Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby League: Reliving record run over Australia

A feisty Coaster was at the heart of the history-making 1950s Kiwis, writes Michael Burgess

Former Kiwis great Frank Mulcare looks puzzled.

The 87-year-old watches on as photographic and video gear is set up and notepads laid out in the lounge at his farm with its sprawling views of the Hikurangi valley, one hour north of Whangarei. Mulcare voices his thoughts. "It strikes me as quite intriguing that two newspaper fellows would travel all this way to listen to some octogenarian waffling on.

"Why would you want to talk to an old codger like me?"

Mulcare is one of the few surviving members of the 1952/53 Kiwis team who beat Australia in four consecutive tests, a remarkable feat Stephen Kearney's outfit could equal with a victory next week in Newcastle.

And Mulcare wasn't just any player. He was one of the most influential figures in that streak, a standout forward in a brilliant team.

"Francie was immense in those years," says team-mate Des White. "He was tough, skilful, fast.

He had everything.

"And he was a good fighter, too."

White recalls one 1950s test when, from fullback, he saw Mulcare brawling with an opponent in backplay.

"He said to me, 'Piss off Des - he's mine'. I never saw anyone beat Francie."

Mulcare was the Canterbury police prosecutor for more than a decade, worked as head of security for a Northland firm that sent container loads of bank notes across the globe in the 1980s and is still running beef cattle on his farm at an age when most have slowed down.

On top of that, he also played against former French resistance fighters and an Australian boxer, celebrated the Kiwis' record 49-25 win in 1952 with a drinking session that lasted almost a day and met his future wife at a Townsville ball on the same tour.

Growing up on the West Coast, Mulcare had a league heritage. His father Jim played for Balmain and is credited with helping introduce the game to New Zealand. Mulcare debuted for the Kiwis on their arduous 40-game tour of Britain and France in 1951.

"It sorted out the men from the boys," says Mulcare, who remembers playing four games in one week. It was also Mulcare's first encounters with the flamboyant and fearsome French, including the infamous Louis Mazon, who had twice escaped from the Gestapo during World War II and was later inducted into the Rugby League Hall of Fame.

"Louis was heavily involved in the resistance and was imprisoned, interrogated [and] suffered severely. And he was the fellow we were playing against."

Prop Mazon was the enforcer in the Gallic side, and team-mates would nominate his targets.

"You would hear, 'première ligne' [front row], 'deuxième ligne' [second row], 'troisième ligne' [back row].

"You were always very attentive to find out what Louis' instructions were because you wanted to protect yourself as much as possible. But it was hard because, once he was given instructions, he thought he was back in the resistance."

Frank Mulcare during his playing days. Photo / File
Frank Mulcare during his playing days. Photo / File

It was a difficult tour - the Kiwis lost all five tests by slim margins.

When discussions move to the 1952 tour of Australia, a smile comes to Mulcare's face.
"It was like being in paradise," he says. "The whole tour was an eye-opener, the people were wonderful. I loved playing with that team and, of course, I met my future wife."

It was one of the best Kiwis teams assembled and many have been inducted into the NZRL's Legends of League, including White, Cyril Eastlake, Tommy Baxter, George Menzies, Jimmy Haig, Travers Hardwick, Lory Blanchard and Mulcare.

"The cream of New Zealand league came together at the same time," says Mulcare.

"There were lots of stars in their own right. Throw them all together and you got magic."
Coach Jim Amos, now recognised as a tactical innovator ahead of his time, was a vital ingredient.

"We had great confidence in him and that was the key to unlocking the abilities," adds Mulcare.

The Kiwis lost a close first test 26-15 at the Sydney Cricket Ground before embarking on an extended trip around Queensland, including a game at the Outback town of Barcaldine, almost 600km inland from the coast.

"On the way to Barcaldine, we made some unscheduled stops at some air strips in the middle of nowhere," says Mulcare. "People had driven a few hours just to see us, shake our hands."

The Kiwis improved with every match and peaked during the last five days of the tour. They destroyed Australia 49-25 in the second test in Brisbane, scoring nine tries. White also kicked 11 goals.

The score - and White's haul - remained a world record until the 1980s, and the Australians were in shock. The Daily Telegraph labelled them "a laughing stock".
Mulcare also got revenge on Albert Paul, a Novacastrian hard man.

"Before the first test, no one knew this fellow Paul was also a skilful and hard boxer," says Mulcare. "You know what little Albert did? The first thing he did was clock our halfback. Bang! Then he hung one on Frankie Mulcare. Bang! If Albert had his way, he would have waded through the whole team, biffing everyone.

"International football wasn't a place for sissies.

"In the second test, it was different. There were still 'bang, bangs' but they came from our side. I hadn't fought as many bouts as Albert but I'd had a few as a boy."
Post-match Kiwis celebrations were prolonged.

"A local publican won a lot of money on us," recalls Roy Moore. "So the beer was flowing freely the next day."

The party was still going - for some of the team - when they boarded their DC-3 bound for Sydney ahead of the decider three days later. It didn't matter. The Kiwis were again superior, with Mulcare crossing for the decisive try to seal the match 19-9.

The Kiwis again prevailed a year later in New Zealand, winning 25-5 in Christchurch and 12-11 in Wellington. And the Kiwis were desperately close to a fifth successive win, leading 16-8 at Carlaw Park before conceding two tries at the death to lose 18-16.

"That was a lingering regret," says Mulcare. "We didn't punch it home like we could have in the third test. I blame myself partly. Maybe my mind was on other things apart from football. I got a message from the girl in Townsville that her and her father would be coming to the game and had I got tickets for them."

Mulcare played 46 games for his country - including 18 tests - but retired before his 27th birthday after a dispute with the NZRL, who refused to sanction a transfer to Australia to take up a club contract.

By 1958, Mulcare had joined the police, becoming the lead prosecutor for Canterbury. He later moved to Northland and became head of security for Bradbury Wilkinson, who produced bank notes for New Zealand and more than 30 countries from Nepal to Botswana. At times they shipped 6m containers full of bank notes.

Life now is more measured. Most mornings he heads over the hill with Boss, his sheepdog, to tend to his herd of beef cattle.

And like much of the country, he'll be watching on Friday, wondering if Kearney's team match his team's record. "I'm proud I was part of that team," says Mulcare.

"I was proud to play with players I had great respect for. There are not many of us left, which makes me sad, but we were a very close-knit team. We were one of the best Kiwis teams there ever was. Up until now, no one has matched our feats."

Who were the History Boys?

Des White
Played 61 games (21 tests) for the Kiwis and set numerous kicking records. Later became Kiwis coach and a radio and television commentator on the sport. Inducted into the New Zealand Sports Hall of Fame.

Cyril Eastlake
Wonderfully evasive and skilful, Eastlake played every backline position for the Kiwis across a long international career (28 tests, 79 matches) that spanned nine years.

Jimmy Edwards
Speedy winger who played all six tests against Australia in 1952 and 1953. Accumulated 42 games (17 tests) for the Kiwis.

Ron McKay
Taranaki utility back who was unstoppable against the Kangaroos, scoring six tries in the famous four wins.

Tommy Baxter
Another of the NZRL's Legends of League, Baxter was a powerful centre who made 94 appearances for his country (29 tests) before his retirement at the age of 26.

George Menzies
Recognised as New Zealand's most travelled sportsman in the 1950s, completing eight overseas tours across the decade. The talented West Coaster coached the Kiwis in 1974 and 1975.

Jimmy Haig
Faced the Wallabies twice for the All Blacks in 1946 before switching to league in 1947. Recognised as one of the great Kiwis halfbacks. Brother Lawrence played 29 matches for the All Blacks.

Travers Hardwick
Described by White as "a great player, a great captain and a gentleman". Coached the Kiwis in the 1960s and later ran a menswear store in Tokoroa.

Alister Atkinson
Lock forward who was the fastest member of the team and earned cash as a professional sprinter in summer shows. Played 24 consecutive tests between 1951 and 1956.

Frank Mulcare
One of the best Kiwis forwards of his generation. Later worked as police prosecutor in Christchurch and is still running a Northland farm.

Bill McClennan
West Coast miner who was the biggest man on the team (1.85m, 101kg). Turned out 84 times for his country, including 28 tests.

George Davidson
Renowned as one of the fastest hookers in his day, Davidson played all six tests against Australia in 1952 and 1953. Was also a talented opening batsman for Parnell.

Lory Blanchard
Skilful front rower who made 63 appearances (16 tests) for the Kiwis. Long spell as Kiwis coach, including the 'Grand Slam' team of 1971.

Bevan Hough
Lightning fast winger who won Kiwis selection in his first season of senior league. Also won a long jump silver medal at the 1950 Empire Games and held the New Zealand record for more than a decade.

Bill Sorensen
An incredibly durable player who at one point played 19 consecutive matches on a tour to Britain. Uncle of 1980s legends Dane and Kurt and later coached Auckland with considerable success.

John Bond
Tough Canterbury forward whose club career spanned 22 years. Famously kicked a sideline penalty in his test debut.

Bob Neilson
Another redoubtable West Coast forward who could also play wing or fullback. His try clinched the 1953 series.

Others to play at least one test in 1952/53.
Cyril Paskell, Vern Bakalich, Bill McKenzie.

- NZ Herald

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