COUNTIES MANUKAU’S GREAT CAPTAINS
By Paul Cochrane
For any organisation, whether it be in business or on the sports field, for it to be successful needs a clear vision and purpose. If that vision is to be achieved in a purposeful and measured way, then effective leadership must be a priority.
Counties - Manukau rugby has been fortunate over the years to have possessed a number or respected and inspirational captains and leaders. On and off the field these people have been a critical ingredient in the fortunes of the union during its relatively short fifty year history.
From the outset Counties has prided itself on producing an innovative, open and attractive brand of rugby. A style that is appealing to the fans and most importantly enjoyable for the participants.
Indeed in the formative years of the late fifties, sparked by the leadership and inventive prowess of a confident, a ebullient and irrepressible skipper, Patrick Timothy Walsh. The dye was well and truly caste in terms of setting the blueprint for the Counties style of rugby.
Pat Walsh had the honour of captaining Counties on the first ever tour in 1956.
With New Zealand rugby in the fifties and sixties entrenched in a dour ten-man style of rugby, Counties under the directorship and coaching of men such as Arch Scott and Barry Bracewell led the way in terms of instigating and implementing a modern attacking game.
For these plans to be accepted and adhered to then strong leadership of these teams was paramount.
Coach Barry Bracewell, uncle of current cricket coach John, was an innovative and inventive coach who was ahead of his time in his thinking about how attacking rugby could and should be played.
Arch Scott was one of Counties more interesting and inspirational characters. A lecturer at the now defunct Ardmore Teachers College, as a coach he played a significant role in the development of such wonderful footballers such as New Zealand’s greatest centre Bruce Robertson.
But he was revered by those around him for his exploits in World War 11. As Private Scott he was awarded the Military Medal for bravery.
In the sixties two men stood out as captains. In 1961 and 1962 Counties were extremely fortunate to have the services of the great All Black and hero of the famous 1956 series with the Springboks Stan ‘Tiny’ Hill. In the twilight of his stellar career the muscular fitness fanatic was serving in the Army at Papakura.
Totally Committed and focussed Stan Hill proved to be a tower of strength in his short time leading Counties.
The highlights of his time here in Counties Manukau ironically involved two losses.Early in his tenure he led Counties in an absolutely stirling performance against a strong Canterbury side. Counties led until almost fulltime when the Cantabs literally stole the game from under their noses.
In the changing rooms after the game skipper Hill exclaimed,” We would not have lost that game if our champion fullback Eddie Whatarau hadn’t left the field injured”.
But the match that was remembered most during Hill’s time was when he inspired Counties in its challenge against the great Auckland Ranfurly Shield team in 1962. With the hard-nosed Tiny Hill in the vanguard and with the mercurial fullback Eddie Whatarau slamming over penalties and landing a couple of magnificent dropped goals. Unfancied Counties came desperately close to an unlikely victory, against all of the odds.
Bruce McLeod, an outstanding All Black hooker in the great teams of the sixties, was a tough and at times ruthless captain. He was the man who very much inspired the Manurewa club into becoming the most successful in the union’s history.
He was very much a protégé of coach Bracewell, he certainly led from the front.
In a rather unique quirk of fate before his test debut against Australia 1964. McLeod prior to assembling with the All Blacks confidently informed Barry Bracewell that not only was he looking forward to the occasion, he promised to score a try.
History tells us he did just that in New Zealand’s 14-9 victory at Carisbrook.
In the days before television replays and fastidious linesmen were in vogue, Bruce McLeod, a really tough and uncompromising footballer, was never ever shy about dishing out a bit of rough justice when it was required.
On one occasion he was involved in an unsavoury incident during a club match with Pukekohe immediately prior to captaining Counties in a representative fixture against Waikato in Hamilton.
It was known to all of the players that McLeod had used his boot illegally on one of his Counties team mates. This incident unfortunately resulted in that player leaving the field injured. This was a game that created some ill- feeling amongst the players.
Unperturbed by all of the talk, the redoubtable skipper, McLeod, waited until all of his players were on the team bus on the morning of the match and then without blinking an eyelid announced, ” We all know what happened in the club game last Saturday and there is nothing that we can do to change what happened. It is gone now and this afternoon we are all going to be pulling on our Counties jerseys and we are going to be mates again – end of story.”
A driven footballer in all respects, McLeod was a tower of strength as captain for mosth of the sixties. He was also a mentor in many ways to another long-term skipper, who in the opinion of coach Barry Bracewell, was arguably the finest leader Counties have ever had in loose forward come lock Ken MacMillan.
Not gregarious like his predecessor, the taciturn MacMillan was more in the mould of the strong silent type, who let his deeds on the field do most of his talking.
Respected and intelligent he didn’t waste words often, but when he did speak everyone in the team listened intently and wanted to get out on the field and perform for him.
He was totally reliable and looked after his players. On one occasion in the early seventies a youthful Henk Habraken, in just his second game for the union, went up to take a high kick. As he reached the ball Bay of Plenty’s All Black loose forward, Alan McNaughton, struck Habracken dangerously with his elbow. MacMillan quickly and effectively dished out some summary justice to the culprit. His actions instilled enormous confidence and admiration from his fellow players.
The other stand-out skipper of note from the same era was the tough Army man of the fifties and early sixties Ivan Rasmussen. A veteran of twenty-four games for Auckland and sixty for Counties, he was a respected straight-as-a-dye character who prided himself on giving 100% every time he took the field. He was renowned for having never taken a backward step to an opponent. Forthright and opinionated he would never leave people wondering about what was on his mind.
His team mates and administrators would at times laugh and at times shudder at his after match speeches.
No one who was there will ever forget his comments after playing in a saturated bog at Rhodes Park in Thames in 1963.
A few years previously “Ras” had played in a festival match to raise funds for the installation of a modern drainage system for the ground. On this occasion disappointed at losing in the mud and slush, Rasmussen upset the locals when he said,” I once came down here to play in a game to raise money so you people could put in new drainage pipes. Will you please let me know when you are having another fundraising match to pay to employ someone to clean the bloody things out because I will be available to play.”
Since those heady early days there have been a number of players who have led Counties teams with distinction. Indeed throughout the seventies, eighties and nineties the union has been fortunate to have had some very impressive individuals in charge. The three who stand-out in terms of achievement and longevity were unquestionably Andy Dalton, Alan Dawson and the current assistant coach Errol Brain.
Dalton took on the role of skipper immediately following the Bracewell coaching era and succeeded the champion long-serving Counties first five eighth, Ean McRobbie. McRobbie and the previous captain Mac McCallian had suited Bracewell’s open free-running style of rugby.
New coach Hiwi Tauroa was determined to bring a more pragmatic approach to the Counties style and saw Andy Dalton as his ideal lieutenant in implementing his new game-plan.
Andy Dalton was an incredibly focussed, if somewhat dour individual, who was the outstanding hooker of his time. Not only did he bring a tough no-nonsense approach to the leadership of the teams he was involved in, but also a determination to be the very best. It was never part of his repertoire to aim for anything less than excellence and most importantly winning.
Where Counties teams had been recognised as the entertainers of New Zealand rugby, Dalton, his team and coach Hiwi Tauroa set about bringing a tough winning edge to the team.
A quality that had not been there consistently previously.
After being runners-up in the NPC First Division Championship in his first two years at the helm, Counties, with the indomitable Andy ‘Froggy’ Dalton in the vanguard finally in 1979 clinched the NPC First Division Championship outright for the first and only time in the union’s history.
Of course in 1981, ’83, 84, 85 and 87 he was also a highly successful captain of the All Blacks, and in 1984 was New Zealand rugby player of the year.
An often chirpy captain Dalton was at times prone to offer a little advice to the match officials. On one occasion after an opposing player had taken a real ‘round-house’ swing at Dalton. He turned to the referee, who just happened to be the former All Black prop Ian Clarke, and shouted, ‘’ Did you see that ref?”
Only to be told assertively by the referee, “bloody lucky you’re short aren’t you!”
Alan Dawson, Dalton’s successor was another durable and well-performed player and leader. The only Counties player, and one of only five New Zealand players to have played in over 200 matches for their union, Dawson was someone who always led from the front. Dawson really demonstrated his qualities as a person after the disappointment of being on the end of a 0-67 hiding by Waikato in his 200th game.
All he could say afterwards was, “It hurts. My pride took a dent out there. I cannot explain it. The boys trained well but we were unable to achieve the goals we set ourselves”.
An ‘almost All Black’ he was in the reserves for the infamous 1981 flour-bomb test against the Springboks at Eden Park.
A loose forward with all of the attributes he was a tenacious and uncompromising individual. A multi-talented sportsman he not only excelled on the rugby field, but was also a skilled yachtsman and as a single handicap golfer won the Waiuku Golf Club’s Open championship.
‘Dawsy’s’ leadership qualities, so prevalent on the rugby field, also came to the fore in the yachting world when he was appointed Commodore of the Waiuku Yacht Club.
The last of the “big three” Counties skippers of the last thirty years was Errol Brain.
Another Manurewa man not only did he lead his Counties team to win the NPC Second Division title but he went on to be the only man to skipper Counties to consecutive NPC First Division Finals against Auckland and Canterbury respectively in 1996 and 1997.
Loyal and determined it is doubtful if there have any more respected footballers than Errol Brain to have donned the Union’s colours.
In a career that included the transition from the amateur to the professional era. He provided leadership off the field in what was a very challenging and difficult period for players and administrators as they juggled with the many issues and pressures associated with the changes. Unquestionably as a leader Errol Brain epitomised all that was good about the game.
Born and bred in Northland, it did not take long for his allegiances to become well established here in Counties, and for him to become a ‘local’.
In tandem with the tremendous coaches Ross Cooper and Mac McCallian, Brain was the driving force in the second great era of Counties rugby.
There have been others who led Counties with distinction.
I will not forget the pride that Barry Baxter, Counties first captain still possesses when speaking with him and other member of Counties first team n 2004. Others from those early years such as Peter Rich helped provide a platform for the fine leaders that followed them in the Counties Manukau colours.
It has been said that captains are only as good as the players they have around them.
I suppose that is true to a certain degree but there is no doubt that effective and inspirational leadership is a key to the success of any side.
Few if any teams are successful if they are not blessed with someone at the top who is respected and trusted by their peers. This is never truer than in a highly combative team sport like rugby.
Now going into a more subjective role mode and endeavour to select and rank Counties ten most successful and respected leaders from the last fifty-two years.
This, it must be pointed out, is very much my own opinion based on interviews and communication with a large number of former players, coaches, administrators and supporters.
This research was completed prior to the publication of the book Enterprise and Agony – Fifty Years of Counties Rugby. Copies can be purchased from the Counties Manukau Rugby Union, Stadium Drive, Pukekohe.