Kevin Skinner played key role in scrum development

Lynn McConnell     22 Jul 2014

The details are part of rugby mythology and have often been greatly exaggerated but there is no doubting the role he played in establishing New Zealand's scrummaging after years of frustration post the demise of the 2-3-2 scrum.

It must have caused some frustration to the front row prop to be forever associated with the so-called 'sorting out' of the South African front row when he was recalled from retirement for the third and fourth Tests of the series which inflicted the first series loss on South Africa in the 20th century.

Before that Skinner had won fame as part of the great Otago rugby team of 1947-50 that played under the control of coach Vic Cavanagh. He toured South Africa in 1949 when New Zealand's scrum proved so dysfunctional in comparison to the Springboks that they called in South Africa liaison man with the team Bo Wintle and Danie Craven to help them.

But, in spite of that, Skinner made his mark on the South Africans in the three Tests in which he played.

He played in the four-Test series against the British and Irish Lions, including the third Test where due to replacements not being allowed, New Zealand played with only six forwards as a result of injuries during the second half, and still won.

While selected as All Blacks captain against the 1952 Australians he did not get the job on the 1953-54 tour to Britain and France. But he did play 27 of the 35 matches.

So to 1956. For all the talk of how he used his punching power to sort out the Springbok scrum, Skinner maintained that there were only two incidents in the third Test and the talk was so bad afterwards about what allegedly went on that Skinner let it go for a while then wrote a letter to the editor of the Auckland Star saying that they had had a fair go with the subject and it was about time they looked at something else.

Skinner did tell author Bob Howitt in his book New Zealand Rugby Greats that his whole approach was based on not backing down.

"We had found in 1949 that the Boks would always try you on. If you showed them what you thought, and didn't back away, they settled down and played rugby," he said to Howitt.

Winston McCarthy in his book "Rugby in my Time" claimed to have the inside story on events in Christchurch.

"Skinner had his first hit in the second lineout in the Christchurch Test. Chris Koch stepped across him [in the first lineout] which blocked him from coming through, and Skinner warned him: 'Don't do it'.

"I think they're about the only words he spoke to them the whole of the tour. The ball went into touch and Koch did it again. So Skinner clocked him. Otherwise it would have just kept on happening. He was cheating, so Skinner said, 'Don't cheat'. There was no trouble in that front row."

McCarthy also related a conversation he had at the Test dinner after the Christchurch match with Springbok Jaapie Bekker.

"Jaapie said, 'Winston, wasn't Kevin Skinner the heavyweight champion of New Zealand?' I said, 'Ja, that's right. Back in 1947 I think it was, Jaapie. Heavyweight amateur champion'.

"He said, 'Does he still box in the right?' 'Oh no,' I said, 'Gee, Kev hasn't been in the ring since 1947'. Jaapie said, 'Well, tell him to take it on again. He's bloody good.'"

But putting it all into context was veteran New Zealand journalism J M Mackenzie who said what Skinner's return had done was give New Zealand 'sorely needed equality in hooking the ball from set scrums and definite supremacy in other aspects of scrummaging'.

South African tour correspondent Reg Sweet summed up the impact of Skinner's inclusion in the Test side when he said: "Skinner was an instant success in the front row, changing positions to oppose Bekker and Koch in their turn and stabilising the New Zealand scrum in a manner not achieved before.

"Skinner was tough, very tough. But he achieved the object of his recall to test rugby, and he walked off Lancaster Park at the end with sleeves rolled up as he always had in South Africa, looking as cool and unruffled as if he had been on a training trot."

In choosing the 30 best international players outside South Africa in his autobiography South African supremo Danie Craven said both Skinner and Johnny Simpson would be his props.

"Here we have two strong and heavy props who can take and give it, whose backs never show any signs of the strain they have to endure. What is more, they not only can stand the strain, but they have that little bit extra which makes the strain of their opponents wellnigh unbearable."

Skinner's place in rugby history is assured but it needs to be remembered for more than just the 1956 series. He was a key contributor to New Zealand finally ridding itself of the aftermath of the 2-3-2 scrum and developing the technique and power that would be the cornerstone of later generations of All Blacks packs.