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Opinion

Steve McDowall: Great All Black prop and innovator

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20th September, 2021
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Steven Clark ‘Steve’ McDowall was a unique All Black who liked to do things his own way.

One of the All Blacks’ most powerful scrummagers, he sought his fitness and core strength through weight training in gyms. A dislike of running and his judo background gave him the motivation to try something different.

I remember being brought up to achieve fitness by running, running and more running. Many people practised the teachings of Arthur Lydiard, the famous athletics coach, whose endurance-based fitness programmes were religiously followed by many worldwide.

I do not know if the current crop of All Blacks relies on a running programme, but years ago it was a common sight to see the players pounding the farms and streets of New Zealand.

Players back then would rely on a hard manual job during the day such as farming and would then find the motivation to go out jogging.

Steve McDowall was an individual, and the prototype All Black prop who was more mobile around the field, but who also stuck to his essential forward roles. Out in the open he could be a damaging runner but allied to this was his srummaging ability and mauling strengths.

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Steve was named as the best loosehead prop in the “Greatest All Black XV”, as voted for by the public and well known rugby experts. “Steve McDowall was the forerunner of the athletic and dynamic prop that we see today”, stated veteran journalist Phil Gifford.

He was also acknowledged worldwide as being the finest player in his position. The basis for his success was his strong body type which gave him dominance over opposing props. Steve confirms that, “I was playing between 102 kg and 105kg against guys who were 118 to 120kg and destroying them because they had no core strength”.

McDowall led the way in using weight training as a form of building strength, which wasn’t achieved if not working in professions such as farming. He was competing and playing with players like Gary Knight, Andy Dalton and John Ashworth who were all farmers.

On his own he would develop and stick to weight programmes which did not gain the support of fellow players. How times have changed! Now, it is the other way around with non-gym members being the ones made to feel different.

Steve McDowall was born in Rotorua on August 27th 1961, and attended Western Heights High School. He is a Bay of Plenty boy but spent most of his playing career in Auckland. Fellow BOP players were Hika Reid and Wayne “Buck” Shelford. They make them hard in the Bay of Plenty!

Steve began his career with the Bay of Plenty Union in 1982 and featured against the touring British and Irish Lions. His career progressed through the NZ Colts and Juniors and developed further when he joined Auckland in 1985.

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Steve showed his potential in the All Black trials, and he was then selected for the controversial South African tour which was eventually cancelled by the High Court.

Steve was picked for the seven-match replacement tour to Argentina where he made his test debut in Buenos Aires aged 24 years. The second test was a thrilling 21 all draw which featured the great Hugo Porta.

Steve McDowall was an integral part of a dominant Auckland team over seven seasons and formed a powerhouse front row with John Drake and Sean ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick. This trio would go on to All Black honours. They would contribute immensely towards the All Blacks winning the inaugural World Cup in 1987.

A magnificent forward pack led the way with peerless Auckland players including the front row, Gary and Alan Whetton, Michael Jones, and Zinzan Brooke. Steve was an unsung hero of this All Black campaign as many props are.

When the All Black tour to South Africa was cancelled, a rebel tour was organised for 1986, with the team known as the Cavaliers. The unofficial tour series was lost 3-1 and Steve received a two match ban for taking part.

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As with most rugby careers, the drive and ambition began to wane for Steve in 1991. This often coincides with the appointment of a new coach who has a different viewpoint to his predecessor, and this occurred when Laurie Mains took charge.

There sometimes is an unpleasant end to someone’s career with little thought given to how the player will react. Steve was discarded after the Ireland series in 1992 aged 30 years. With the emergence of Olo Brown and Richard Loe switching to his loosehead side, McDowall’s time was up.

He fell out of favour with the Auckland side in 1993 when Craig Dowd and Olo Brown were decided upon. His career wound down after a stint with Wellington and then a belated period with Auckland again in 1998 at the ripe old age of 37. In first class rugby he played 294 games.

Steve McDowall extended his rugby career while coaching the Romanian team and gaining acclaim for the advancement of the forward pack. He and his family lived in Bucharest for three years.

Steve has also coached the North Harbour Marist Premier club team back in New Zealand.

Many people have always been unsure as to whether it was McDowall or McDowell! The confusion arose when his father changed the “e” to “a”, but it is not an overly concerning issue for Steve. So, we will stick with the “a”.

As with Ian Kirkpatrick, Steve shares the same thoughts on the demise of club rugby in New Zealand. There must be an emphasis on keeping younger players involved in the game or club rugby will become weaker and not attract new players. As with a new building if the foundations are weak the whole structure will come down.

I must say that the sight of All Blacks playing club rugby is probably more everlasting than the top being prioritised.

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“It’s a major concern, I think. You just see the numbers falling off now. And that certainly changes the direction of how clubs will play their rugby,” he believes.

Steve McDowall will be known as one of the original players to search for other methods of getting fit and strong and implementing those methods. He dared to go against tradition and rely on a weight based programme to give him greater core strength.

Steve also had his judo background which he was proficient enough in to represent NZ. Both weights and judo made him extremely strong and therefore able to dominate his opposing player.

How would he go up against some of the monsters around today who can tip the scales at 135kg? We will never know but I would say it would be a noble effort by Steve!

Steve McDowall, an innovator, great All Black and a favourite.

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