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New Zealand Rugby mourns the passing of Sir John Graham

allblacks.com     03 Aug 2017    

David John Graham, better known as John or DJ , born January 9, 1935, Stratford, died  August 2 2017 Educated, Lichfield PS, New Plymouth BHS. Test matches 22, total All Blacks appearances 53 games, debut v Australia, Wellington, August 23 1958, final game v Australia, Wellington, August 29, 1964. All Black number 593. NZRU vice-president 2003-04, president 2005-06.

DJ Graham was a flanker in a highly-competitive era of loose forward play in New Zealand in the late-1950s and early-1960s. Smaller than most, he was capable of playing above his weight and needed to when attempting to hold his position against the likes of Kel Tremain, 'Red' Conway and Waka Nathan. Although brought up in Taranaki, it was while at university in Auckland that Graham made his first appearances in first-class rugby playing 20 games for Auckland in the 1956 and 1957 seasons. He transferred to Christchurch where he taught at Christchurch Boys' High School from 1958 and he was immediately named in the Canterbury side for whom he played for the rest of his provincial career, ending with 78 games. 

Graham said later in his autobiography, Sir John Graham: Sportsman, Master, Mentor that he thrived in the Canterbury environment where the 'winning is the only thing' attitude suited his mentality. During his time with Canterbury he played in the famous Ranfurly Shield challenge against Auckland in 1960, Auckland being captained by his younger brother Bob. It took a last-minute try to flanker Waka Nathan for Auckland to hold the shield and they went on to record 25 consecutive defences before losing the Shield to Wellington in 1963.

Graham had recently returned from South Africa with the All Blacks when the Shield game was played. His All Blacks debut had been made two years earlier, although in the unfamiliar position of No.8. He had never played there before but went through a series of trials and made his Test debut in the position without ever having had it explained. While scoring a try on debut in his first Test, he was dropped after the All Blacks lost the second Test. A knee injury meant he wasn't available to be considered for the 1959 series against the touring British & Irish Lions, although he had recovered sufficiently to be part of the Canterbury team that beat the tourists 20-14.

He made the most of his opportunities in the trials in early-1960 to be selected in the All Blacks side to tour South Africa, one of the great rugby adventures in that era. He played in the second Test victory 11-3 and also the drawn third Test 11-11. His omission from the fourth Test with Conway playing was regarded as controversial but in keeping with some 'different' selection options on the tour.

TP McLean in Beaten by the Boks summed up Graham's style: "Height didn't matter to a human cannonball who could use his eyes and his hands and his head and as for weight his terminal velocity was at least that of a 15-stone man."

But subsequent to the African tour he enjoyed a consistent period of selection from 1962-64, featuring as a sweeper in the infamous hurricane Test in Wellington against France in 1961 when he left the pack to assist fullback Don Clarke in the face of kicks put downfield in the roaring wind by the French in a bid to pin the All Blacks in their own 25-yard area. It worked as the All Blacks won 5-3.

Five Tests featured against Australia in 1962, at home and away and then two home Tests in the first of the short tours by Home Nations teams when England toured in 1963. But the significant tour of his career was that to Britain and France in 1963-64 and Graham in his autobiography described it as 'a rich sporting, cultural and social experience'. He played all five Tests on tour but found the rugby was not as enjoyable as it might have been.


Again, McLean in his tour book Willie Away assessed his play: "Even Graham, who knew his own mind as well as anyone in the team, began to show signs of strain at the constant instruction, drummed into him, that it was his duty to ensure that the opposing flyhalf was so contained as to be unable to make a thrust through the first line of the All Blacks defence. ' You get the feeling that every blessed thing depends on you alone – and that doesn't leave much room for fun'."

As a result of Captain Wilson Whineray taking a break for 12 months after the tour, Graham was promoted to lead the side in the home Test series against Australia. New Zealand claimed the series 2-1 but suffered an ignominious 5-20 defeat in the third Test. It proved his last series, and while he was a reserve during the 1965 Springboks series, he was not called upon to play. He retired in 1966 and set out on his teaching career which saw him appointed headmaster of Auckland Grammar School in 1972, where he remained for the rest of his career.

However, his links with sport continued as he had two stints as assistant coach for Auckland in 1974-76 and in 1991-93. He was deputy chairman of the New Zealand Secondary Schools Sports Council and played a role in the emergence of the New Zealand Secondary Schoolboys' rugby side in the early-1980s. In 1994, he was awarded the CBE for his services to education.

He was president of the Auckland Rugby Union in 1996-97 and manager of the New Zealand Cricket team from 1996-99, a side which achieved New Zealand's first Test cricket victories at Lord's and The Oval. In 2003 he was elected Vice President of the then-NZRU and in 2005-06 served two years as President. 

Between 2008-12 NZR retrospectively capped All Blacks who made their Test debuts during 1946-1996. Graham received his cap in Auckland in 2009.  was awarded the Steinlager Salver for outstanding service to rugby at the annual Rugby Awards in 2009. He was the subject of a biography by Bill Francis, Sir John Graham: Sportsman, Master, Mentor in 2011 the same year in which he was knighted for services to education and sport.

In 2014, NZR announced that the Player of the Tournament Award at the annual Jock Hobbs Memorial National Under 19 Tournament would be named for Graham, acknowledgement of both his own early start in the game and his continued support for growing rugby and developing young players.