In July 1990 Buck Shelford was dropped as captain of the All Blacks. It was a decision that shocked the country and led to conspiracy theories as to why it had happened. WYNNE GRAY reports.
For many, news of Wayne Shelford’s sacking as All Blacks captain came as they were negotiating rush-hour traffic on their way to work, school or other morning appointments.
Radio bulletins led with the story and throughout that July 12 day in 1990, there was rising conjecture, debate and emotions about the shock decision as the media tried to get comments from the deposed national rugby skipper, coach Alex Wyllie and senior New Zealand Rugby Union officials.
My standard journey took a detour, a U-turn to Shelford’s house on the North Shore where I found him in a bemused and uncertain mood.
Half an hour earlier he’d taken a phone call from Wyllie to say he, with selectors John Hart and Lane Penn, had decided to drop Shelford for the next test against the Wallabies. Shortly after, Wyllie went on radio to tell audiences the selectors felt the No 8 was struggling with a hamstring injury. There was not consistency between the private and public versions.
Shelford wasn’t any more talkative than he had probably been with Wyllie, other than to offer his usual shrug of the shoulders and robust conversation that he’d have to play his way back in.
These days that chat would have been online with video content and trumpeted as an exclusive by my employers with accompanying comment and analysis pieces. Back then, however, I took my information home, mulled it over, made a few more calls and went into the office in the afternoon to file my stories for the next morning’s newspaper.
In that vacuum, TVNZ was able to film and interview Shelford at his North Shore club training with footage which debunked the hamstring excuse. The fueled the story and a torrent of theories around his sacking escalated.
Two days after the announcement about Shelford, the Wallabies were playing the powerful Auckland side who had in their side the new All Blacks No 8 Zinzan Brooke, test captain Gary Whetton and backline general Grant Fox who was depicted as part of a group who had pushed for change in the All Blacks leadership.
Whatever the reasons for Shelford being dropped, there was a significant lobby who were unhappy with the decision. The first evidence of that came at Eden Park against the Wallabies when there many signs and placards being held by people that pleaded for the selectors to 'Bring Back Buck'. It was a slogan for the ages and even 20 years later, there were sporadic sightings of Bring Back Buck signs at All Blacks tests.
Auckland beat the tourists 16-10 but the airwaves, newspapers and television continued to be dominated by the controversy.
Shelford had taken over the All Blacks captaincy on the end of year tour to Japan in 1987 and the team was unbeaten in 14 tests with the 19-all stalemate against the Wallabies in Brisbane in 1988, the only blip under his command.
The All Blacks were a high quality side, playing good rugby in one of the longest unbeaten stretches in modern history. Yet, despite the All Blacks' success, there was rising criticism of Shelford’s form towards the end of 1989.
Pushing hard for a starting place was the supremely talented Brooke and before the All Blacks headed to the UK and Ireland in 1989, there were a growing number of voices calling for a change at No 8.
When Whetton was appointed vice-captain for the tour in a role which had been dormant for almost two decades, it had given further impetus to the notion that change was approaching and was needed because the Shelford-Wyllie partnership was a little too taciturn and graceless.
But Shelford, aware that his place was under threat, responded with strong performances in Wales and Ireland. His leadership and production were decisive and powerful.
The All Blacks captain was outstanding on that tour, where he showed extraordinary courage, skill and leadership in the match against Llanelli as his side turned into the second half gale with a meagre 7-0 lead.
The All Blacks pack, with Shelford at its core, offered a textbook half of driving and mauling to shut out their disconcerted opponents. They won both tests comfortably and even though Shelford suffered a painful neck injury against Ireland he comfortably held off any challenge from Brooke who did not fire until the final fixture against the Barbarians when he came on for his damaged skipper.
Over summer, whatever noises had been made about change, died down as players started training for an internal tour from the Divisional XV, a visit from Samoa, the provincial rugby program starting in April, the national trials and the South Pacific series. Everything was being channeled towards the first visit from the Grand Slam champions Scotland in June then the Wallabies.
There were a few starting vacancies. John Gallagher and John Schuster had gone to league, Murray Pierce had retired and Walter Little and Ian Jones made their debuts against Scotland at Carisbrook. The All Blacks were unconvincing winners 31-16 and conceded three tries.
The rematch at Eden Park was equally problematic and after leading into the last 15 minutes Scotland conceded one contentious penalty then another at a scrum and were beaten to their place in history, 21-18.
In the post-mortems, Shelford’s response to questions about the team tactics caused some unrest. Almost three weeks later they took on more significance when Shelford was dropped.
He was asked why the All Blacks backline continued to move the ball in the slippery conditions rather than kick in behind the onrushing and accurate Scots defence.
In his usual straightforward manner, Shelford said his head was stuck in the scrums and it was up to Fox to choose tactics that best suited.
That provoked increasing speculation about a rift in the squad. What was apparent was the great fortune the All Blacks required to win at Eden Park and the need to get more purchase from the loose forward combinations and in midfield.
Shelford remained a ferocious competitor without peer in the close graft. Those skills would only go so far against the Wallabies and the captain was apparently told his test place was at risk unless he lifted his game.
In 1989, Shelford had trimmed down after an offseason in France and Wyllie mentioned to Harbour coach Peter Thorburn his concern that Shelford had also lost some of his playing authority.
Before the end of year tour Shelford had packed on some kilos and regained his form while his greatest competitor Brooke, couldn’t find his usual panache.
But things were changing in the winter of 1990. Brooke had been prominent with Auckland and had stated his claim for promotion. The All Blacks, however, had been troubled by Scotland and Shelford's performances were causing the selectors particular angst. They felt they would need something more in their armoury to play the Wallabies and Shelford was in the firing line.
Shelford was heading towards his 33rd birthday and was still relentlessly physical in the close exchanges but he was not getting as wide on the park as quickly as he used to while Brooke was much younger with a greater range of skill yet still lacked some intensity.
“The team knew how strong Buck had been around the scrum and perhaps the team was waiting for that to happen,” Wyllie said. “Or perhaps he’s lost his drive because he wasn’t going as far as before. We had to look at somebody else who could do it or else we were going to have to change our plans in that area.”
On July 11 in Whangarei, Shelford played for North Harbour against Northland while in Hamilton, the Wallabies opened their tour against Waikato with the All Blacks due to be announced later that night.
Hart and Penn had been to watch Shelford while Wyllie inspected the Wallabies before they reconvened for a fateful meeting in Auckland. The reports about Shelford were not encouraging and Wyllie knew what had to be done, he just hated doing it.
The team naming ended up being delayed. NZRU chairman Eddie Tonks said that night that there were still checks to be carried out on the fitness of various players so the announcement would be made in the morning.
That bought Wyllie some time to talk with Shelford and tell him the bad news. It was an awkward moment for both men.
Wyllie, like Shelford, had also been a No 8 and they got on “all right” as long as it was face to face. Neither was keen on phone calls and while Shelford was not big on ceremony and poignant moments he insists the whole situation would have played out better if Wyllie had told him face to face that he was being dropped.
But for all his hard man image, Wyllie disliked that sort of confrontation and had a history of struggling to drop players from the Canterbury lineup while Shelford could be curt and abrasive.
Having a naval background, Shelford, while he didn't like the decision, knew the importance of remaining respectful to the chain of command. He accepted his fate, supported Wyllie and vowed to keep playing his best to force the selectors into having a change of heart.
Shelford privately said that he felt for Wyllie who was under huge pressure from the NZRU hierarchy and an Auckland faction whose players dominated the squad.
Weeks, even months after the news had broken, the issue refused to die.
Conspiracy theories widened as Shelford’s sacking shunted every other rugby topic into the distance. The ideas put forward as to why it had happened were plentiful.
Some said the Auckland mafia had worn Wyllie down, the blue and white faction with Hart leading the push and supported by Tonks had carried the torch. Others said Fox and Shelford had been fighting, and or that Brooke had been promised a crack to stop him going to league. Versions about Shelford’s sacking were as many as they were fanciful and the whole business remains one of the great scandals of that decade.