Linwood loose forward Alister Atkinson set a host of records for a Canterbury Kiwi during one of New Zealand rugby league’s greatest eras. He played 24 Test matches, including 23 in succession, and scored 28 tries in 71 games for the Kiwis – all figures unmatched by any other player from the province.
Renowned for his blinding pace, Atkinson was a Canterbury rugby union rep in 1945-46. He switched codes with Linwood in 1948, breaking into the Canterbury team in his first season and the South Island side a year later.
A New Zealand reserve for the 1950 home series against Great Britain, the 26-year-old was chosen to tour Britain and France with the 1951-52 Kiwis after helping Linwood to Massetti Cup success. He made a tryscoring debut for the Kiwis against Workington and played lock in all six Tests versus Great Britain, Wales (against which he scored a try in a 15-3 win), France and British Empire.
Atkinson was moved to the second-row for the 1952 series in Australia to accommodate captain Travers Hardwick, who was unavailable for the previous season’s trip, and was one of the stars of the tour. His tally of 10 tries in nine appearances included a try in the first-Test loss, a double in the Kiwis’ sensational 49-25 victory in the second Test at Lang Park and a hat-trick against Northern NSW/North Coast, while he featured in the 19-9 win in the third Test at the SCG that sealed an unprecedented series triumph.
With Hardwick retired, Atkinson reverted to lock for New Zealand’s home series against Australia in 1953, with the Kiwis again won 2-1. He played all three Tests against the Great Britain tourists in 1954 and in New Zealand’s three matches at the inaugural World Cup in France later that year, as well as three matches against Australia (which were not classified as Tests) in Leigh, Long Beach and Los Angeles following the tournament.
Following the drawn home series against France in 1955, Atkinson made his second tour of Britain and France with the 1955-56 Kiwis. He featured in the opening two matches against Great Britain but his run of 23 consecutive Tests – then a New Zealand record – ended when he missed the dead-rubber at Headingley. Atkinson returned to the Test line-up for the series-opener against France, the 30-year-old’s final appearance in the black-and-white jersey. He finished the tour with 11 tries in 19 non-Test matches.
Atkinson played in seven interisland matches for South Island – a record for a Canterbury player – and also featured in South Island’s tour fixtures against Australia (1949) and Great Britain (1954), and in matches for Canterbury against France (1951 and ’55) and Great Britain (1954).
He remained a prominent figure in the game after retiring. He was a Canterbury selector and served on the Canterbury Rugby League Board of Control from 1968-76 (chairman in 1976), while he managed the New Zealand team during its 1974 Test series against the Great Britain tourists.
Undoubtedly one of Canterbury’s and New Zealand’s all-time greats, Atkinson passed away in Christchurch in 2002, aged 77. He was inducted into the NZRL Legends of League in 2013 – just the fifth Canterbury representative to attain the honour, simultaneously with Jock Butterfield, Mocky Breretoron, Mark Broadhurst and Jimmy Haig.
NEW ZEALAND (1951-56)
24 Tests – 4 tries (12 points)
47 tour matches – 25 tries (75 points)
-1951-52 Kiwis tour of Britain and France
-1952 Kiwis tour of Australia
-1954 World Cup tour
-1955-56 Kiwis tour of Britain and France