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A beer with an All Black: Tiny Hill

Club Rugby | 04 June 2015 | Adam Julian

A beer with an All Black: Tiny Hill

"Don't be bloody stupid," barked Pat Rhind when Tiny Hill hinted at moving to Australia.

It's 1948 and Hill has just finished a tenure with J Force in Japan. He is restless and in need of a greater challenge than Taranaki.

"I didn't want to go home", Hill recalls.

"I wanted to go to Australia and serve over there. I was transferred to the Godley Head Army base and that's how I ended up in Canterbury", he says.

Hill is the last All Black standing from the fourth test in 1956. He is a life member of the Canterbury Rugby Union and a recipient of the Steinlager Salver for outstanding service to rugby.

Hill concedes he initially hated 'red and black' country.

"I was dispatched to the middle of nowhere. The only thing to do was to shoot rabbits."

Hill grew up in the rural township of Okato, 30 minutes drive from New Plymouth. He wasn't exactly spoilt for choice there either.

"It was a quiet place, a small village," Hill recalls.

"Dad was a farmer and we all helped out. I went to the local primary and intermediate school, but if you wanted a secondary education you were sent to New Plymouth Boys' High. We couldn't afford that so I am uneducated."

Tiny's earliest forays into senior rugby were equally naive, Hill explains:

"Most of us were farmers with families so the only time we could get together and practice was at 11:30pm. We trained under lights until 1am, jumped in the pool to wash, as there were no showers, had a beer and went home. We didn't take it too seriously."

Hill learned to take himself more seriously when he narrowly averted a diplomatic crisis in the Army. Hill and some mates decided to have some fun in a submarine the Australian Navy was testing nearby.

"We decided to take it out one night and nearly drowned the bloody thing. Horrible, cramped machines they are. I don't know how anyone could live in them. The sergeant found out and went berserk."

Hill debuted for Canterbury in 1951. In 1953 his restless energy helped Canterbury demolish Wellington, 24-3 and win the Ranfurly Shield.

The Wellington side was stacked, featuring five All Blacks: Ron Jarden, Jim Fitzgerald, Vince Bevan, Bill Clark, and Colin Loader. Loader felt the brunt of Hill's force.

"I tackled Loader and temporarily paralysed my back. The next day we caught a ferry to go on tour and people were patting me on the back and congratulating me, it bloody hurt, but I felt a lot better than Loader."

Canterbury defended the Log O' Wood 23 times until 1956, when Wellington took it back off them. Bob Duff and Pat Vincent who shared captaincy duties in the 1956 Springboks series were also provincial captains. Hill recalls their influence was huge.

"Pat and Bob were great, big, strong blokes who the rest of the team looked up to. They were softly spoken, but when they talked you listened."

Hill admits defending the Shield was "hard yakka." In 1954 he played his most famous hand in Canterbury's success. Hill recalls his meteoric final run against Otago.

"Time was nearly up when Otago kicked the ball out. We were down 9-6 so I took a quick throw and knew Otago was expecting me to have a go. I charged forward and all of their defenders approached me. I got to ground, released quickly and we outflanked them."

Derek Mayo scored the match-levelling, and thus shield-saving try, and for the second time the crowd of over 50,000 invaded the pitch, which prevented the conversion from being taken. Otago claimed the game went seven minutes overtime. Hill laughs:

"Allan Elsom went out by himself after the crowd had left and took the conversion. He kicked it down the middle meaning we won 11-9."

Elsom was an All Black wing who broke his neck. He was told by a doctor a year before his test debut in 1952, "All I can promise you is that you won't die."

Hill might have been in trouble had he revealed his identity to two hitchhikers he picked up after the game.

"I picked up these two young women who were Otago supporters. They were looking to get home. They didn't know who I was until we arrived at their destination. I extended my hand and said 'nice to meet you, my name’s Tiny Hill.'"

Hill started to make a name for himself with the All Black selectors. He earned successive trials from 1953 to 1955 and even floored the redoubtable prop Kevin Skinner in one trial.

"Skinner was tugging at me in the line-outs so I warned him to 'stop that bloody crap.' He punched me on the chin, so I whacked him one back and it was a real beauty. He was none too pleased, but we became good friends after that", Hill recalls.

After a "bloody terrible" debut against Australia in 1955 (a test so bad that Hill told captain Bob Duff, "if that's All Black rugby you can stick it") Tiny found himself acting as a makeshift Skinner in the furnace of the first test against the Springboks in Dunedin in 1956.

Hill started at No.8, but explains the reasons why he moved to prop in the second-half.

"Jaap Bekker tore into Mark Irwin and broke his ribs. There were no replacements in those days so I knew they would ask one of the loose forwards to bolster the scrum. I headed towards Morrie Dixon on the wing and tried to hide in the crowd.

"Dixon told Pat Vincent (captain) 'he's over here.' I could have killed Dixon for that. I had never played prop before. I said to Duff, ‘you’ve got to be bloody joking, that's the last place I want to be.’”

A late intercept try to Ron Jarden and an earlier score by the other Tiny in the team (lock Richard White) ensured the All Blacks weathered the storm, winning 10-6.

Hill was surprisingly dropped for the second test in Wellington, despite playing in Canterbury's 9-6 victory over the tourists. Hill believes his retaliation to an assault by prop Chris Koch was the reason he was discarded. Hill decided to settle things in the lineout.

"I said to Bob Duff to move up to No 2 and he said, 'What are you on about?’ I said, ‘just do it’, and when the ball went in I turned to Chris Koch and, whack, whack, I let him have a few.

"The South Africans immediately started yelling. But not Koch. He was on the ground."

The All Blacks were on the ground in Wellington. They were bulled and beaten. As a result, Don Clarke made his All Black debut in the Christchurch test, with Hill, Kevin Skinner and Peter Jones being recalled.

Skipper Vincent was dropped, the first time this had happened to a New Zealand captain in a home series, and was replaced by Ponty Reid, while Bob Duff took over the captaincy.

The Christchurch test was won by the All Blacks 17-10, after the Springboks had recovered from 11-0 to trail by a single point. Jarden scored his last try for New Zealand to stretch the margin before Tiny White made the game safe in the last minute.
Hill recalls the change in tactics by New Zealand.

"We had to stand up to them. Skinner had a point to prove after been done over in 49. He set the tone in the second lineout when he punched Koch. In the second-half, Skinner changed sides in the scrums and gave Bekker a nudge."

The All Blacks rambunctious play would have ramifications in the final test at Eden Park. The Springboks sought retribution and Tiny White's test career was finished when he received a vicious kick in the back during a lineout late in the game.

For 43 years the guilty culprit remained unidentified, but Hill insists he knew all along it was Bekker who delivered the kick.

"We all knew, we warned each other not to stay on the ground for too long otherwise we were all a target," Hill laments.

In front of 61,240 spectators, still the largest crowd to attend a rugby match in New Zealand, the All Blacks won 11-5.

Peter Jones scored his famous try and buggered the national broadcasting system, while Don Clarke added another eight points. Hill recalls Jones’ try.

"It was bloody marvellous. I reckon the Springboks were frightened of Peter. He was as strong as an ox and a top bloke as well."

Hill was feared so much he resorted to wearing shoulder pads, not to protect himself, but to limit the damage he caused the opposition and his teammates at training.

"I have a long bone in the shoulder that points out," Hill says.

"I used to drive a wedge into players I tackled and my team mates would moan and grizzle about being hurt all the time, so Allan Elsom brought these rubber pads along and I wore them for the rest of my career."

The peak of Hill's All Black career was in 1957. He was selected as vice-captain for the Australian tour and captained them twice, against Western New South Wales and Queensland. He even kicked a conversion in the in the 51-3 win over South Australia in Adelaide.

"I had to wait until we scored under the posts and then I said 'I'll take this'. They reckon the dirt I kicked off the ground went further than the ball."

Hill was also in charge of off-field discipline.

"My job was to make sure none of the young fellas were shagging around."

Wilson Whineary and Colin Meads made their test debuts in the series.

Hill was also a mentor to Kel Tremain. The 1959 British Lions only lost five times in 25 matches. Hill played in four of those games and Tremain in three.

Together they formed a formidable loose forward duo. Tremain scored two tries for Canterbury when they tamed the Lions, 20-14 in Christchurch, but he didn't always outshine Hill.

In 1960 while playing for Auckland against Canterbury, Tremain copped it from Hill.

Tremain was tugging at Hill in the lineouts and Hill warned him to stop. Tremain quipped 'What are you going to do about it granddad?' Tremain's game ended on a stretcher.

Hill played 11 tests for the All Black and rates Lions lock Rhys Williams as the toughest opponent he faced. Williams was a Welsh army man, and he and Hill became great friends, often exchanging letters.

Hill also regarded Springboks loose forwards Daan Retief and Dawie Ackerman highly. In 1956, Hill was captain of the New Zealand Maoris who were embarrassed 37-0 by the Springboks in front of 59,000 people at Eden Park. The Maori backline featured four All Blacks.

Fullback Muru Walters later claimed his side was told to throw the game ‘for the future of rugby.’ Maori Affairs Minister Ernest Corbett strangely entered the dressing rooms moments before kick-off.

Hill refutes the claim the game was deliberately thrown, but concedes the entire build-up was a "shambles."

"We played the wrong tactics. We didn't establish any edge up front and that made it easy for Retief and Ackerman, who were great players, to knock over our backs."

"During the week we didn't train and we spent a day with the Maori King. I didn't even know we had a bloody king."

In 1967, Hill spent nine months in Vietnam as BSM of the New Zealand battery at Nui Dat. He was a mentor to young troops and a front man for visiting MPs and journalists. Hill concedes Vietnam was another shambles.

"It was like Iraq today, you could see the trouble coming. The Americans had no bloody idea."
Hill has plenty of good ideas about rugby. He spent three years in San Francisco helping establish the sport in America and between 1975 and 1979 was a Canterbury selector.

Hill famously vouched to retain Alex Wyllie as captain and helped Canterbury win 78 out of 105 matches, including the 1977 National provincial championship and international fixtures, against Tonga and Ireland.

Between 1981 and 1986 he was an All Black selector. He laughs, "It was easy once you learned not to listen to anybody."

Hill's army life, which lasted 30 years, was anything but easy. In 1975 he nearly died while working on a base in Waiouru.

He was a passenger in a Land Rover that flipped onto its roof. Hill had to remove a sharp piece of glass that sliced into his neck and staggered 10 miles back to camp.

Hill was forced to wear a steel brace for months and recalls that, "I shrunk from 6ft 3 inches to 6ft."

That was nothing compared with training teenage cadets. Hill recalls an amusing story about a waitress the boys took a shine to.

"There was this young waitress in the kitchen who the boys were keen on. One day she was accidently bumped and - struth - 17 condoms fell out of her pocket. She faced a disciplinary hearing and claimed they were for her cut thumb. She got away without a reprimand."

Hill is a bee-keeper who has survived six serious stings to his face. In 2002 he had both knees replaced. He attributes much of his longevity to his late wife of 62 years, Marge.

"I never liked women, I kept well clear of the buggers. I promised my aunty in Taranaki I would never marry, but she told me I would be married within a year. I didn't believe her."
"A while later I was introduced to Marge at the Burnham military barracks. It was a wet and dark night and out of the light emerged this beautiful creature. She was a chef at the base. One day she told me she was going to work at the Intercontinental Hotel in Rotorua. I got down on one knee and she said, “yes."

Did You Know?

Tiny Hill has two sons who played basketball for New Zealand, Stan and John. Stan stood 6ft9 inches and turned down the chance to play in the NBA and for the All Blacks. Tiny recalls All Black coach Jack Glesson phoned him in the seventies wondering if Stan would be interested in playing rugby. Stan played lock for Ponsonby with Andy Haden. He also played for New Zealand in their first basketball victory over Australia, in 1978.

Hill donated his All Black test jerseys to charity. His nickname was given to him in the Army.

Photo credit:

Stanley Frank (Tiny) Hill, All Black and New Zealand Maori Rugby Union Football team member. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1956/1805-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22905387

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