'Southland boys' took on France and won

I'LL GET 'IM: Southland fullback Eion Crossan tries to catch up with a French attacker during a famous win in 1989.
I'LL GET 'IM: Southland fullback Eion Crossan tries to catch up with a French attacker during a famous win in 1989.

Rugby Southland will celebrate its 125th birthday this weekend. It is a proud moment for a proud rugby province. To help mark the occasion, The Southland Times is counting down some of the greatest moments in Southland rugby during the past 25 years. Today, sports editor Nathan Burdon takes a look back at the 1989 victory over France.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Bobby Murrell, who weighed 68kg dripping wet at the time, remembers one thing above all else from Southland's stunning 1989 victory over the touring French – how frighteningly big the opposition were.

Murrell, one of Southland's great halfbacks, recalls sitting in the changing rooms before the game, looking at the programme along with Simon Culhane and marvelling over the statistics of the giant Frenchmen.

Several of the Southland players had inflated their own numbers, including Murrell, who was officially listed at 74kg.

The French, however, were genuinely huge.

"They were absolutely massive," Murrell says. "Me and Nibs [Culhane] were sitting together and I said `for f.... sake'. When we got on the paddock, we were just kids, to be fair. We were tiny."

Murrell remembers Eion Crossan, who kicked all of Southland's points, landing penalties from halfway – no mean feat with the old leather ball – the filth that went in from both teams and just how awful the French team was on the day.

"It was the Southland boys against the Five Nations champions at that stage. They put on close to a test team. Take a look at the programme – Sella, Berbizier, they were really tough," he said.

"The last 10 minutes we were camped on our line and I was pretty impressed with the way the boys dug in. We had a ruck on our line and the clock had stopped. Me and Nibs were yelling at the referee and then Berbizier came running around the corner of the ruck and dived over. Somehow he landed on top of my chest and everyone piled over.

"There was one more ruck, it went to the corner and everyone piled in, there were boots going everywhere and then the ref called fulltime. People raided the paddock, it was just unbelievable."

Southland was in its third straight season in second division and had been given little chance of victory against a French team that would threaten the All Blacks during the second half of the first test four days later.

There had been some unsubtle reminders from the 1979 Southland team about their own win over the French but Murrell said the "whole world" expected a young Southland team to get beaten up by the tourists.

No8 Rata Smith, current Stags coach David Henderson and Brent Shepherd – "he was running around hitting everyone, as per normal" – were all instrumental, and Murrell said lock Murray Hewitson turned in a special performance, despite the size difference.

After the game, Murrell went into the French dressing room, where the coach was in the middle of one of the great post-game meltdowns.

He swapped his jersey with his French counterpart but then got yelled at by the Southland team manager, who was worried about how the cash-strapped union would be able to replace all the gear that was being given away.

The reaction to the victory was enormous, Murrell said.

The victory party went on for days and when Murrell finally returned to work at an inner-city car yard, vehicles would toot and people would cheer as they drove past. The team became an overnight media sensation.

Murrell sometimes wears his French jersey to parties – the shorts don't fit any more – and admits he should probably get it framed.

He played 70 games for Southland from 1986 until 1993 and, despite being one of the best No9s in the country in his prime, Murrell said he never seriously considered leaving the province for greater opportunities.

He has no regrets about staying. He turned down an offer to play club rugby in Auckland, which would have had him playing inside Grant Fox.

"I just loved Southland. I was pretty proud to pull the jersey on. You find the right place to play footy. I enjoyed the guys – Nibs and Goof [Henderson] and Hayser [Steven Hayes], we've known each other for years and we still get on really well."

JUNE 13, 1989
Southland v France 12-7

Southland: Eion Crossan, Bruce Pascoe, Phil Johnston, Steve Bulmer, Murray Brown, Simon Culhane, Bobby Murrell, Rata Smith, David Henderson, Brent Shepherd, Brian McDonald, Murray Hewitson, Peter Henderson, Brent Youle, Russell Palmer.

France: Serge Blanco, Phillipe Berot, Patrice Lagisquet, Marc Andrieu, Phillipe Sella, Phillipe Rouge-Thomas, Pierre Berbizier, Phillipe Benetton, Jean Condom, Thierry Devergie, Dominique Erbani, Olivier Roumat, JP Garuet, Dominique Bouet, Pascal Ondarts.

The Southland Times