Charlie Saxton 1913-2001 July 5, 2001

Rugby legend Saxton had a cricket connection

Rugby legend Charlie Saxton would not grace the minds of many for his cricket deeds. But the little half-back also played cricket in his youth, as an obdurate opening batsman for Otago. He played seven games between 1934-38, scoring 226 runs at an average of 17.38 with a highest score of 37.

Not the greatest record in the world but sufficient to show that Saxton was no one sport wonder.

Saxton was one of a diminishing class of sportsmen, those who having enjoyed playing at the highest level and then become involved in the passing on of knowledge through coaching and administration.

There is no doubt that he was one of the game's canny thinkers. His booklet, The ABC of Rugby might not have been the Bible that The Complete Rugby Footballer became for Dave Gallaher and Billy Stead, but it had a place as an epistle worth sitting on the same shelf in sporting technical literature.

He preached the message of rugby's three Ps, position, possession and pace and in probably the two most important phases of his rugby career, as captain of the post-Second World War Kiwis who toured Britain, France and Germany in 1945/46, and then as manager in partnership with his vice-captain on the Kiwis tour, Fred Allen, on the triumphant 1967 tour of Britain and France, that philosophy was borne out.

As he said, the object of rugby was for 14 men to get the 15th a start of half a yard.

That 1967 side produced the sort of running rugby that had been the modus operandi of the Kiwis team 21 years earlier. It transformed the international game, and the players became advocates for the style in their own coaching careers.

Saxton's greatest moment on the rugby field was denied him when the 1940 All Black tour to South Africa was abandoned with the outbreak of the Second World War. Instead of leading his men on a rugby expedition to wipe out the humiliations the South Africans had inflicted on New Zealanders in 1937, he was prowling the backblocks of the North African desert as a member of the Long Range Desert Group.

Saxton's form in the winter of 1939 highlighted his abilities. Playing for Southland, he was out of position at first five-eighth, because halfback Jack Purdue was more in tune with the role in what was the strongest side in New Zealand at the time.

Saxton, had transferred south from South Canterbury in 1938, and had played at halfback in the Ranfurly Shield defence against Ashburton Country. Southland just managed to scramble to a controversial injury time win, and Saxton had not had a happy time behind the scrum.

The selectors decided to place Purdue back at halfback and moved Saxton to first five-eighth. He was given the captaincy of the side, and Purdue summed him up: "Charlie Saxton was the best first five-eighth for Southland that I ever played with. He was very fast off the mark. He scored some beautiful blindside tries. As soon as the ball hit my hands, he began to run."

Southland, the Ranfurly Shield holder, enjoyed its greatest year. The side was unbeaten and it became the only side in the province's history to travel north and complete the grand slam of victories over Otago, Canterbury, Wellington and Auckland on their home turf. The win over Auckland on Eden Park remains the only time Southland has won on that ground.

The Auckland win was also notable for some of the most foul play imaginable.

The New Zealand Observer noted: "There were some passages of arms between the forwards at times, with resentment and irritation showing itself on both sides, but the one incident I noted to which real objection could be taken was the kicking of Saxton by an Auckland forward when he lay on the ground. The boot went in hard on that occasion and the incident was not creditable."

It may also have induced Saxton to make a decision which is among the more astonishing and controversial in provincial rugby history.

After being behind, Southland came back strongly and scored an equalising try. Goalkicker Artie Wesney lined up the conversion, but it missed. However, Saxton noticed one of Auckland's more combative forwards Dick Hull sitting on the halfway line.

Saxton appealed to the referee for another shot to be taken, and the referee agreed. Wesney made no mistake the second time around.

Once war duties, and the Kiwis tour was over, Saxton became a partner in the resurrection of post-war Otago rugby with Vic Cavanagh Jnr in what must have been one of the greatest repositories of rugby knowledge ever enjoyed by two men.

Coaching days completed, Saxton moved into administration from whence came his appointment as All Black manager. And when that facet of his life was completed he was given a place on the NZRFU appeals committee.

What was regarded as something of a perk job became highly contentious in 1978 when Saxton was required to make judgment on a North Auckland decision not to defend the Ranfurly Shield against Southland and Otago after lifting the Shield from Manawatu four days earlier.

The appeal from his two old provinces was lost because a challenge had not been received in writing before the end of August, this despite a verbal agreement earlier in the year that a challenge would be entertained were North Auckland successful.

It is a long way from a few games of cricket for Otago, but Saxton was a sporting identity in Otago, and New Zealand, beyond rugby boundaries. He was of a class of player and administrator all too rare in all sports nowadays.

A special service for Saxton will be held at Carisbrook on Monday. He is survived by his wife Alison, son Bill and daughter Rosalind.