“Who would have thought “Te Ika a Henri” could have transformed a day and, very nearly, a tour? Yet it was so. When the North Auckland Rugby Union, which is the best union in New Zealand at this business of offering hospitality, sent the Tricolors to the Bay of Islands as a prelude to their match with North Auckland, they arranged several memorable items. The Treaty House at Waitangi was one—Besson almost had be headlocked away from the house and the grounds to stop him shooting every centimetre of film he possessed. Pompallier House in Russell, so beautiful because it is so spare, was another. Lunch at the Waitangi Hotel was delectable. The look of satisfaction on the face of Dauga as he returned for a second helping of smorgasbord, the pleasure in all Tricolor faces as the steak, drippingly rare, came along, told more than ten thousand words could tell; and when the lively young lady at the office desk chipped in with impeccable French as the players were choosing scads of scenic postcards for the folks back home, the gallants surged forward and wanted to know how and why and where this faultless accent had been created. (She was English, of a good school and no small education by way of travel.) In the lush, plush surroundings of the Trust Hotel, perhaps the English appreciated rather more than the French the significance in the succession of signposted rooms—”Victoria Room”, “Hobson Room”, “Busby Room”—which gave way, only a little further down the corridor, to “Cloakroom”. It seemed quite a comedown.
But it was “the fish of Henri”, otherwise Foures, which really made this the day of the tour. After the visit to Russell the team took off in two launches and Frenchmen who took over the wheel were told their course was strictly for the birds. Out came the rods and spinners and Big Henri sat there, silent and concentrated. It was said of him that he was the shrewdest Rugby brain in the party, and perhaps he was, too. But, as a fisherman, he was determined to be even brainier. Which, as soon as the boat was among the wheeling, wheening birds, he was. The kahawai bounced and bucked as it fought to clear the hook. But Henri the mighty had it firmly in grasp; and as the fish was drawn nearer to the stern, there was wild commotion as Lacaze and others rushed forward—or backward, if you like—to be in at the kill. Henri cast again and, wonder of wonders, caught again; and, sighing with pleasure, the Tricolors headed back to Whangarei to ask their host, the one and only Lofty Blomfield, once more to be good enough to cook the steak the proper way on his barbecue at the end of the dining-room. “Cor strike me,” said Lofty. “They want it just flipped that way and then the other. It’s bleeding when they get it. What’s more, it’s almost cold.”
But that was the way the boys wanted it and that was the way they got it; and, for once, the hubbub of the tour was a pleasant and not a souring thing.
It was going to rain for the match but this would be nothing new because it almost always does rain for matches in Whangarei. But there were two interesting points concerning the preparation for this fixture with one of the finest provincial teams of the season. One was that delectable day of sightseeing which formed such a contrast with the dreariness of so much—far too much—of the Tricolors’ tour. The other was the promise of Ted Griffin, selector-coach of North Auckland and one of the soundest, shrewdest and most skilful judges at the top level of New Zealand Rugby, that, come what may, his team would attack the French. “What has impressed me about them,” said Griffin, “is that they don’t seem to sustain their attack. They start like lightning, as against King Country, and then they fall right away. We aim to sustain our attack the whole of the way.”
France 10, North Auckland 6, Okara Park, Whangarei, 3 August, 1968
Four blinding showers fell after 1 o’clock and before kick-off at 2.30: it was the sort of afternoon even a seal would have sniffed at. But Okara was Mecca. There were 20,000 in the gallery and if umbrellas were a clue two-thirds of them were golfers. The glare of brollies rising from ground level high up the steepling slope of the hillside was almost as bright as the glare of the game, especially of the first half, when Berot gave Maso good passes and Maso flitted like a firefly. But there were more basic reasons than brilliance why the French were fabulous—for 40 minutes. For the first time ever on the tour, they had a referee who commanded, and demanded, a lineout gap of the sort the All Blacks of ‘67 had had to learn to live with—and make a great deal of use of—at the hands of British referees. With Cester back, Dauga steamed up to something like his true form—perhaps he was snarling back at the Kiwi critics who had so often snarled at him—Spanghero acting as a bold adventurer and Carrère leading and urging his men to sustain their attack, the Tricolors’ pack was able to win 51 of the 70 lineouts. This was an advantage they had never supposed possible. So much were they inspired that the forwards, as a pack, were able to push North Auckland almost at will; and, just to show what a gutsy outfit North Auckland were, the only tighthead of the game was not won by France.
As with the forwards, so with the backs. For 40 minutes, never forgetting how slippery and inhospitable the pitch was, divinity was among them. The chief instrument was Maso. He had only once before played at flyhalf in play above club level. Yet ducks never took to water with quite such phenomenal skill as he took to the position. Berot’s passes had greatly improved on the tragically incompetent efforts of Blenheim, but they were still floaters and boomers rather than crisp, waist-high flicks. No matter. Maso was performing one-steps, two-steps and quicksteps even as he was receiving the passes and Hewitt, Holmes and Robinson, the North Auckland backrow, were often bemused by his shifty stepping. So Maso was able to kick where he wanted, which was usually to the right place; he was able to run at such a speed that the threequarters line was flying when the passes came to them, he made a sufficient number of breaks on his own to have that backrow converted into a gaggle of Doubting Thomases. Once, twice, thrice, he had Dourthe crossing behind to take backhanded flip passes. Wondrous stuff all this was, inspiring to the threequarters, most particularly Lux and Dourthe, and highly encouraging to Villepreux, whose long beak kept sniffing at the chances of thickening and mystifying the threequarter attack.
For the sufficient reason that the North Auckland team, with all that inherent gutsiness, fought back tigerishly in the second half, the margin of victory was kept small. Hull and Kirtlan might have been completely dominated by Dauga at the lineout, even the hugely strong Mac and the powerful Guy might have met their peers in Iracabal and Noble, but of the willingness of the North Auckland forwards to chase even the ghost of a chance no possible doubt could be entertained. It so happened that the North Auckland backline came unstuck in two important positions. Sid Going was endlessly and efficiently harassed by Berot, more so than had ever been seen before, and Morgan out in the five-eighths kicked too often. At a third position, too, North Auckland were not themselves. There was a chance just a chance, that Ken Going with a superior performance, divinely inspired, might displace Fergi McCormick for the fullback position of the third test a week later. Perhaps Ken knew of this and trembled at the possibility. So he missed one vital tackle and was too much wanting in zip in moving to the ball to look like an international. But the Goings were not all gone, not by a long shot. The youngest of them, Brian, at first five-eighths, fielded magnificently. He kicked with judgment and accuracy. And when he covered, it was with a rare sense of the right place to go.
And so North Auckland were only seven points behind at halftime when a less gutsy team might have been 20. They had their first inspiration when after only two minutes Ken Going placed a penalty from only 30 yards awarded against Carrère for offside. This sustained them through various misadventures, including a punch by Yachvili and some other excitable stupidities by Noble and by Dutin. It also sustained them through a sharp run to the tryline by Dutin after Yachvili had sold a dummy, and a great blindside break by Dauga and Maso. But then came the first example of fabulous football by the French. The ball was spun from Berot to Maso well out to the right and as the threequarters ripped up the field Villepreux joined them and with a pass put Lux on the left clear of Ken Going. With a perfect cross kick into the goalmouth, Lux found two or three of his forwards, one of whom, Spanghero, took the ball across the line for a try Villepreux easily converted. “This,” said Denis Lalanne, “was a real French try. You will often see this every Sunday in club Rugby at home.”
Then Maso thought to drop a goal. It was not a good kick, but it was even more effective than a good kick. Ken and Sid Going chased one way, Hewitt chased another and the ball, like a dog at play beat all three. And Bonal, racing up, was able to foot it ahead for 15 yards and beat everybody to it for a try that Villepreux goaled. Before the half was done, Maso, Lux, Dutin, Dauga and Carrere joined in a run which had all of the 20,000 spectators ecstatically screaming, and they yelled again when Lux came from one side to Bonal at the other and Ken Going just, and only just, stopped Bonal in stride.
So what happened then? Well, perhaps the Tricolors had to play into, or away from, the deep end. Perhaps the stupidities of Yachvili punching at Sid Going indicated that the French were once more wasting their concentration. Perhaps it was just the gutsiness, the utter determination of North Auckland not to give in, which unsettled the Tricolors. And so, most interesting as this half and enthralling as a contrast of styles and techniques, the only yield was a penalty after 26 minutes and from 30 yards by Ken Going.
There could have been more. Most decidedly in the opinion of the 20,000, there ought to have been more. It happened in the 15th minute of the second half when Panther began kicking and chasing a ball over the slithery ground toward the French goalposts. Just at the goal-line, Panther dived. So did two or three Tricolors. The ball bounced on into the in goal area. A Frenchman touched it down. Mr Taylor signalled—and 20,000 voices violently told him he was wrong—a dropout from the 25. The interpretation was that, in the referee’s opinion, Panther had knocked the ball forward. In the event, he didn’t even touch it. The award ought to have been a scrum five yards, North Auckland to put in and with Sid Going, the world’s finest scoring halfback, just the man to pick up the heel and with his massive fend and blinding sidestep to nip over for a try which Ken would certainly have converted.
What then? Alas, no one will ever know. Mr Taylor later murmured to Ted Griffin and may have been slightly alarmed that Ted, who does not take kindly to refereeing mistakes against his side, answered back with words not intended to be comforting; But Ted was soon mollified. “The French,” he said, “are the best team any side I have ever had anything to do with have ever played against.” And Tom Pearce, still an ardent champion of the Tricolors, chimed in. “A great side,” he said.
And so they were. But with all that ball, they ought to have been great for 80 minutes, not 40.
Scorers—For France: Spanghero, Bonal, tries; Villepreux 2 conversions. For North Auckland: K. T. Going 2 penalty goals.
From “All Black Power” by Terry McLean. Pub. 1968 by A H & A W Reed p. 226-232