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A chat with Wellington rugby legend Nev MacEwan

Representative Rugby | 10 March 2015 | Adam Julian

A chat with Wellington rugby legend Nev MacEwan

Above: Nev MacEwan holds the Jubilee Cup aloft after captaining his club Athletic to victory in 1965.?

Nev MacEwan had little interest in rugby as a lad. He started his sporting life as a sprinter and swimmer at Nelson College.

In 1951, aged 17, his brother Pat encouraged him to have a go at rugby. Nev trialed for the First XV and ended up in the thirds.

But he didn’t stay in the thirds for long. By the end of the year he had earned his first mention in a newspaper after taking some advice from a local broadcaster. MacEwan explains:

“Alan Patterson was a local radio commentator. He told me I was a very good jumper in the lineouts. He said I should practice jumping, which I did for hours.”

MacEwan shifted to Wellington in 1953 to attend the teachers training college, and in 1954 played the first of his 133 games for the province.

MacEwan was big man for his time, standing 192cm and weighing 105kg. In 1956, his sheer physical presence caught the eye of the All Black selectors. He was selected for the second test of the series against the Springboks, played at Athletic Park, Wellington. It proved to be a very tough introduction to test rugby.

“I played No. 8 and really struggled. The Springboks played like thugs that day. At the first scrum their veteran loosehead, Chris Koch, threw a punch at our tighthead, Frank McAtamney, who was playing his first game for the All Blacks, and this set the tone for a spiteful contest. It was more of a fight than a game of rugby.”

The All Blacks were defeated 3-8 and MacEwan was dropped for the remainder of the series. However, he achieved a lifetime goal of playing alongside the great All Black lock, Tiny White.

“When I was at Nelson College, my friend Doug Campbell, who was a winger in the First XV, used to write to Ron Jarden seeking advice. He told me to do the same thing so I started corresponding with Tiny White, who often replied. Tiny was my hero, a magnificent lock. It was surreal to play a test with him.”

MacEwan believes winger Ron Jarden was the most “skilful” player he has ever seen. He says Jarden had “blinding pace”, a “pinpoint” lineout throw (in those days the wingers threw the ball in), and the ability to score tries from anywhere. Jarden scored an incredible 145 tries in 134 first class games.

MacEwan was nowhere near as prolific. He scored his only two test tries, against Australia in 1957 and 1962. As it was, he played nine of his 20 tests against the Wallabies and recalls that Australia wasn’t the strongest opposition in those days.

“Apart from New South Wales and the Wallabies most Australian teams were fairly mediocre. New Zealand rugby did a lot to help Australia. The NZRFU often paid the bar tab and gave Australia gate-takings for games in New Zealand. The Australians were always characters though. Nicholas Shehadie was a hard-nosed prop who later became Lord Mayor of Sydney.

MacEwan ranks the 1959 British Lions series as the most satisfying experience of his rugby career. He played the first three test matches, but missed the fourth and final fixture in Auckland because of measles.

“The Lions were magnificent tourists. Ronnie Dawson, a hooker, was a superb captain. Roddy Evans and I had great tussles at lock and he became a great friend, finding faith the same year I did. Wingers Peter Jackson and Tony O’Reilly were hilarious. The teams flew to the tests together and Jackson and O’Reilly used to hijack the intercom on the plane and entertain the passengers.”

The All Blacks won the first test in Dunedin, 18-17, with fullback Don Clarke kicking six penalties while the Lions notched up four tries. MacEwan laughs: “The referee, Alan Fleury, wasn’t biased; he was a Dunedin bank manger and only gave the ‘Boot’ ten shots at goal.”

In the second test, Wellington’s Ralph Caulton scored two tries on debut as the All Blacks sneaked home 11-8.

RLM

Stung by newspaper criticism and suggestions that they were “lucky to win”, the All Blacks crushed the Lions 22-8 in the third test at Christchurch to seal the series.

MacEwan fondly recalls: “We were magnificent that day. Caulton scored two again and our forwards really got stuck in. It was the best performance by an All Black team I was involved with.”
The best individual performance MacEwan produced was in the “Hurricane test” against France at Athletic Park in 1961.

The game was nearly called off as southerly gusts exceeded 100mph. TP McLean in his book of the tour, Cock of the Rugby Roost, captured MacEwan’s fine form:

“At the lineout, MacEwan with a gigantic leap proclaimed that he was, as he was to remain, the principal person in the contests for the ball…the new MacEwan, so much more vitally concentrated in energy than the man who lost his place in the North Island team earlier in the season, broke 40 yards from a lineout, raging up field with tail bucking like a runaway steer.”

MacEwan says: “Our forwards were totally rampant that day. No.8 John Graham dropped back to fullback so we had two defenders to cover any breakouts.”

Yet Graham couldn’t stop French winger Jean Dupuy from scoring a brilliant 40-yard try, and France was ahead 3-0 for most of the game. All Black pressure finally told close to the end. TP McLean eloquently depicted the winning moments:

“On the goal-line, France heeled and [halfback] Lacroix flung a pass behind him to [fullback] Lacaze. Lacaze not only shaped to kick, he did kick; and even as he kicked, the hungry Tremain, recklessly daring, flung himself at the ball as it poised, for the briefest instant, on Lacaze’s boot. If the ball rose, it only rose an inch or so, straight into Termain’s arms; and no one in the world could have stopped his simultaneous dive for the try.”

Don Clarke kicked a most improbable sideline conversion and the All Blacks won 5-3. In the third test in Christchurch the French targeted MacEwan.

“I dived on the ball inside our 25 and got kicked in the head. I broke my nose and lost several teeth. In those days there were no reserves so I had to be taped up and came back.”

But if 1961 was rough, the All Blacks tour of South Africa the previous year had provided a turning point in MacEwan’s life.

MacEwan collapsed after the 11-3 second test victory in Cape Town. He recalls:

“I was totally exhausted. I spent two weeks resting with Basil Kenyon, the convener of the South African selection panel. In South Africa resting meant drinking. Alcohol was so cheap over there and I started to drink up large. It was easy to get away with it, especially in the rugby culture of the day. My drinking problems started in South Africa.”

He returned for the third test in the surprise position of tighthead prop. The match climaxed in a heady fashion. The All Blacks were down 11-3 heading into the final minutes. Don Clarke kicked a penalty to reduce the deficit to five, and then a famous try was scored. MacEwan describes the action:

“We won a penalty about 30 yards short of the Springbok line. There was no time to take a kick at goal, so skipper Wilson Whineray took a quick tap and set up a ruck. Halfback Kevin Briscoe hurried the ball out to Steve Nesbit, a magnificent player at first-five. He fed Terry Lineen outside him with a skidding pass, which was fortunate because the Springboks rushed up. Centre Kevin Laidlaw then passed to Frank McMullen on the wing, who crashed over in a hard tackle.”

McMullen was carried off, while Don Clarke calmly converted from the touchline (his brother Ian Clarke was a touch judge for the game), so the All Blacks had salvaged a remarkable 11-all draw, keeping the series alive.

However, the last test proved to be a bitter disappointment. The All Blacks were edged out, 8-3. McMullen was controversially denied a try when he shot through from broken play, and with the goal-line at his mercy he was tipped over in a despairing dive-tackle by Springbok flyhalf, Keith Oxlee. McMullen used his momentum to reach out and plant the ball over the goal line, but referee Ralph Burmeister penalised him for a double movement.

MacEwan wryly laughs: “We were given a choice of three referees for the series and chose the least sounding Afrikaans name, but the least sounding Afrikaans name turned out to be the worst referee of the lot.”

The South African referees even penalised All Black back moves. “Socks and shoes was our back call for the blind side wing to come into the back line attack. Socks would come inside the first five-eighth and shoes would come in outside the first five. It was a simple move, but very effective. One referee thought the call was for telling the forwards where the referee was standing so that action other than rugby play could take place in the scrum or the lineout. Referees were so convinced that we were trying to hide dirty play that they awarded a penalty to the opposition for obstruction when we called it once too often for their liking.”

MacEwan ironically recalls that the Springbok flanker Martin Pelser, who scored the winning try in that test, had only one eye.

In 1962, MacEwan was dropped for the third test against Australia. Later, after telling the selectors what he thought of their “pedigree”, he was never again chosen for the All Blacks.

However, his first class career continued until 1967. In 1965 he locked the Wellington scrum in what was arguably the province’s greatest victory – against the touring Springboks.

“We walloped them, 23-6. I don’t even remember who played for South Africa that day, we were so focussed on what we were doing. Coach Bill Freeman was a master motivator. He plastered signs around the dressing room before the match, which simply said ‘Tackle, Tackle, Tackle’, and boy did we tackle!”

Interestingly, when Freeman met the great American football coach Vince Lombardi, Lombardi called Freeman one of the finest coaches he had met.

MacEwan himself though was far from fine. Despite a distinguished rugby career, and founding a successful travel company with fellow All Black Mick Williment, and eight years of service as a public relations officer for the Palmerston North City Council, MacEwan had a serious drinking problem.

“I had an inferiority complex, and drinking was a way of disguising it. I never thought I was good enough. I never understood what I had achieved. And I avoided taking responsibility for my actions. I was out of control.”

In 1979, MacEwan was found guilty of embezzling money, and attempted suicide. He barely escaped a seven-year prison term was fined $500.

MacEwan sighs: “The public humiliation was far worse than going to jail. I sold all my test jerseys to fund my drinking habit and to repay my debt. Facing my family and friends and having to tell them what I had done was the toughest thing I have done in my life, but also the greatest blessing in my life.”

MacEwan found faith, and from 1989 to 2005 he worked as a chaplain at Palmerston North prison. While there he developed a volunteer network throughout New Zealand to support prison chaplaincy work, organising 260 volunteers to encourage changes in inmates’ behaviour. One prisoner MacEwan worked with is now a millionaire in Brisbane.

Nev MacEwan has been married to his wife Jeanette for 57 years. He has four children and ten grandchildren. He says family support was the biggest reason he survived the “dark days.”

In his glory days he was a much respected locking partner of the great Colin Meads. MacEwan says: “I often joke with my family that Pinetree will be a pallbearer at my funeral, because I spent my All Black career supporting him.”

Did You Know?

  • MacEwan is the only All Black forward to be named in the starting test XV in three different positions – No. 8, lock, and prop.
  • Welshman Joe Rooney was given MacEwan’s test jersey from the fourth test in South Africa in 1960. MacEwan’s son Angus organised the jersey to be returned to MacEwan in a special ceremony in 2005. Rooney had the jersey framed and hanging on the walls of the Cilfynydd Rugby Football Club.?In return the Cilfynydd club was presented with another jersey from the NZRFU.
  • Frank McMullen, along with George Nicholson, Jimmy Hunter and Eric Tindill, were All Blacks who also went on to referee test rugby.
  • Jean Dupuy played 40 tests for France, scoring 19 tries. At the time of his retirement in 1964 he held the French record for most test tries. Dupuy’s French teams won the Five Nations championship four times.
  • MacEwan says Colin Meads changed the way test match programs were written: “Until 1959 players’ height and weight statistics were supplied to the NZRFU by the players themselves. In some cases it was obvious that they were not totally accurate. Just before the second test against the Lions in 1959 the All Black selectors arrived at Athletic Park with a pair of scales, with which to officially weigh each player. Some players panicked and quickly invented ways to increase their weight without it being seen. I remember seeing Pinetree saturating his second training jersey with water and putting it on underneath his regular training strip, and stuffing a few objects into his jock strap’ in an attempt to confirm his declared weight. But it didn’t work. So from that day the officials recorded all the height and weight figures.”

Acknowlgements: Bob Gregory

Photo credit: Rugby Weekly (WRFU publication) August 1965.

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