All Blacks spring back to life

Sideline Sid
Sports correspondent & historian

Just when the critics were writing the All Blacks off in their quest for a World Cup three-peat, the team roared back at Eden Park on Saturday night.

Putting 38 unanswered points on the team from over the ditch, the All Blacks laid down the gauntlet to the other Rugby World Cup contenders in dramatic fashion.

There was a steely determination in the eyes of boys in black as they walked on to the park, with the Wallabies having no excuses after 80y minutes of mainly one-way traffic.

One man that gave the critics a black eye was Sonny Bill Williams, who returned to his best form with a vengeance.

A recent diet of grassroots rugby, including a hit out with Counties Manukau at Moore Park in Katikati, primed SBW for action on Saturday night.

Love him or hate him, Sonny Bill Williams is a superb athlete who has proved himself on the top of the heap in both rugby union and league. He is also a very handy boxer in spite of his sporadic appearances in the ring.

The mould for dual success on the rugby field and in the boxing ring was established nearly a century ago, with a New Zealand amateur boxing champion going on to earn All Black selection a few years later.

Brian McCleary won the Heavyweight amateur title in Gisborne in 1920, before being selected as an All Black in 1924 and 1925.

The Ashburton heavyweight's opponent in the Hawke's Bay title decider was another rugby player who would go on to legendary All Black status, Maurice Brownlie.

A press report of the day described the 1920 Heavyweight title bout as the best fight of the night. McCleary weighed in at 11 stone 9 lbs, with Brownlie tipping the scales at 12 stone 3 lbs - which isn't big by today's standards.

"McCleary with his knowledge of his disastrous punch, presented an elusive front with his splendid footwork. Brownlie was clearly looking for a KO and delivered several swings which smote the air and were half-spent before they reached their target. In the final round McCleary made the pace showing smart footwork. McCleary was declared the winner amid great applause and was carried shoulder high from the ring”.

The future All Black backed up his Gisborne title with back to back success in Greymouth the following year, added icing on the cake with an Australasian crown.

A measure of his standing in the ring was that when he turned professional in 1922, he had never been defeated in 32 amateur contests.

Brian McCleary and SBW share a unique link in that they have both won a New Zealand professional heavyweight boxing title and represented their country in rugby - although in the case of Sonny Bill he triumphed in an unheralded version of the national title.

Three further future All Blacks would follow in the footsteps of Brian McCleary, in winning the New Zealand amateur heavyweight title, before wearing a silver fern on their rugby jersey. In 1922 and 1923, Archie McCormack, father of New Zealand rugby legend Fergie McCormack, won the heavyweight crown with Morrie McHugh following suit in 1938.

Kevin Skinner is perhaps better known for his fistic endeavors on the rugby field against the 1956 Springboks.

While there are many tall tales told of how he sorted out the Boks front row in the last two tests against South Africa, he was also an accomplished boxer winning the 1947 national heavyweight title.


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