Thirty years ago, a group of little-known players took on the might of France in a test at Christchurch, and won.

Andrew Alderson looks back on a team that affectionately became known as the Baby Blacks.

The Backdrop

On June 28, 1986, New Zealand rugby inadvertently eliminated complacency from All Blacks selection indefinitely, a move which set the team on the path to victory at the inaugural World Cup the following year.

Known as the Baby Blacks, the 15 men took the field against Five Nations joint champions France on a sunny afternoon at Christchurch's Lancaster Park. Just four - captain David Kirk, Arthur Stone, Brian McGrattan and John Kirwan - had test experience. The French brimmed with caps.

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New Zealand's chances of victory were rated as minimal, reflected by a tepid 24,000 crowd.

The prospect of an unsanctioned South African tour, after the official 1985 visit had been quashed in the courts, saw the majority of New Zealand's top players join The Cavaliers. They were banned for two tests.

The scenario was a knock-on effect from the country's most divisive rugby experience five years earlier. Robert Muldoon's National government approved the entry of the Springboks, which saw an anti-apartheid movement clash with those who believed politics should stay out of sport. A school of thought claimed the divide-and-rule policy helped National win the general election.

This coincided with football reaching its zenith in New Zealand. The All Whites qualified for their first World Cup, to be held the following year in Spain in 1982.

All Black rugby also had struggles on the field. An experienced contingent opted out of the 1983 tour to England and Scotland. That remains the only Northern Hemisphere tour in which New Zealand failed to win a test.

Adding to the intrigue, the country was beset by a barrage of anti-French sentiment after the Rainbow Warrior had been bombed by French terrorists the previous year at Auckland's Marsden Wharf, killing photographer Fernando Pereira.

The Baby Blacks went about rejuvenating rugby's image in the public eye.

The Build-up

David Kirk

The Rainbow Warrior incident wasn't an issue for the players. It might have been topical around New Zealand, but we had a lot of respect for the French players... and still do. Next to the Australians, the best friends I've made in international rugby come from that French era. We respected them as sportspeople rather than associating them with the policies of a certain government.

Sir Brian Lochore (All Blacks coach)

It wasn't a question of motivation. It was making sure our guys knew their tickers were just as big.

Sean Fitzpatrick (All Blacks hooker)

I recall being a reserve [for Auckland] in Christchurch and when we left the field the Cavaliers ran from the sheds to get to the airport. The trial teams were soon named. I was in the Possibles against Abo [Auckland team-mate Iain Abercrombie] in the Probables at Blenheim. I remember sitting in Wellington airport when the team was announced. I was in the reserves.

From left to right; Eric Champ (France), Gordon McPherson (NZ) , Arthur Stone (No12 - NZ), Kevin Boroevich (NZ), Patice Lagisquet (France), Denis Charvet (France) & Joe Stanley.
From left to right; Eric Champ (France), Gordon McPherson (NZ) , Arthur Stone (No12 - NZ), Kevin Boroevich (NZ), Patice Lagisquet (France), Denis Charvet (France) & Joe Stanley.

Brett Harvey (All Blacks flanker)

There was a lot of media hype and I initially thought we were on a hiding to nothing. No one expected us to win. We were all practically new and it was nerve-wracking.

Lochore

Take Brett Harvey. He was thrust in miles ahead of where he'd ever been. He was a real country boy, a tough bugger. That's just what we needed, a man of few words but plenty of action.

Harvey

When I arrived, my confidence wasn't up. But by Friday we all believed we were going to win. A lot of that was down to BJ [Lochore]. There was never any talk about just surviving.

Lochore

It was an incredible few days and a hell of a shock we couldn't pick frontline All Blacks. Many of the guys who went to that test had never seen one another before. We almost needed name tags.

Fitzpatrick

Few of us really knew each other. I was rooming with [fellow reserve] Joe Leota and we introduced ourselves. Then we caught up with Andy Earl at breakfast. Joe introduced me to Andy and said, 'oh, what was your name again, mate?'

Lochore

We arrived in Christchurch on Wednesday night which tended to be the rule in those days. We had our first training on the Thursday and I came away thinking, 'boy, we've got a problem'. Everyone was trying so hard but the young players were miles off the pace mentally. The lack of understanding meant there was a lack of flow, but I couldn't push them too hard with the game less than three days away. I did a lot of individual stuff with players, talked to them quietly during practice. We needed a simple pattern and tactics.

Harvey

Andy Earl and I got to the first team talk early. The team had a dress code of black shoes etc but we didn't have anything. Hardly anyone even had a black blazer. Most of us wore provincial or emerging player blazers. Andy said, 'if they want us to wear black shoes, they can buy us some'. We walked in, but at least I'd shined my brown ones. Andy's looked like they hadn't seen polish for at least a couple of months. BJ looked over the front desk and frowned at us. I thought, 'that's not a good start'.

Lochore

The second training was much better. Most of the guys had calmed down. I could talk them through what we needed to achieve. The final run went well on Friday. Getting on the bus afterwards, it was noticeable they had started to weld together. Suddenly I thought, 'this is not a lost cause'.

Fitzpatrick

[First-choice hooker] Bruce [Hemara] popped a rib scrummaging. I remember going into the physio room and he had these needles stuck in all over his chest and I thought, 'Christ, you don't look too good'. Then, blow me down, I was in my bedroom when BJ came in and said, 'you're starting on Saturday'. In those days you couldn't buy a replica jersey, and I went to get my first one from BJ's room. I walked in and saw what looked like the full 21 lying on the bed. My only reaction was, 'wow'.

The Match

Kirk

I had at least been in the All Blacks, so was familiar with the environment and had captained Auckland for a couple of years. But that team talk was a specific situation with so many debuts. We didn't treat ourselves as a second-string team. We were the guys putting the jerseys on. It was our job to keep up a proud history.

Fitzpatrick

I remember standing in the changing room with the door slightly open. We were in a circle - we didn't man-hug in those days - listening to Kirky motivate us. I remember turning around and seeing the French stride past. There was Daniel Dubroca [the French captain and Fitzpatrick's opponent], Eric Champ, Philippe Sella and then [reserve] Laurent Rodriguez. We made eye contact and I was like, 'Oh. My. God'.

Philippe Sella (France centre)

It felt strange to be playing such a different All Blacks team after the 1984 New Zealand tour [France lost 2-0]. We soon discovered there was no such thing as a Baby Blacks. It is always the All Blacks in front of you. Everyone told us it'd be easy for France to win because of the difference in experience but, if ever there was a case for it being 'on paper', it was there.

Kirk

People felt it was going to be a tall order, given the French were Five Nations champions. They had a big forward pack and were strong at the set piece, particularly the scrum. We knew we'd have to play a fast-paced game, be adaptable and keep the ball moving rather than get caught in forward exchanges.

Fitzpatrick

The first scrum we got absolutely hammered. It was like going through a washing machine for Grats [Brian McGrattan], Boro [Kevin Boroevich] and I. But good, old Boro. Every time he said, 'right, get up, and let's keep getting up'. We were getting turned and spat out, but we survived.

Sella

It was difficult for them in the scrum but they had the better of us with their passing, carrying and kicking. Our forwards played well, but it wasn't the best of memories for our backline.

Harvey

When we got ahead, you sensed they thought, 'what's happening here?' because we kept defending so strongly. I knew what they meant about test rugby going quickly, though. I'd barely blinked and it was halftime.

Kirk

Mike Brewer's try was probably the key in terms of points on the board, and opening up a reasonable gap. It was a bit opportunistic and didn't come from a long build-up, but we had to take every chance. Greg Cooper also dropped a great goal from a tap penalty early.

Sella

We saw the sort of team we always see in New Zealand. They were involved, aggressive and struck a good balance between passing and kicking. We probably kicked too much, which didn't showcase our flair. I don't know why, but it was frustrating. A leader like David Kirk was a good man for his team-mates, Frano Botica played well, whether it was kicking drop goals or feeding Arthur Stone and Joe Stanley, and John Kirwan had a few good runs.

Historic Sport - Rugby All Blacks versus France, in Christchurch, New Zealand From left to right; Frano Botica (NZ), Philippe Sella (France), Arthur Stone (NZ), Eric Champ (France).
Historic Sport - Rugby All Blacks versus France, in Christchurch, New Zealand From left to right; Frano Botica (NZ), Philippe Sella (France), Arthur Stone (NZ), Eric Champ (France).

The Aftermath

Lochore

Looking back, it was probably a watershed. Many of those players would've made it eventually, but they got an opportunity to have a crack at a younger age and many became great All Blacks over a period of time.

Kirk

A number of the Cavaliers were at the end of their careers so the chance to play South Africa was understandable, but others were no longer assured of their All Black careers. There was a degree of unhappiness or sense of unfairness about that in certain quarters that they weren't getting the breaks they deserved. That's an understandable emotional response but they had to fight their way back. My logic was that it was a rebel team, not an All Blacks team, and they were supporting a rotting regime. All the talk of money was a negative for me, too. I had a whole career in front of me, and I was going to build on it after rugby, so money wasn't a motivator.

Lochore

It was daunting, but satisfying afterwards. I was exhausted at the end, despite not having played. It was a lot of mental pressure talking to each of them and giving them the confidence to play at that level.

Harvey

BJ never raised his voice or said a lot, but when he did, everyone shut up and listened. It was generally just common sense but it instilled confidence.

Fitzpatrick

Brian Lochore's ability to give us that confidence was phenomenal.

Lochore

The preparations were exceptional on the Friday and Saturday morning, especially the mental side of things, so I wasn't surprised they played to that level.

Fitzpatrick

Most of us played together again against Australia at Athletic Park, which we lost 13-12. I went to Mum and Dad's the following morning where the team for the second test in Dunedin was announced. The guy came on the radio and said, 'there are eight changes to the All Blacks'. I thought, 'that's good, I've still got a chance'. Then he said, 'the entire forward pack has been replaced'. I managed to stay in the reserves but thought, 'man, I'm lucky to be here'.

Sella

They had a lot of good young players. A year later many of them would be world champions... against us again.

Where Are They Now?

Sir Brian Lochore lives in the Wairarapa and coached the All Blacks to victory at the inaugural World Cup the following year.

David Kirk lives in Sydney and led the All Blacks to their 1987 World Cup win. The former Rhodes scholar and policy advisor to the Prime Minister is a qualified medical doctor, but is better known as a leader in the business community.

Sean Fitzpatrick lives in the UK and recently became chairman of the Laureus Sports Foundation. He earned 92 All Black test caps and led the side to their first series win in South Africa.

Brett Harvey lives in the Wairarapa and has a knack for training dogs. A knee injury meant the test against France was his sole cap.

Philippe Sella is director of rugby and development at the Agen club and earned 111 caps for France. He played the All Blacks in 10 tests, winning three.

Fulltime: New Zealand 18 France 9
Halftime: New Zealand 12 France 6
Crowd: 24,000
Conditions: Fine weather and a firm surface
Referee: Fred Howard (England)