Eric Watson, literally and figuratively the original Eric Watson of the New Zealand sporting scene, national selector and then coach of the All Blacks in 1979 and 1980, died last week at the impressive age of 91. (Note that the following tribute is all rather impersonal, though hopefully not staid). Watson is very significant due to three rather improbable, quite brilliant achievements in his Rugby coaching career at the top level. More on these feats in a little bit…
Watson’s short tenure as All Black coach was a true rollercoaster from the time he was chosen to follow one of the hardest acts in the whole of All Black history, in taking over from Manawatu’s Jack Gleeson after the historic Grand Slam tour of 1978- the first time an All Black side had ever achieved the milestone of four wins over the Home Unions on a tour.
A thrilling home series in 1979 was shared 1-1 with France, including perhaps the ‘most romantic’ test match in Rugby Union history, at Eden Park. Watson then took the All Blacks to the SCG two weeks later for a one-off Bledisloe Cup test with the Wallabies (in what DJ Cameron memorably referred to as ‘The Ned Kelly Test’ in one of his books). Watson’s team were literally ambushed as the Australians tore into them at ruck time. The highly annoying thing for the All Blacks was that they could and should have won. But they lost 6-12 and the Bledisloe finally went back across the Tasman Sea after thirty long years.
Later that season, Watson, along with the superb Graham Mourie as captain and Russ Thomas as manager, led the team on a ten match tour of England and Scotland. Tragically and poignantly, Jack Gleeson passed away from cancer on the eve of the Midlands match. No other result was then possible as the All Blacks played sublimely in the second half in winning 33-7.
In the test against Scotland some classic tries were scored in a decisive 20-6 victory, including an audacious, quite brilliant individual effort on debut by Murray Mexted.
Things fell apart the following Saturday however, as the North of England tackled everything that moved in black and took expert advantage of some horrible handling mistakes in a 9-21, four tries to one hiding. The England test selectors then did All Blacks a massive favour and ignored the very real claims of most of the victorious North side, including their key axis of the loose forwards and halfback-first five eighth.
On a bleak day that mirrored the lack of ambition on the field, the All Blacks, with four wingers starting in the backline, ground out a tense 10-9 win one week later over Mother England on Twickers. The media had guffawed at the selection of so many players out of position, but Watson had somehow found a way to help turn around the dire loss to the North the week previous. And it should also be recalled that he did go through the tour with a team very much light on experience compared to the year before. So, to have gritted out and won that England encounter was a genuine achievement on the All Blacks’ and Watson’s part.
1980 also brought hugely contrasting overseas results. The Bledisloe Cup was again conceded, albeit by a wretching, vomiting pile of food poison or other-afflicted All Blacks, 10-26 in the Sydney decider. Mark Ella and co were just too good, and may have won even if the All Blacks hadn’t been re-decorating the porcelain inside their Sydney lodgings in the hours beforehand.
An unusual sidelight in the run-up to that third test decider was the eclectic idea of Watson and his assistants to have the backline practice passing the ball along their line using…bricks. It was because some players had been afflicted with the ‘dropsies’ rather too much, and it was thought that the passing and catching bricks would ensure safe hands out of fear (one can just imagine the irony if somebody had in fact dropped one straight onto their toe and been ruled out of the match with a broken foot) The episode spawned the memorable headline in a Sydney Daily: ‘Ouch…it’s the All Bricks’.
Redemption came though on the end of season tour to Wales, to mark the Welsh Union’s centenary. It was probably one of Watson’s greatest career triumphs when in the final match of the unbeaten tour his All Blacks scored a decisive four tries to none, 23-3 victory, to well and truly dampen the party mood of the Welsh.
It wasn’t just the scoreline that was emphatic, however. It was the manner in which the tries were scored- the first and last resulting from superb counter-attacks and the second and third from expert set-plays. The first try in particular is an enduring classic (at 1.45 on the video).
It was an excellent result on two counts- Wales hadn’t yet collapsed into the early-mid 80s rabble they were to become and there was a feeling the whole nation owed the All Blacks in return for their one point defeat in 1978. (although Welsh anger at their 1978 defeat was a little misguided- referee Roger Quittenton categorically stated he didn’t award the crucial penalty on the basis of Andy Haden’s famous/infamous dive out of the lineout, rather for a push by Geoff Wheel off the shoulder of Frank Oliver)
That 1980 victory in Wales was undoubtedly Watson’s finest moment as All Black coach, but he had first come to sporting prominence in 1973, when at 47 years of age, his Under-23 NZ Juniors team (captained by Graham Mourie) defeated the full-strength All Blacks 14-10, on his Carisbrook home patch. (It was a bad home season for the All Blacks that year- they also lost to a NZ XV containing a certain 37 year-old legend from the King Country and then to England on Eden Park). Watch the Juniors match here and and wallow in nostalgia, courtesy of ‘The Tight five’ :
To absolutely no-one’s surprise, this was the last time the All Blacks were ever made to face the NZ Juniors, until the concept of that team was abolished around the mid 1980s. Eric Watson certainly made sure of that.
Watson was also the coach when the South Island scored three consecutive victories over the All Black-laden North Island from 1975-77. This was highly notable for the fact that the North had only lost once since 1964, and because in that ‘75-’77 period the North were coached by JJ Stewart and Jack Gleeson, the All Black coaches of that period.
An interesting tale to come out of the relationship between Stewart, Gleeson and Watson was when the triumvirate worked together as All Black selectors in the mid 1970s. Watson was a devotee of the sometimes mercurial Otago and All Black first-five eighth/utility player, Duncan Robertson and always championed him for a place in the national side. At their selection meetings it is alleged that Stewart and Gleeson usually said something to Watson to the effect of: “You can have your Zingari-Richmond mate Robertson, and now leave us to sort out the rest of the team, would you?”
Eric Watson: A genial southern rugby man. Rest in Peace.
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