds for what has become almost a national religion in this country.

Crowd of kids cheering at 1956 rugby match.
Eden Park crowd, 1956. Photo: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 895-A46364expand/collapse

While the debate continues when the first rugby match was played in New Zealand with author historian, Ron Palenski, stating in his book Our Game: New Zealand Rugby at 150, that the first match was played in Whanganui on 12 June 1869, and Nelson historians believing the first rugby match was in that province on May 14, 1870, these historic beginnings sowed the seeds for what has become almost a national religion in this country.

Fast forward through the decades of rugby matches against Great Britain, South Africa and Australia, the First and Second World Wars, when many outstanding young New Zealand rugby players lost their lives in war, and we come to 1956.

New Zealanders were nervous. The Springboks arrived in New Zealand in June. They had never been beaten in a test series in 65 years of international rugby.

1956 saw a titanic struggle against our strongest rugby opponents. We were looking for revenge for a four-test loss in South Africa in 1949. That year our rugby nation was in deep mourning. The man with the rugby microphone who had had everyone on the edge of their seats during rugby matches was Winston McCarthy. He became known as "Mr Rugby".

Test matches in 1956 were played on hallowed turf at Carisbrook in Dunedin, now since closed and redeveloped; at Lancaster Park in Christchurch, demolished following the Christchurch quakes, Athletic Park in Newtown, Wellington, and its historic memories to thousands of Wellingtonians, since converted to a retirement village; and Eden Park, right in the middle of our largest city and still home to international sport.

Test matches in 1956 were played on hallowed turf at Carisbrook

McCarthy was in the thick of it with his rugby commentaries to sports mad Kiwis. When the mighty 6 foot four, 16 stone Waikato fullback, Don Clarke, was called into the All Blacks third test in Christchurch, we were on a knife edge. The first two tests were tied up one a piece. It was do or die for the All Blacks. Winston McCarthy with his booming radio voice lined up every Don Clarke kick and let it out with “Listen… it’s a goal!”  We had no television in those days and the nation clung to every word. The All Backs won in Christchurch.

And so too Eden Park. It was a magnificent day for New Zealand rugby, an 11-5 win in a tight contest, with numerous serious player injuries. The series taken 3-1. Northland's famed All Black scored an outstanding try which brought our nation to its feet. At the end of the match Peter Jones uttered words that have become famous in rugby folklore - “I am absolutely buggered.”  So were every other player at Eden Park that day, and a nation screaming for their rugby heroes.

Two years on in 1958 at Gisborne Central School, a young teacher Margaret Houltain was having difficulty controlling a Primer 2 class because of the noise the kids they were making. She yelled out “listen!” and a young voice at the back of the class called back “It’s a goal!”

That six year old was my young brother. The teacher posted this response to the New Zealand Listener, and it was duly published. Winston McCarthy reportedly read it and was chuffed.

- David Watt