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How English rugby shattered the All Blacks mystique on the same anniversary as their 2003 World Cup triumph

November 22 is nearly upon us again, tomorrow in fact, and of course it’s an emotive day for English rugby – can it really be 15 years since Martin Johnson’s team won the World Cup in Sydney?

A long period of English dominance seemed indicated, the conveyor belt of players and coaches in the pipeline, but then it all started to unravel.

But for some, not least the 12,000 who witnessed it in the flesh, November 22 is always associated with another ‘English’ success.

It is the day back in 1972 that North West Counties – a combined XV from Lancashire, Cheshire and Cumbria – defeated the All Blacks at the Ellis Sports Ground in Workington.

It was the first time an English club or regional team had ever beaten New Zealand but for some reason the triumph never gets the big licks it should. Perhaps that’s because it didn’t herald a Grand Slam for the national team as was the case with the North’s win over the All Blacks in 1979, although it’s worth mentioning that six months later England astounded the world by beating New Zealand in Christchurch.

Fran Cotton was the captain in Workington and was also intimately involved in the England win in New Zealand, the North’s famous victory at Otley and that 1980 Grand Slam.

“That North West Counties team was a much better side than perhaps even we ourselves believed,” he said.

“There was a hard core of three or four England and Lions players – Tony Neary, Peter Dixon, myself and Steve Smith and some really good forwards who with more luck would have won a stack of caps like our lock Dick Trickey and flanker Dave Robinson.

“And we had three or four backs who won a few caps – Dave Roughley, Chris Wardlow and Alan Cowman.

“Back in August our coach John Burgess had gathered us for our first training session and insisted we were going to win which caused a bit of mirth. I’m not sure many of us had actually considered that a possibility. Anyway we trained for about seven Sunday mornings in a row before the game and on the day we were good value.”

Burgess was a massive figure in this story. Known for his rousing team talks when coaching Lancashire, he excelled himself this time, ripping his shirt off to deliver a messianic speech in his string vest, a tirade which concluded with him smashing his fist down on a table in the middle of the changing room.

Unfortunately that was where the team had all put their empty sherry glasses having downed a schooner apiece for Dutch courage in a pre-match ritual. Shattered glass everywhere.

Heroes: The North West Counties team are congratulated by a jubilant crowd after their 1979 victory (Photo: Chris Smith/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

The North West, crucially matching NZ up front and taking two try scoring chances through Stuart Maxwell, scraped home 16-14. But the fun and games were only just beginning.

“I’m not sure this has ever come out but it all kicked off that evening at the hotel after the dinner at the New Zealand team hotel,” continues Cotton. “The Kiwis weren’t taking it well because they had been down to 14 men when Stuart scored our winning try.

“Lyn Colling seemed to have taken a knock and they were trying to rush Sid Going straight on but the protocol in those days was quite clear. The player being replaced had to be examined first by the match doctor. On the touch-line John Burgess rightly insisted that the correct procedure take place and on the TV coverage you can see Sid sprinting on just before we score our try.

“So they weren’t happy and then later that night in the TV room – hotels had them back then – the Kiwis wanted to watch highlights of the Ali-Foster fight that had taken place in the USA overnight. We on the other hand were pretty keen to watch Sportsnight with Coleman which had our match highlights and an interview with Carwyn James discussing the events of the day.

“The Kiwis turned on the boxing at which point Chris Wardlow, who could be a bit mad, got up and turned it back to BBC for the rugby. This didn’t amuse Keith Murdoch – who hadn’t been playing that day. Keith basically lifted Chris up by his hair and evicted him from the room. At which point it all got a bit tasty before we decided we wanted to watch the rugby more than we wanted another fight so we went to a nearby pub.”

Of course, Workington is Rugby League country really but it was Cumbria’s turn to host a touring side for the North West Counties and Ellis Park had a decent grandstand and a capacity of 12,000.

The setting on the coast in sight of the Lake District was picturesque but there was a big steel works right next to the ground and by early in the second half it was belching out clouds of evil sulphurous fumes which were wafting over the ground.

“Myself and Dick Trickey drove up to visit the place again a few years ago – it must have been the 40th anniversary or something – and we gave Dave Robinson a ring to see if he wanted to meet up for a beer.

“It hasn’t change much at all really, especially the changing rooms, I can’t believe how small they are. I know players are getting bigger but we weren’t exactly small lads even then. I have no idea how we all fitted in.”

BRENDAN GALLAGHER

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