Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

When the Kangaroos couldn't win a trick

The Kiwis are chasing a scarcely-believable fourth successive victory over the Kangaroos in next week’s Anzac test. But they aren’t the first Kiwis team to achieve the feat, writes Michael Burgess.

Any win over the Kangaroos is cherished. Between 1972 and 1983, Australia won 14 consecutive games. There have also been lean periods in the 1990s and 2000s - and since the mid 1950s, only once have New Zealand managed back-to-back victories over the Kangaroos (1997/98) - but next week in Newcastle the Kiwis will target a fourth-straight victory.

It will be a remarkable achievement if they are successful, and cement their No 1 ranking in the world, but it won't be unique.

In 1952 and 53, a bunch of engineers, printers, butchers, miners, farmers, freezing workers and a publican established a record that has stood for more than six decades.

They beat Australia in four consecutive games, two across the Tasman and two the following year in New Zealand. There had been little to believe it would happen, given they had lost all five tests in 1951 on an arduous tour of Britain and France.

But something clicked.

"A lot of great talent came together at the same time," remembers 87-year-old Frank Mulcare, an outstanding back-rower in that side. "There were a lot of stars in their own right. Throw them all together, and you got magic."

It was 1952. Queen Elizabeth II has just ascended to the throne, following the death of her father (King George VI) and Sidney Holland was commencing his third year as Prime Minister. John Walker, Jenny Shipley and Tim Finn were born and New Zealand won three medals at the Olympic Games, highlighted by Yvette Williams' long jump gold. And one of the best teams in the history of New Zealand league was about to come together.

The 24-man squad for the 1952 tour of Australia was drawn from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Taranaki and the West Coast. They were ordinary guys with unpretentious ambitions.

"It was all amateur football back then," recalls Roy Moore. "If you wanted to get somewhere, you had to put your foot down and go for it. You had to be brave."

The core of the team had been on an arduous tour to Britain and France a year earlier, when they played 40 matches, including three in consecutive days in France.

The team lost all five test matches (by narrow margins) and were down to 17 fit players (from a squad of 26) in the latter stages of the trip. But they formed a special bond.

"That trip had a huge impact as far as I was concerned," says Mulcare. "It helped to make us into a team."

The Kiwis landed in Sydney on May 25, 1952, after an eight-hour journey by flying boat. After four build-up matches, the Kiwis lost the first test 25-13 in front of 60,000 at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

"We played crap, very poorly," was Mulcare's succinct assessment. "It wasn't good."

But they were quick to regroup. They headed north for a series of games around Queensland, playing in Brisbane, Townsville, Toowoomba, Rockhampton and in the outback town of Barcaldine (population 2500).

"People had driven for hundreds of miles just to see us," recalls Alan Riechelmann. "There were kangaroos on the main street and they used stock men to clear the runway of crows so our plane could take off."

The Kiwis' improbable streak began with an inconceivable scoreline, the 49-25 triumph in the second test at Brisbane when they piled on 30 points in the last 30 minutes. It was astonishing stuff. The Kiwis scored nine tries and Des White kicked a world record 11 goals.

Coach Jim Amos had come up with special tactics to limit the effectiveness of Australian captain Clive Churchill - then recognised as the best player in the world - and they worked beautifully.

"He was cancelled out and that seemed to affect the whole team," says Mulcare. "We had a great day."

Just four days later the Kiwis lined up for the decider at the SCG, clinching the series with a 19-9 victory. White was a hero - kicking five from five despite a badly bruised heel and vision problems caused by two black eyes - and fellow backs Tommy Baxter and Cyril Eastlake also carried injuries through the match, with no replacements allowed.

"We have team spirit second to none in this side," said captain Travers Hardwick after the match. "Our boys played some amazing football."

When the two teams renewed their rivalry in New Zealand a year later the Kangaroos were well placed, with the heavier conditions expected to suit the bigger Australian pack.

"It was a tough forward battle," says Mulcare. "The Aussies were not as fast as us but a lot bigger."

But the Kiwis had unbreakable spirit. Now captained by former All Black Jimmy Haig following Hardwick's retirement, men like Baxter, Ron McKay, White, Mulcare and Alister Atkinson were again to the fore.

Several Kiwis turned out for West Coast against Australia three days before the first test ("players are a little bit coddled these days," laughs Mulcare) before the first test in Christchurch.

The home side enjoyed a comprehensive 25-5 win, scoring five tries to one. Taranaki centre McKay crossed for his fifth try in three matches against the Kangaroos and debutant prop John Bond thrilled the crowd at Addington Showgrounds with an unlikely goal from the sideline.

The series was clinched at the Basin Reserve.

"Australia knew it was make or break," says Mulcare. "It was a hard grind. I was physically run out by the end of the game. I had nothing left."

A lot of his teammates were in a similar position, but they had done enough, recording a 12-11 victory (sealed by a try to West Coast second-rower Bob Neilson) to achieve their second successive series victory over the Australians.

"We were extremely proud of that record and we still are," says Mulcare. "Up until now, it's the best."

- NZ Herald

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