League: Battle of attrition

By Peter Jessup

The Kiwis will face an improving French rugby league team in Paris on Sunday due mainly to the exposure their players have had in the English Super League but 'Les Chanticleer' are a far cry from their glory days.

It was France that donated the Rugby League World Cup and they made the first final in 1954, losing 16-12 to Great Britain.

That French team beat the Kangaroos in a three test series in Australia before one game against the Kiwis at Carlaw Park in Auckland in 1951.

That match went down in history.

At 10 minutes the Kiwis halfback Jimmy Haig was head-butted and went straight to Hospital with a depressed fracture of the cheekbone. Later five-eighth George Menzies was taken out by an illegal tackle, suffering a broken jaw.

There were no replacements allowed in those days and it was an accepted tactic that you targeted the opposition's play-maker and the goal-kicker.

But despite being down in numbers, the Kiwis kept the scoreline close.

At 63 minutes, the referee Jim Griffin marched the French hooker Martin Martin who he believed had thrown mud in his face. In fact, it was another player.

Martin stood his ground. The French captain Puig-Albert argued with Griffin. The game halted for 10 minutes, a melee breaking out, the NZRL president Jack Redwood on the field in suit and greatcoat as a peacemaker, the French trainer eventually head-locking Martin and dragging him off the field.

The Kiwis fullback was 21-year-old Des White.

"I saw the head-butt and I saw Jimmy's cheekbone drop level with his mouth, then the injury to George. The crowd was incensed, I've never seen an angrier crowd," recalls White. "After Martin went off the French were lined up and they were letting fly at us with bad language although we didn't know what they were saying and we were lined up calling them some very choice names. Then an apple was thrown out of the crowd and it hit this French fella direct on the head, the crowd were wild."

The stoppage took 10 minutes. In the last minute, the Kiwis were trailing 14-15 when a kick was put through to the French line and chasers were held back. White stepped up to goal, Puig-Albert handing him the ball with the words 'I don't think you can kick this.' But he did and New Zealand won 16-15.

Puig-Albert was a unique character who chain-smoked, keeping his cigarettes behind the dead-ball line and lighting up mid-match at times. He was short, plump and a lazy trainer who refused to tackle, declaring that if the opposition broke through it was the forwards' fault and not his job to stop them.

White remembers Puig-Albert sitting down next to the French posts mid-game.

He also remembers the fullback's fabulous kicking ability, both the long punt and swerving goal-kicks. "He would plant the ball then wave and talk to the crowd. He had a long run-in and he hit the ball straight on the toe as I did. I never saw anybody who could kick it so far with a size five boot."

The next year he toured Great Britain and France with the test team, playing 33 games on a 40-game tour that took seven months.

White has great memories of the trip, though admits he was "sick of football" by the time the tour was done.

He was left behind at Villeneuve. Told there was a delay with the team bus, he returned to his hotel room and rested. Some hours later, not having been called, he went to the lobby to find the team had departed for Bordeaux. "No one spoke any English, it was quite worrying for a young fella. Eventually I got a taxi, the driver couldn't speak English. We were headed to Bordeaux when I saw the bus coming back the other way, after half an hour they'd realised they didn't have their fullback."

In Paris, it was Haig who was left behind. The team bus was packed with French officials and in the crowd, no one noticed that Haig was not on board.

He couldn't find a taxi and had to board a public bus.

When he arrived at the ground he was at first denied admittance because he didn't have a ticket. Haig got to the Kiwis dressing room 15 minutes before kick-off and in the middle of the warm-up.

A fitter and turner, he could earn £8 a week. The Kiwis pay was £6 for married men of which they got £2 and four were given to the wife, single men got £4. Haig's Ponsonby club held raffles to raise money for the four tourists in their ranks and donated £20. After tour costs were paid, players got a bonus according to number of matches and number of tests played. White's was £125, the highest because of his game totals.

White has watched the 2007 Kiwis tour with disappointment and is hoping for some salve this weekend. "We have the better side, we would be at a shocking level if we can't beat them."

White thought the Kiwis played solidly in their final game against Great Britain and has some sympathy for coach Gary Kemble, especially over the NZRL's requirement he win 75 per cent of games.

"That's ridiculous, we've never won 75 per cent against Australia or Great Britain, so that's the end of him is it?"

All up, the countries have met 51 times with the Kiwis winning 32 and losing 14, five games drawn.

The last loss was 5-6 at Perpignan in 1980. Last draw was in 1995, 16-all at Palmerston North. In 2004 the Kiwis won 24-20 at Carcassonne and in 2005 it was 38-22 at Toulouse.

A 16-point gap is what pundits expect on Sunday. Anything less would give more weight to the calls for Kemble to go. A loss, and he's definitely gone.

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