A short(s) history of rugby’s cold war

Crowds wait for kick-off at the 1948 rugby final between East and West Dunedin. Photos: Evening Star
Crowds wait for kick-off at the 1948 rugby final between East and West Dunedin. Photos: Evening Star
All Blacks’ grit took on French flair last weekend in Dunedin. An excerpt from David Loughrey’s recent book Grass Roots: Dunedin’s Greatest Sporting Rivalries* remembers another contest, a local one, where vastly divergent world views were at play.

The mood in both changing rooms before the 1948 Dunedin rugby final was sombre.

Small and quite separate groups of players sat stony-faced on wooden benches, downcast and angry, none acknowledging the others.

Of the 30 men who sat in the two sheds, only three were dressed below the waist.

In each dressing room the coach stood on his own.

This is how it came to pass.

Both East Dunedin and West Dunedin had made it to the big day.

It was a season that started so well for two clubs brimming with enthusiasm and big ideas, new coaching and management methods both were certain would take them to the top and keep them there.

At least that’s how it started.

For West Dunedin, Tuppy MacMillan had swept in to the coaching role like a breath of freshly-minted air.

A ruddy-faced, corpulent man, MacMillan wore expensive suits and sharp shoes.

Crowds wait for kick-off (above and below) at the 1948 rugby final between East and West Dunedin.
Crowds wait for kick-off (above and below) at the 1948 rugby final between East and West Dunedin.
He carefully clipped the hair that was inclined to sprout from his ears and nose.

His fingernails were regularly buffed.

MacMillan was returning to rugby after a stint in the finance industry where he had learned the importance of fiscal responsibility and investment in success.His plan was to run his team along the same lines.

West Dunedin had three champion players in 1948, who MacMillan identified as the ones who would take his team all the way, and he invested all his time and energy into them.

He told media at the time the idea was "trickle down" coaching, where the expertise passed on to the top few would eventually benefit all the other players.

Initially it seemed to work.

West Dunedin swept all before them, outmuscling the opposition week after week.

Then the cracks began to appear. Acrimony and rancour began to ferment among those who felt they were not benefiting from trickle down coaching, and a deputation of inside backs went to have it out with the coach.

The players were angry they had to pay for their own shorts, while the three champions got theirs for free in a secret sponsorship deal with a local brewery. The shorts MacMillan demanded they wear were top of the range, and would have cost his men four weeks’ wages, way beyond what any could afford.

But MacMillan told them rugby was like life; only the fittest survived.He said if he gave them a hand up, they would just pull him down to their level. The market was everything, and in rugby, talent was the currency.

Over at East Dunedin, a cloth-capped Barry Ryan had swept into the coaching role after rising to the top of the union movement.

Ryan was a barrel-chested man who wore platform heeled shoes in an attempt to hide the fact he was extremely short. His nose was bent slightly to the right, and he tilted his face slightly to the left while talking to people, to make up for it. That gave the impression he was looking sideways at you, which made many uncomfortable. He was the first to introduce what he described as "the great leap forward" to rugby tactics, in which all his men, no matter their position or skill, leapt forward at the same time.

Ryan was not interested in just winning one title, rather, he developed a five-year plan for his team.

For most of the season East Dunedin swept all before them. Then the cracks began to appear.

None of his players were allowed to own their own uniforms, instead the club dictated their apparel, and the coach controlled the means of production by which the uniform was made, a local co-operative firm that also made steel wool for dishwashing purposes.But the players complained the shorts, made of offcuts from the steel wool, badly chafed their inner thighs. A deputation went to Ryan to call for change, but he told them change could only come through social revolution.

One of the players who complained disappeared late one night and was never seen again, while the others were dropped in what became known as "the great purge". By September, both clubs had limped through to the final, despite a terrible loss of form towards the end of the season.

In the changing sheds at the Oval — and remember this is a time before underpants were invented — 27 men were dressed for the game wearing only their rugby jerseys, socks and football boots. The majority of West Dunedin players could not afford shorts, while the swelling and redness of East Dunedin inner thighs meant the players could not have donned theirs, even if they had the will and the wherefore. A big crowd waited on the sidelines. in frozen conditions.

Twenty minutes late, the sides trotted on to the field, with most players intent on protecting their modesty and unable to hold or pass the ball, or tackle. The three West Dunedin champions with sponsored shorts refused to put in, arguing the other team members were the ones who should really do the physical work. Their opposition began to question the tenets of the coach’s philosophy, and dreamed of having the sort of shorts available to West players.

The game turned into 80 minutes of senseless posturing from both sides that ended in a nil-all draw.

It became known in rugby legend as  "The Cold War".

- Next week: How neoliberalism affected the 1985 Dunedin netball final.

* There is no such book. None of this is even remotely true.

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