Hard yakka with Les Bleus
By 7.30am on Wednesday, July 12, 1961, traffic was starting to build up north of Whanganui. People were heading to New Plymouth's Rugby Park to watch Taranaki take on France for the first time.
As well as breaking records (the 36,000 crowd and [PndStlg]11,000 gate were unrivalled at the time) the game was a "thriller".
The Taranaki Photo News claimed the match was the "game of the year" and "worth every penny." A ticket cost 20 shillings.
Half of the 100 buses bringing people to the game carried school children who sat on the cycle track around the edge of the playing field and rushed on to greet their heroes at the end.
John Mackie, 81, played lock for Taranaki who were beaten 11-9.
"We tried to get amongst their forwards to stop them dominating things. We had props Ike Flavell and Ian Macdonald, who were as good as anyone in the country in those days. They are both gone now."
As are six or seven other team-mates, Mackie reckons.
"They were great mates. We had a great rapport with each other in those days."
The team stayed in the State Hotel the night before they played France and had a light training run before the game, which started at 2.30.
According to a newspaper report the game was played in sunshine and there was a "festival atmosphere".
Mackie remembers it was "hard yakka". "There were no incidents. We didn't get into a scrap or anything."
But there was a bit of controversy.
French wing Serge Plantey threw the ball into the lineout (it was the wing's job back then) and first five-eighth Pierre Albaladejo scored on the blindside. However, it was deemed Plantey's foot had been over the touchline when he threw it to the lineout so ref Pat Murphy, from North Auckland, disallowed the try.
"They were a little bit upset about that," Mackie says.
After the game the teams met for dinner at the Imperial Hotel.
The French were friendly, but not many could speak English.
"They brought out the red wine. They shouted us. They had a special brew they had brought out [to New Zealand]."
Mackie has kept the match reports and photos of the game in a folder, one of many he has recording the 93 games he played for the province over almost a decade.
While playing an international team was exciting, Mackie's best memory is taking the Ranfurly Shield from Otago in 1957.
"People said flying us down there was a waste of money."
It was the amateur era and the players weren't paid. He got threepence a mile, one way, when he travelled away to play for Taranaki. Accommodation and meals were paid for by the Taranaki Rugby Football Union, then run by Roy Roper, George Bowen and Jim Ridland. Ridland and his wife used to wash all the jerseys and the socks, Mackie says.
Mackie's wife, Helen, got to wash his shorts.
She says she went to all the home games and many of the away fixtures. They even motored to North Auckland for one match.
"But we were on our own. We didn't mix with the men."
And they were never invited to the after-match function. "Hell, no. But we still had fun. I'm still friends with some of them."
Camaraderie was a big part of the rugby experience, back in the day.
Mackie also made a lot of mates in other provincial teams.
"I still get on with Snow White from Auckland."
The only time they see each other these days is in Mt Maunganui at the rugby bowls tournament.
"We all meet up there. All us silly old buggers."
Mackie played his last game in 1963 when Taranaki took the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington. The next year Legs, aka Ian Eliason, took over as lock, where he played when France came back in 1968.
Eliason, 68, can't remember how many people attended the game, and his newspaper cuttings don't say, but he thinks it was about 30,000.
"We had a reasonable side, with a few All Blacks in it. It was great playing an international team. I was lucky, I played a few of them over the years. It lifts your game. You play above yourself. You want to do well and if you want to go further you want to impress selectors."
Eliason, now the Taranaki Union's president, got a "little bit of ball" and was quite happy. He should be, his name featured in a headline the next day: "Eliason - it's a name you'll be noticing".
Another newspaper story said Eliason was Taranaki's best forward and "he made strenuous efforts to get into the loose play". It went on to say he won more ball than any other player but had fine support from four others, including Alan Smith (uncle of All Black Conrad Smith).
But despite Eliason's best efforts Taranaki were beaten 21-6, by a team that "were too good".
Back then a try was worth only three points.
"France were always exciting to play because they liked to move it in the backs and move the ball around . . . and were talented players."
There was a buzz in town before the game, he says.
"We used to have a parade down the main street before internationals, with a lot of floats. Everyone got into the mood of things. And Ferdie was a big thing then. He led the teams out, prancing around."
There was no NPC in the 1960s. The provincial unions used to get together and arrange 12 or 14 games a season. Eliason played 223 games for the province, a record that is unlikely to be broken.
Rugby has been his life, he says. And he has had his nickname, Legs, for a long time.
He thinks his Kaponga coach Wally Dudley, came up with it when he was a youngster and it stuck.
"I was a tall, long-legged, skinny bugger in those days."
Eliason played 19 games for the All Blacks and went away on tour to Britain, Ireland and France in 1972-73.
"We played 35 games and were away four months. We got 50p a day, [PndStlg]5 a week, but I mean everything was paid for. I've got no problems with what the players get now; the only thing is it's costing the unions a lot of money. Things get quite tight at times. But I've got no qualms about it at all."
He was a "dirt-tracker" and didn't play any tests, he says.
While Eliason has some mementoes of his game against France he didn't get to swap his amber and black jersey for a blue one.
"The union wouldn't let you. They were expensive in those days, so you couldn't do that."
But the team of 1984 didn't get the memo. Not only did they swap jerseys, but socks and shorts as well.
"It caused quite a stink," Lindsay Thomson, who played lock against France in 1984, says.
But it was one of the highlights of the game for Thomson.
"The French were keen to swap. They wore tour numbers in provincial games, they only used test jerseys with correct numbers in the tests. I marked Jean Condom and he wore seven on tour, so that's the jersey I got."
The Taranaki Union was not happy, so rugby stalwart Ken Maharey got the business he worked for to pay for the jerseys, Thomson says.
He kept the blue jersey, but this week was unable to find it. He mowed the lawns in it a couple of months ago, he says. Despite turning his house upside down, the jersey's whereabouts is a mystery.
June 2, 1984, was the Saturday of Queen's Birthday Weekend and about 15,000 turned out to watch France win 30-18.
But Thomson, 50, who played 104 games for Taranaki and is now the union's chairman, says his team won the second half 12-10.
"They scored a couple of long- range tries and that put us on the back foot. We were very fortunate to have Kieran Crowley at the back and he kicked six penalty goals and kept us in the game. In the second half we took it to France in that we tried to speed the game up with short lineouts and quick throw-ins."
To go down only 30-18 was really good, because Taranaki were in the second division then, Thomson says.
Charlie McAlister, father of former All Black Luke, played second five-eighth.
He was a very powerful runner with the ball in hand and the French were very impressed with him, Thomson says.
"And I also remember they were very impressed with the man who was propping in front of me . . . Ross Elms and commented what a strong scrummager he was."
He thinks that game may have been 18-year-old halfback Alan Crowley's debut. "It would have been a big game for him."
Taranaki's usual halfback and captain, former All Black Dave Loveridge, was injured.
Also playing for Taranaki was Colin Cooper, who now coaches Taranaki.
"It was a great game to play in, obviously, because you didn't get too many opportunities to play teams from the northern hemisphere," Thomson says.
Remarkably, it was the first of three top Taranaki games played inside a week. Two days after France, Taranaki took on Wanganui on Queen's Birthday Monday. Thomson doesn't remember the score but for the record Taranaki were flogged 3-20.
Then on the Wednesday he played against La Rochelle, a French 2nd division club side. The Taranaki team, which was made up of New Plymouth club players, won the match. Thomson then turned out for his club the following Saturday - his fourth match in seven days.
Taranaki Daily News