The Miracle of Bulawayo

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New Zealand’s rugby team can seem unbeatable at times. For many nations, that is literally true.

Two of the Home Nations, Scotland and Ireland, have never beaten the All Blacks. Argentina plays New Zealand at least twice a year now, and every time they line up, they are chasing their maiden win.

With the exception of South Africa, France, England, and Australia, most teams know they will never beat New Zealand.

But there is an All Black scalp in Bulawayo. It was taken on the 27th of July in 1949.

Bulawayo is the second largest city in Zimbabwe. The name Bulawayo comes from the SiNdebele word “KoBulawayo” which means “a place where he is being killed.” known as the City of Kings.

Situated in the southwest, on the pathway between Harare and its large southern neighbour, the city is currently the hotbed of opposition to the oppressive government of Robert Mugabe.

Sanitation is struggling – there was even a cholera outbreak recently, and water is in short supply. It is a high place, and even though it lies in the tropics, their winters are dry and cool.

And in this place, the All Blacks were beaten by then Rhodesia. The score was 10-8. That is what the books say. That is a fact.

Also, it should be pointed out that Rhodesia was at that time a ‘province’ for purposes of South African rugby, and their players aspired to play for South Africa.

Still, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe has beaten the All Blacks.

How did that happen?

New Zealand was led on tour by Fred Allen, who had too many challenges to overcome, and wound up winning only 14 of the 25 matches played (four were draws), including an 0-4 whitewash during the four Tests against the Springboks.

Allen and his team sailed on a tiny ship without space to train, they were without top class Maori players due to South Africa’s racial policies, their hot and dusty itinerary using local transportation was punishing, and it must be said, some very dodgy ruck refereeing.

To be fair, Allen was also forced to be de facto coach and manager, as both were elderly and in poor health.

But the tours in those days had similar complaints for all sides. When the Boks went to New Zealand, the sagas were also replete with incredibly arduous sea and train voyages, muddy roads and fields, extreme cold, and odd referee decisions.

But back to Bulawayo. After losing the first Test to South Africa in Cape Town (15-11), the Kiwi tourists took a 26-hour train ride to Johannesburg to play (and beat) Transvaal (13-3). The night of that game, they boarded another train to Bulawayo, and arrived over 24 hours later. A side trip to Victoria Falls (by train) cost them a couple of days of training, and then they played Rhodesia on Wednesday afternoon, 27 July, 1949.

Rhodesia scored two tries against the All Blacks. To put that in perspective, only seven tries were scored against the visitors in the entire 1949 tour.

The All Blacks were surprised by the dash of the Rhodesians, who played a different, open, and attacking brand, distinct from the safety-first South African teams.

The Rhodesians wore hooped jerseys; the All Blacks in their traditional all dark uniforms.

Two Rhodesian players, the big, fast flanker Salty du Rand and centre Ryk van Schoor, in particular bedevilled New Zealand’s attack, which relied on penetration in the midfield, through aggressive but straightforward running by the inside centre.

Crashball specialist Van Schoor tackled the All Black centres so effectively in the backfield that the entire attack was crippled. New Zealand’s loose forwards did not get to the breakdown in Bulawayo in time.

A New Zealand reporter wrote afterwards: “There is no doubt about it, the Rhodesians deserved to win the game and what is more, the All Blacks themselves were unstinted in their praise for the type of football played by their opponents. There was plenty of movement, and if there was one thing the All Blacks did appreciate, it was the fact that the Rhodesians attempted to score tries.”

Both du Rand and Van Schoor were picked for the second Test between New Zealand and South Africa. Van Schoor, who was living in Rhodesia to seek his fortune as a tobacco farmer, went to play for the Springboks twelve times. He was one of the most feared tacklers in rugby.

New Zealand player Bob Scott called Van Schoor’s defensive abilities “amazing” and wrote: “If you saw a cloud of dust rising from midfield like an atom-bomb cloud, you knew Van Schoor was at work. He was big and strong and nerveless.”

On that day in Bulawayo, Rhodesia played a balanced game, the forwards were fit for 80 minutes and linked with the backs. The first try was scored on cross kick from flyhalf to wing. The second was scored from a steal by a prop, who passed to a flanker named Claude Jones, who scored on a breakaway.

New Zealand scored two tries in their comeback attempt, but failed to convert from the corner and Rhodesia hung on for a famous victory.

To prove it was not a fluke, Rhodesia drew 3-3 with the All Blacks three days later in Salisbury (Harare).

Will something like this ever happen again?

What a year 2014 has been in rugby! From the highs of the Waratahs winning the Super Rugby title, to the lows of the infamous saga that swamped our national team. What are your reflections on the year that was? What's on your Christmas wishlist for next year? If you're feeling inspired, you can share it with other Roarers by submitting an article.
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