William Fergus ‘Fergie’ McCormick

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Fergie McCormick (second, left), pictured later in his Canterbury career, beat the British Lions in his rookie representative season in 1959.

Some time ago I wrote an article here on my favourite All Black, George Nepia.  The saying went not who was the greatest ever All Black fullback but who was eligible to tie up his laces.  One man that certainly was is Fergie McCormick.  In a New Zealand world of tough, very tough, rugby men perhaps Fergie on pound for pound was the toughest of them all.  His All Black playing weight was always shown as 12 stone 10 1bs, around 80kgs and 5 foot, 7 and a half inches tall.  Not big.

Born 24th April 1939 he started playing Linwood Seniors in 1957 at 18 and played for Canterbury Colts and for the “B” team that year.   Born in Ashburton, his father Archie McCormick, a former All Black, hooker and indeed a former New Zealand amateur heavy-weight boxing champion.   His mother was selected for New Zealand in hockey and was a track sprinter, his siblings also excelled at sport representing New Zealand and Canterbury in hockey and softball.   What breeding.

In 1959 he played his first match for Canterbury A, it was against Wellington, a week before the Canterbury against the touring Lions team.  The selectors wanted someone who could tackle, although Canterbury lost 17-20 he was selected for this major match and he joined the big time.  Canterbury beat the Lions 20-14.

Fergie went on to play 222 games for Canterbury – from 1958 through to 1975.  This was all well before any payments were made, your annual holidays were used up on the annual 3 or 5 match North Island trip along with other various midweek games.  Starting off as a plasterer then in the physical world of the Belfast freezing works Fergie later became employed in a Sports store towards the latter part of his career.

Fergie was a fullback when fullbacks were just that, the very last line of defence. Few who saw him play will ever forget this relatively short stocky man prowling behind the backs, barking out directions to all and sundry and defying anyone to get past him.  How many players thought they were in until Fergie arrived at pace and bundled them out in the corner or held up unable to put the ball down.

In the early 60’s Don Clarke ruled supreme as New Zealand’s fullback, nobody else was needed – until injury struck and much to the disappointment of Canterbury fans Mick Williment from Wellington was chosen as his replacement in 1964.  He will never make the All Blacks the talk prevailed, my mum said “he is too rough and gets into fights” etc.  Come 1965 and the Springboks were here, suddenly a loss in the third test, Williment is dropped and in came Fergie.  New Zealand won 20-3, Fergie kicked the final conversion from in front and all was well.

1966, for the Lions tour Williment is back and again in 1967 for the one-off test against Australia. Trials are played and under the Millard Stand, the team prior to the 1967 tour to the British Isles was announced. No Williment, just Fergie as the only fullback. The team to be announced contained 31 names – one was quickly scrubbed. Years later Fred Allen confirmed it was Williment.

Fred Allen wanted to play running rugby, no one ran it better from the back than Fergie McCormick. He had an outstanding tour in an outstanding team – played 12 of the 17 games – 4 tries, 3 in the first one against British Columbia, 26 conversions and 18 penalties – 118 points.

Fergie then played 10 of the 12 games in Australia, 1968 –120 points and all 3 against France, 28 points and now almost regarded as a good goal kicker. I remember so clearly Otago playing Canterbury following that tour and A.J. (Tony) Kreft, a replacement All Black player from that tour breaking clear down the sideline in front of the No 3 stand.  Prop forwards in those days were still not expected to run, I suspect he received the ball from a lost Canterbury lineout, McCormick being out amongst the backs plotting where he was going to chime in on the attack. I will never forget watching McCormick sprinting across and launching himself horizontally at Kreft on about the halfway line and crashing him into touch.  Kreft was stretchered off, still unconscious and I remember thinking, wow, and that was a teammate 2 weeks ago.

Wales followed in 1969, in the 33-12 win in the 2nd Test McCormick scored 24 points, a then individual record in International games, including a 55 yard dropped goal.

1970 and the tour to South Africa, major controversy in this pre multi camera 3rd Test when it was alleged Fergie had stiff-armed the South African wing Sid Nomis and was thoroughly vilified by one and all, outside of Canterbury.  A few days later a series of photos were produced that clearly showed Fergie had turned and the winger ran into his outstretched arms from behind, a quite legitimate blocking tactic.  Nevertheless, the old warhorse was the worse for wear after playing 15 of the first 22 games and never played in the final 4 games, including the final test.  When the final test was announced it was noted that the Coach Vodanovich who had fairly flogged the players relentlessly in training throughout the tour had failed to pick any of the 6 Canterbury players. They lost 17-20.

The team arrived home, Canterbury were defending the Shield, Fergie announced he was fit, well and available for the final game of the season: against Wellington.  Down 0-3 in the final minutes Canterbury on the attack, a muttered conversation amongst Doug Bruce and Wayne Cottrell about who would attempt a shield saving drop goal: “Throw the bloody thing back here, I’ll have a go” came the cry from the back, they did, 3-3 and Shield saved – bad luck Wellington.

1971 and the British Isles came: Coach Carwyn James went on about the weak link in the All Blacks.  Come the first test, a loss 3-9 and Barry John gave McCormick the run around with his pinpoint kicking.  And the All Black curtain came down.  44 matches, 16 Tests and 121 test points.

Life went on and so did Fergie with Canterbury. After losing the shield in 1973 to Marlborough, Canterbury played some of their finest rugby that year. McCormick was in outstanding form.  His, and Canterbury’s play in the 1972-74 seasons was some of the finest of his career.  Unshackled he took a dominant part all be it with a slightly more belligerent attitude, a love-hate relationship was evident in most crowds he played before.

Suddenly however in 1975, the wheels started to come off.  A knee injury from a club match saw him almost permanently bandaged up and his pace and kicking ability suffered.  In 1975 Scotland toured and McCormick, who had played in the 1959 Canterbury 20-14 win over the Lions once again featured in a 20 – 9 win.  He was not able to play with his usual flair or fight and then missed a simple conversion from in front of the posts. Late in the game, he received the ball on the blindside from a ruck and somehow managed to go past two or three desperate Scottish defenders to score.  The try won the nation “pick the best try “ competition. That should have been the final act.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=akGCJv9lb30

The end was nigh, but neither Fergie or the selectors wanted to say it.  He continued on with even his Lancaster Park crowd divided on whether he should be playing.  He became even more grizzly than his mate Grizz Wylie such were his frustrations over his inability to play with his normal freedom.  Came the game against Northland and play erupted somewhere near the halfway. The Northland team was livid, alleging that a man had been kicked in the ruck, the culprit in their eyes one F. McCormick.  It’s all memory but I saw it, no cameras that day.   A penalty to Northland and a talking to all-round to everyone. Northland put up a high up and under and the men in the Cambridge Blue charged towards it.  Fergie stood there and claimed the ball, refused to kick it out and ran straight into the Northland pack.  A horrendous amount of ferocious play followed. I think that Fergie standing there and taking the ball knowing full well what was coming epitomized the character of him, never ever flinch or show any weakness.  He stayed on but it was the end.   It was his last game – he decided to retire after one more game on Lancaster Park the following Saturday but it was too late – he was dropped to the reserves – a sad way to finish such a distinguished career.

Overall he played 307 first class games of which 222 were for Canterbury and scored 2050 points.  He was not always the first choice kicker for his club, Canterbury and the All Blacks at various times in his career.

I believe that he did indeed win a Lotto later in life and purchased a lifestyle block in the country.  If true I can think of no more deserving person to receive a financial reward to compensate for the countless hours he put in to become one of New Zealand’s greatest players.

It has now been reported that he is seriously ill with throat cancer in Christchurch Hospital – I guess he will be fighting it to the end until the final whistle is blown. I can only imagine the smiles and welcome for him in the final changing rooms from the likes of Freddie Allen, Colin Meads, Kelvin Tremain Lyn Davis, Wayne Cottrell, Alastair Hopkinson, Ken Gray who have all gone before to take their boots off for the final time.

Fergie autographed my copy of “Centenary – 100 Years of All Black Rugby” of the 156 All Blacks to do so, it will always remain a cherished possession of mine.

 


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Hooker Phil is a dyed in the wool 2 eyed Cantabrian, one red – one black.  Loves his sports and especially stirring up those who support the Hurricanes but willing to take as good as he gives.
Has travelled all over New Zealand and to over 40 countries but still wonders where the heck he is sometimes.
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