April 7 - 1973 New Zealand's first international Sevens

1973 NZ Sevens team

Standing: Ces Blazey (NZRU Chairman), Pat Dwyer (1972 NZRU President), Lin Colling, Bevan Holmes, Alan Sutherland, George Skudder, Les Byars (1973 NZRU President), Ivan Vodanovich (Coach).

Kneeling: Grant Batty, Alex Wyllie (Capt.), Ian Stevens, Duncan Hales, Alistair Scown.

New Zealand has enjoyed wonderful success on the international Sevens circuit in recent years. It started with a strong showing at Murrayfield as part of the Scotland Rugby Union Centenary Sevens invitation tournament in April 1973.

Eight teams took part in the tournament. Australia and New Zealand, where Sevens was not played seriously, both enlisted help from Scots with considerable Sevens experience to help prepare their teams. In New Zealand’s case the Scot was Clark Sharp who had had considerable Sevens success in the 1950s and early 1960, including reaching the final of the Middlesex Sevens at Twickenham in 1961. His recollection of New Zealand’s part in the 1973 tournament is:

“Match Day 7th April 1973

On the Saturday morning I joined Ivan Vodanovich and the New Zealand RFU representatives present (Ces Blazey, E. P. Dwyer and L. A. Byars) for an early lunch at their city-centre hotel, prior to travelling out to Murrayfield on the New Zealand team bus. The opening tie at 1.30 pm was Scotland v Australia, to be followed at 1.48 by New Zealand’s first match against Ireland. Media opinions continued to suggest Scotland, along with England and Australia as possible winners of the tournament.

The All Blacks VII selected for their new rugby experience that day was – Grant Batty, George Skudder, Duncan Hales, Ian Stevens, Alan Sutherland, Alex “Grizz” Wyllie (captain) and Bevan Holmes, with Lin Colling as reserve back and Alistair Scown as reserve forward. The selected seven played throughout all three pool ties, except that Grant Batty and George Skudder swapped positions at wing and centre.

Before leaving the hotel I had been presented with an All Black tie by Ivan Vodanovich. I put it on and wore it with considerable pride throughout the day and on numerous occasions in later years. I was now more truly one of the New Zealand squad, even if only for this one day one-off tournament.

After the team had changed and warmed up, my pre-match briefing was short and to the point – re-iterating POSSESSION, POSITION, and PACE. Support each other in open play, don’t get involved unnecessarily in rucks and mauls AND play to the referee’s whistle (he could be playing advantage to let play flow). Not forgetting that in closely contested ties, especially the opening tie, opponents are equally likely to be tiring physically and running out of steam before getting second wind.

In the match against Ireland (4 points for a try), the New Zealand seven played encouragingly well and despite their relative inexperience of the sevens game, were leading narrowly up to within a minute or so of full- time. Unfortunately while under pressure within their own 22 area, an attempted clearance kick to touch was fielded by Ireland who quickly moved the ball in-field, created space and scored a converted try to win the tie 22-18 (three goals and a try to three goals).

In the dressing-room afterwards all seven were downcast at having lost in their first match, and were physically exhausted. Disappointment prevailed at having come so close to winning, while one or two of the players felt that they just could not possibly go out again for the second tie against Scotland in less than one hour at 3.00pm. Some time was spent reassuring them individually and as a team, that the opening tie in sevens is usually the most demanding physiologically.

The next tie would be less tiring when one gets second wind, as they later found out. Equally important was the reminder that in a pool format as featured on the day, losing a tie (especially narrowly) does not necessarily mean failure to qualify for the final stage(s), although much depended on the results of other matches in the pool. Meantime Scotland had narrowly beaten Australia by 14-12.

The team talk before taking the field to play Scotland next was even shorter. Very little was needed to be said other than my reminding the New Zealand players that I was one of them, proudly wearing my All Black tie — albeit as a surrogate Kiwi. The seven did me proud, playing even better in beating Scotland 24-16, a Scotland VII filled with seven-a-side experience over many years in the Scottish Borders circuit and with considerable international experience at fifteen-a-side. The rise of the All Blacks as a power in world sevens had begun.

I very much enjoyed the comments, teasing etc. I received at full-time and for some hours thereafter from my fellow Scots, including some of the Scotland team as they came off the field. My standing had also risen amongst my many compatriots, players and non-players alike, for a short time at least! But all credit to the New Zealand seven for learning so quickly and for a most impressive and pleasing win.

Meanwhile Ireland had comfortably defeated Australia 16-4 and then proceeded to beat Scotland 24-12 in their third and last pool tie, thus qualifying for the final against England, the winners of pool B. New Zealand’s third match of the afternoon which followed against Australia was therefore of academic interest, with only pride and some further learning experience to play for. They rose to the occasion, showing once again how quickly they had learned to play sevens by beating Australia 16-12 and finishing as impressive runners-up in Pool A – joint third place in the tournament with Wales as runners-up in Pool B, there being no play-off.

So near to success were the All Blacks at their first attempt, especially as I was confident that with good possession they could have beaten a powerful England VII in the final, but one will never know what might have been.

From “ALL BLACKS SEVENS COACH” by Clark Sharp. Pp 49-51.

That 1973 New Zealand team was made up of nine players from the 1972/3 All Blacks who were selected to take part in the Scotland centenary which, as well as the Sevens tournament, involved two matches for the Scottish President’s Overseas XV. One of the All Blacks, Bevan Holmes, recalls the team quickly found, in a practice game against a local side, that their straight hard running was too much for the opposition and their policy of “possession, possession” at all costs.

Holmes is disappointed at the lack of recognition of the 1973 Sevens team at the time. The 1974 Rugby Almanack mentioned the nine All Blacks who played in the President’s Overseas XV matches but does not refer to the Sevens matches. “The History of New Zealand Rugby Football Vol. 4” (published 1992) contains a listing of New Zealand Sevens representatives that DOES NOT include the 1973 team. However, later publications, including the most recent Rugby Almanack, have corrected the omission.