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Keith Quinn: Grit, discipline key to Fred Allen's success

opinion

By Keith Quinn

Published: 3:06PM Monday April 30, 2012 Source: ONE Sport

In all our lives we are governed to some extent by the surroundings of our youth. In the case of Sir Fred Allen, the eminent and honoured All Black player and rugby coach, that was very obvious.

Sir Fred who died last weekend aged 92 was born in 1920 when times were really tough in New Zealand. And all over the world.

Fred came into the world as part of a family of six kids in Christchurch. And soon things got worse. When you talked to the man in later years he would tell the story about how his struggling father, who was not afraid of a drink or three, would sometimes come home from his modestly paid job in the local rail yards and in domestic disputes the husband would sometimes strike the wife.

Standing by, young Fred Allen, even as a 12 year felt obliged to try to step in to defend his beloved mother. Fred took more than a whack or two from the old man. Not a happy memory to have.

Further tough times followed. The 1930s depression hit the country. Fred's father disappeared and was rarely seen again in his lifetime. His youngest son was therefore soon out to work in his early teens. Fred completely missed secondary schooling.

And World War II was also looming in the years to come!

Could you blame the young Fred Allen for developing a tough tone in his persona which carried over into his adulthood? And yet from that background he grew to be a man widely recognized as one of the best rugby coaches New Zealand has ever produced.

In many ways the arrival of the war years became the making of the man. Fred did service in the Pacific and in Europe and he came to be heavily influenced by the rigours and disciplines of war. He was always on time; he was always dressed smartly and groomed perfectly. These he carried over into his post-war rugby playing days and into his even later life as a top coach. He asked his players to be aware of the same disciplines.

When Fred had charge of the coaching of the All Blacks on tour in UK in 1967 and his manager was his old army touring mate, Major Charles Saxton, they insisted the All Blacks even dressed with jacket and tie for breakfast in the British Hotels!

As a rugby thinker Fred often spoke about discipline, total commitment and the expression "the will to win". Things like that were simple but Fred lived them.

He would often include those words as the themes for his team talks before test matches. The stirring speeches became legendary. While outside the dressing rooms Fred could use language which might make a sailor blush - he never stooped to that in his team talks. That was part of the discipline he talked about; he expected it of his teams, so he lived it as well in his presentation.

As a player Fred was a good enough five-eighths to be a worthy All Black, building on the authority he earned as a key member of the 1945-46 'Kiwi' Army team which toured UK and Europe to re-start the game in those places after the horrors of war.

On returning home and re-joining his mother and siblings who had shifted to Auckland, Fred rose to captain his country on two significant tours (to Australia in 1947 and to South Africa in 1949).

On the latter trip it was soon obvious that the All Blacks coach who had been assigned to beat the Springboks, Alex McDonald of Wellington, at 65 years of age, was out of touch with the modern game. And also of the rigours of travel.

A 65-year old in those days was considered an old man and Mr McDonald suffered from ill health too. Fred Allen therefore relinquished the captaincy and virtually took over as coach for the last two tests. It wasn't a happy result for the All Blacks, losing the test matches 4-0. But somehow Fred could not put aside the thought of coaching again.

His first home stint in charge of a team was with the Grammar Club in Auckland. Then in 1957 someone obviously had put in a good word and he took over Auckland's rep team.

This wasn't always a happy association and by 1959 there were rumours Fred might be replaced. But in a stroke of good fortune, Southland had won the Ranfurly Shield off Taranaki that winter and Auckland therefore secured a surprise late season challenge.

The Shield was duly won and a golden era began for Auckland. Fred rode on the good fortune of a record run of Shield defences and that carried him right through to becoming an All Black selector in 1964. He then rose to be the All Black coach in 1966.

It was then that Fred's insistence on discipline gained wider attention. Stories emerged that famous All Blacks, Colin Meads for instance, were actually scared of their coach. Fred used the 'fear factor' to build his teams up before each game they played.

He became a crafty old dog. He would gather his team around and read out telegrams, which he told the players, were from disgruntled fans at home. The messages would be scornful of certain player's form on tour. Fred relished the 'putting down' of top players and he read them out gleefully. The effect was that soon everyone in the All Blacks became more attentive to Fred's demands at each fixture. What would follow would be an improvement of performance.

When it was later revealed many of the telegrams were fake Fred moved on to other, equally sneaky ways of building his teams up.

One time he shouted at the great Meads, "Am I boring you Colin?" Meads had been stifling a yawn at a team talk and Fred had noticed. "You can catch the next bus home if you like!" Meads winced, but the rest of the players knew that if their best player was being shouted at then they had to perform better too if only to avoid a similar reaction from their coach.

Fred coached his rugby with a unique philosophy. He believed the rugby which had been played in the 1950s had been stodgy and grim. So he changed that. His 1967 team in particular played a glorious version of a 15-man running game. Before the first game in UK Fred announced to the press that his teams would be attempting that at each outing.

The great players in that team, and there were many, never let his philosophy down. Men like Colin and Stan Meads, Ken Gray, Ian Kirkpatrick, Kel Tremain, Fergie McCormick, Sid Going, Malcolm Dick and all the others, never played better in their lives than when their 'disciplined' approach allowed them to shine under the Allen way.

In his three seasons with the All Blacks Fred's teams never lost a game (37 games, 14 tests until the end of 1968). Four of the principal players of the '60s era attained a status which had them knighted and, in the end, in 2010, Fred himself became Sir Frederick too.

I saw him once on TV say to an interviewer "Please don't call me that," when he was addressed as Sir Fred. But I think Fred liked his new status. From the world of dignity and discipline from which he had emerged after the tough upbringing years the title offered him a very nice touch of formality with which to celebrate the last of his years.

From where he had come from he deserved that.

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