FLASHBACK FRIDAY: HORNBY-HEAVY FRONT-ROW POWERS KIWIS TO TEST TRIUMPH
As New Zealand prepares for its massive Representative Round Test against Mate Ma’a Tonga in Auckland, Flashback Friday recalls one of the Kiwis’ greatest – and a heavily Hornby-influenced – mid-season victories.
The Kiwis approached the 1987 season in a state of flux. Graham Lowe’s influential reign as national coach, which included two groundbreaking victories over Australia, controversially ended after a 3-0 series whitewash at the hands of the green-and-golds and a shock Test defeat in Papua New Guinea.
Australia solidified its standing as world rugby league’s powerhouse with a second straight undefeated Kangaroo Tour at the end of 1986.
Consequently, New Zealand – with Rotorua-based Tony ‘Tank’ Gordon the new coach – was given little hope of competing in a one-off Test in Brisbane in July of ’87. Legendary forward and incumbent captain Mark Graham quit in protest of the NZRL’s treatment of Lowe (though he would return to the Kiwis in 1988).
The Kiwis embarked on a short tour of Australia and Papua New Guinea in the lead-up to the Lang Park Test. They defeated Northern Rivers 44-16 in Lismore (with Wellington fullback and current Canterbury Rugby League Capability Manager George Lajpold making his New Zealand debut) and edged a Wally Lewis-led Queensland side that also featured Origin stars Allan Langer, Greg Dowling, Bryan Niebling and Greg Conescu 22-16.
The tourists then exacted some revenge with a 36-22 victory over Papua New Guinea.
The New Zealand forward pack in the Port Moresby Test featured four Cantabrians. Hornby prop Ross Taylor, whose initial tour with the Kiwis to Britain in 1985 was cut short by a broken arm, made his Test debut. The front-row was completed by Hornby hooker Wayne Wallace and ex-Linwood forward Brent Todd, who was in his first season at Canberra. Adrian Shelford, who toured with the ’85 Kiwis from Hornby before transferring to Upper Hutt in the Wellington competition, lined up in the second-row.
With skipper Hugh McGahan returning for the clash against Australia at lock, Todd was dropped and Shelford moved up to prop – giving the Kiwis a front-row made up entirely of Hornby products.
The match was going to script early, with the mercurial Lewis setting up champion halfback Peter Sterling for the opening try. But the Kiwis struck back when second-rower Sam Stewart picked up a loose ball, pierced the Australian defence and popped a speculative pass for Taylor, who strode 20 metres to score under the posts untouched.
The platform for an international boilover came soon afterwards, courtesy of one of the great Test tries.
A sweeping movement on the New Zealand 30-metre line put Dean Bell into open space. The rugged centre took on Australian fullback Garry Jack and flung an incredible pass over his head for winger Gary Mercer, who evaded opposite Dale Shearer and swan-dived in for the Kiwis’ second.
A second goal to rampaging 19-year-old centre Kevin Iro and five-eighth Shane Cooper’s field goal set up a 13-6 advantage in the underdogs’ favour.
That’s where the scoreboard remained throughout a torrid second half, defending their seven-point lead doggedly until the final whistle signified one of the great Test upsets.
Bell claimed man-of-the-match honours and back-row trio McGahan, Stewart and Mark Horo drew high praise for their performances.
Taylor and Shelford, who outplayed vaunted Australian props Peter Tunks and Dowling, and the wily Wallace, whose slick display also included the only tighthead of the match, were also targets as the plaudits rolled in for the Kiwis.
Wallace and Taylor later played in defending premier Hornby’s grand final loss to Halswell, while Shelford featured as Upper Hutt won the Wellington club title.
Taylor’s role in the Test triumph helped him secured an off-season contract with Hull Kingston Rovers, but the tough freezing worker never represented New Zealand again. Wallace, one of the few 1980s Kiwis stars to not embark on an overseas professional stint during their career, played the last of his 11 Tests in the 1988 World Cup final loss to Australia. Shelford joined Wigan for a decorated stint and had stays with Newcastle, Manly and Wakefield Trinity as well as advancing his New Zealand tally to eight Tests; he tragically died aged just 39 in 2003.
NEW ZEALAND V AUSTRALIA – ONE-OFF TEST, 1987
New Zealand 13 (Ross Taylor, Gary Mercer tries; Kevin Iro 2 goals; Shane Cooper field goal) defeated Australia 6 (Peter Sterling try; Michael O’Connor goal) at Lang Park, Brisbane.
New Zealand: Darrell Williams, Mark Elia, Dean Bell, Kevin Iro, Gary Mercer, Shane Cooper, Clayton Friend, Ross Taylor, Wayne Wallace, Adrian Shelford, Sam Stewart, Mark Horo, Hugh McGahan. Reserves: Gary Freeman, Dean Lonergan. Coach: Tony Gordon.
Australia: Garry Jack, Michael O’Connor, Brett Kenny, Gene Miles, Dale Shearer, Wally Lewis, Peter Sterling, Peter Tunks, Royce Simmons, Greg Dowling, Bryan Niebling, Wayne Pearce, Bob Lindner. Reserves: Brian Johnston, Les Davidson. Coach: Don Furner.