Ian Kirkpatrick: Beacon of light in All Blacks' 'decade of disaster'

New Zealand's Ian Kirkpatrick, second right, feeds teammate Sid Going, right. Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images

Poverty Bay, at New Zealand's eastern corner, usually impacts on global consciousness for a few minutes every Dec. 31 as Gisborne claims, along with Apia and a few other Pacific Island communities, to be the first city to welcome the new year. But like most corners of New Zealand, it also has a rugby history it cherishes.

It has never won the Ranfurly Shield, and of the 17 All Blacks with which it claims an association, most have played their provincial rugby elsewhere. But among the handful whose connection goes beyond that, there are two authentic legends.

And while two is a very small sample, a case could be made for a distinctive Poverty Bay mould. Both Tiny White, a formidable lock in the 1950s, and back rower Ian Kirkpatrick -- who made his debut 50 years ago this month, in the 21-15 defeat of France on Nov. 25, 1967 -- brought fresh dimensions of athleticism to their position. White staggered opponents with his speed and ball-handling abilities, while Mervyn Davies, one of Kirkpatrick's greatest adversaries, was amazed on first playing against him in 1969 to see a six on his back, assuming anyone of his dimensions had to be a lock.

Each was accompanied by a degree of paradox. For White it was that nickname, often bestowed with dry humour on outsize Kiwis -- in his case large enough to have missed several years of youth rugby because his combination of size and growing-pain clumsiness was deemed perilous to more normally sized players.

With Kirkpatrick it was his All Black number -- 666. He played in a time when any number of All Black forwards might have been suspected of diabolic tendencies, and nobody lasts as long as his decade in top-class rugby without being able to look after himself physically. But as Gareth Edwards said in his "100 Great Rugby Players", "one other quality of Ian Kirkpatrick's that is by no means shared by every other forward in this book: I never, ever, saw him do a mean or underhand thing on the field."

That he would be an All Black seems from an early age to have been inevitable -- Terry McLean wrote of his appearing to be "born to the purple". He had a resting pulse rate of 48 and even as a 21-year-old struck observers as "calm, mature and almost gentlemanly." Poverty Bay threw him in against the 1966 Lions at 20 and he performed outstandingly for the Young All Blacks in 1967. But that his Test debut would come as early as the All Black tour of 1967 was more of a surprise.

First he had to make the tour as a trials 'bolter' whose form compelled attention from the selectors. But then there was the matter of making a Test back row in which No. 8 Brian Lochore was also captain and openside Graham Williams was playing the rugby of his life. That placed Kirkpatrick in competition with the veteran Kel Tremain, in seniority and achievement second only to Colin Meads among the All Blacks of the time.

Tremain duly played in the victories over Wales and England, and would doubtless have retained his place against France but for being slowed by an achilles injury. And we can all think of occasions on which a trusted three-quarter fit veteran has played, and done well, in a big Test, with alternatives not yet entirely trusted.

But Kirkpatrick seized the opportunity offered by matches against French regional select teams to the extent that Tremain, generous to a fault, turned to the spectator next to him -- who happened to be Kirkpatrick's father -- and said "this boy is better than I am."

Even so his selection, along with scrum-half Sid Going in preference to the established Chris Laidlaw, was still regarded as a gamble by the All Blacks management team of Fred Allen and Charlie Saxton. Their faith was richly rewarded. The All Black victory by 21-15 and four tries to one is reckoned by author Alex McKay, in his fine account of that tour "The Team That Changed Rugby Forever", to be the high point for that team, beating their toughest opponent by playing the 15-man game that the French regarded as their own.

Kirkpatrick's brilliant display was topped off by the 65th minute try that took the All Blacks into the lead. It began with a break by Going, continued with deft handling by Meads and ended with Kirkpatrick driving over from 10 metres out. Tremain and Laidlaw were still back for the visit to Murrayfield the following week, and Kirkpatrick found himself on the bench the following June when the All Blacks began their series against the Wallabies in Sydney.

But this, following International Board regulation changes that year, was no longer the purely spectator role it had been. After 22 minutes Lochore went off with a broken thumb and Kirkpatrick entered as the first All Black Test replacement since 1947, when match rules had been organised bilaterally between the two teams.

Fifty-eight minutes of action later he walked off with yet another entry in the history books -- the first All Black Test hat trick since Pat Caughey's trio against Scotland in 1935. This time there was no dropping him. He began a then All Black record run of 38 consecutive Tests which would last until the Lions tour of 1977, his 39th and last appearance taking him past Tremain as their most-capped back rower and into second place for all positions behind only Meads (55).

Yet it was somehow typical of Kirkpatrick that this extraordinary performance was overshadowed by injuries to both captains -- and the match is remembered to this day much more for the career-ending damage inflicted on the great Wallaby scrum-half Ken Catchpole by Meads as he dragged him from a ruck, than for Kirkpatrick's hat trick.

As he moves into that period of 40 to 50 years after his peak in which all but the greatest players start to fade from collective memory, he is still regarded by the historically informed as one of the truly great All Blacks. Veteran journalist Wynne Gray rated him seventh in his list of the "100 Greatest All Blacks".

Yet the sharpest memories he left in that 10-year international career are associated with adversity. The single greatest moment is one of the few happy memories New Zealand has of the 1971 Lions tour, the try he scored 10 minutes from the end of the second Test.

It was memorably described by British writer John Reason. "He broke away from Gareth Edwards and stormed on past John Williams, and although Barry John caught him, he did not get into the back of Kirkpatrick's knees with his tackle and he slid off the ground with the flying heels in front of him.

"Kirkpatrick then had 25 yards to run to the corner and with Bruce Hunter running in such a support position that David Duckham and John Williams could not get at him, he hurled himself over the line for a try. There are few more magnificent sights in rugby football than Ian Kirkpatrick with the ball in his hands."

Elevated to the All Black captaincy for the 1972-73 tour of Britain, Ireland and France -- Meads, a reluctant leader against the Lions, felt he should have had the job in 1971 -- he confronted British and Irish rugby at a high, in between the two most successful Lions tours, with a young, transitional squad and still fell short of a sweep of the Home Unions only by virtue of a late, equalising, Irish try.

Yet it is the defeats -- at Llanelli, North-West Counties, Midlands, France and above all the Barbarians -- a memorable contest made possible by Kirkpatrick and Allen's generosity in playing the Baa-Baas at a 15-man game -- which resonate along with some ugly off-field behaviour culminating in the sending home of prop Keith Murdoch.

Even so at 26, nailed on as his team's outstanding player, he looked set for a reign as long as those of Whineray and Lochore. But within a year he was dropped as captain. Kirkpatrick had never sought the captaincy and has never complained. The decision was based on an impression by JJ Stewart, one of the most thoughtful and perceptive of All Black coaches, that he did not enjoy leadership.

But it was still a very public humiliation, announced without warning in the usual All Black style in the crowded, sweaty committee rooms at Athletic Park, Wellington. Another man might have sulked or quit. Instead his successor, the uncapped Andy Leslie, recorded that Kirkpatrick was first across the room to congratulate him and the first letter of congratulation came from his predecessor's mother.

Four years later he would learn of his exclusion from the All Black tour of France, in spite of having played all four Tests against the Lions, while sitting on the Poverty Bay team bus. If the aim was to stop another young back rower, Graeme Mourie, from being overshadowed as leader it was, as Keith Quinn has written, a decision which ignored the evidence of the previous four years.

Mourie, a truly outstanding leader, needed no such protection. Kirkpatrick, who told Quinn that "I was probably happier playing without the captaincy, but nobody ever asked me that" had been to first Leslie then Tane Norton what Meads and Tremain were to Whineray and Lochore, lieutenants who set an example both through the quality of their play and unfailing loyalty.

But it was not uncharacteristic of New Zealand in the 1970s, which McLean called "a decade of disaster". At one level it left Kirkpatrick, and one of two other players of the era, with some unflattering numbers. For most countries a winning percentage of 67.94 percent would rank you among a historic elite. In Kirkpatrick's case, it places him 10th from bottom -- Going is last -- of the 138 All Blacks who have played 20 or more Tests. But those numbers are weighted by playing two four-match series in South Africa, but none at home, and against the only Lions team to have won a series in New Zealand.

The truer recall is the awed memory of those who saw him play, and another set of numbers. His 16 tries in 39 Tests for the All Blacks were an all-time record not overtaken until wing Stu Wilson's hat trick against the 1983 Lions and the most by a back rower until Zinzan Brooke, winning his 50th cap, scored his 17th in 1997.

Among his contemporaries Bryan Williams and Grant Batty were universally regarded as world-class wingers, but between them scored 14 tries in 53 matches, roughly once every four games to Kirkpatrick's better than one every two and a half. Going's 10 in 29 from scrum-half was rightly seen as remarkable, but still behind Kirkpatrick's rate.

Among more recent famed attacking back rowers Richie McCaw crossed 27 times in 147 tests, Colin Charvis 22 in 96, Neil Back 17 in 71, Brooke 17 in 58, Josh Kronfeld 14 in 54 and Michael Jones 13 in 56. It is not of course the definitive test of quality, but like Joost van der Westhuizen's record from scrum-half, Kirkpatrick's tries show posterity a player who added a unique threat as an attacker to mastery of all the more prosaic demands of his position.

Not all of the great All Black forwards of the first half-century after the Second World War would have adapted to the more dynamic attacking style demanded since 1995 but there can be little doubt that Kirkpatrick -- 50 years on from his Test debut -- certainly would have done.