The greatest one-capped All Black

Some players leave an impact out of all proportion to their apparent achievement, and few more so than Karl Ifwersen, who died 50 years ago this month.

In 1970 the New Zealand writer Gordon Slatter, celebrating 100 years of the game in his country, wrote of the eternal debates over relative greatness: “Was Ifwersen a finer back than Cooke or Nicholls, was Seeling a finer forward than Brownlie or Meads?”

The other five stand without question among the All Black immortals. Ifwersen played only a single match for the All Blacks, yet half a century later could be cited by a serious observer as belonging in their company.

His career extended across both rugby codes. He switched between them with an ease, which in part reflects the limited extent to which they diverged in the early decades after the schism of 1895, but — given that he always played in one of the key decision-making midfield roles — is still remarkable.

It was also a time before the imposition of global IRB rules, when national and local variations were still allowed. And he showed a capacity for adventure on and off the field.

Born in Auckland in 1893, his talents first became evident at Auckland Grammar School and blossomed as he moved into adult rugby, as a teenage second-five helping take the College Rifles club to consecutive junior championships and promotion into the senior ranks.

Picked for Auckland in 1912, he seemed predestined to be College Rifles’ first All Black. But that honour instead went to his midfield colleague Lyn Weston, capped against Australia in 1914. Ifwersen seemed to have given up such ambitions when he switched to rugby league with the Grafton club in 1913.

League had launched in New Zealand in 1908 and as historian Paul Neazor has written: “The new game had developed a huge following in short order and could offer good money to the best rugby players.” And, the oldest of four surviving children when his father died in 1910, Ifwersen doubtless needed the money.

The transition was seamless. He went almost instantly into the Auckland side and was chosen for the New Zealand Kiwis tour of Australia, the first on which they wore the kiwi and silver fern motif on their jerseys. No Tests were played on that tour, but his debut came the following year against the visiting Great Britain team.

He enlisted as a private in the Third Auckland Regiment as soon as the First World War broke out and was among the first New Zealanders to see action — sent among the 1,400 strong Samoan Expeditionary Force sent to occupy what was then a German possession within a fortnight of war being declared.

He was nearly the first to die. Before his troopship had reached Mourea in New Caledonia he went down with acute appendicitis and was only saved by an emergency operation in an improvised theatre rigged up in one of the cabins.

Within a few days he had rejoined his unit “cheerful and completely recovered”, and fit to take part in the landing on Samoa — the German governor surrendering without a shot fired — at the end of August 1914.

The expeditionary force returned home early in 1915 and with league competition continuing, Ifwersen helped Grafton to their only Premiership that year, while in 1916 a public charity vote to raise funds for the war effort rated him the third most popular league player in Auckland. Opai Asher, who had played in the first All Black Test team in 1903, lost any chance of a place on the 1905 tour of Britain because of a serious knee injury sustained as a firefighter and switched to league in 1908, was second.

More active service was resumed in 1917 when he went to Egypt as a trooper in the Mounted Rifles. When the war ended he had the option — a specifically New Zealand offering, not matched by any of the Home Unions — of using his service record to seek reinstatement as a rugby union player, but chose not to take it up.

So 1919 found him once more wearing the Kiwi shirt, this time as captain, on a tour of Australia followed by a visit from the Wallabies. The important on-field action took place in the home leg, as he played brilliantly in a four test series which Australia won 3-1.

“The most obvious tribute to his brilliance is that 80 years on, and despite playing only one match for New Zealand, his name is still well-remembered.”

Paul Neazor

There were no Tests in Australia. But what went on tour certainly did not stay on tour. Neither the first nor last player to find enjoyable female company while away from home, he was however exceptional in finding his tour dalliance the cause of a divorce in which he was named as co-respondent.

Ifwersen took the unusual step, as co-respondent, of opposing the divorce action, arguing that he was innocent. When it came to trial amid considerable publicity in November 1919, the court did not believe him, and a decree nisi was granted and costs of £53 8s — enough to rent an average-sized house for a year in one of New Zealand’s largest cities — were awarded against him.

But his on-field performances were unaffected — he was New Zealand’s captain and its star in the home series against New Zealand in 1920, ending his representative career with seven caps.

The following year, with the service amnesty available, he sought and obtained reinstatement as a rugby union player. He rejoined Auckland rugby union at a propitious time.

Fearing competition from league, the provincial union had adopted what became known as the Auckland amendments, creating a game in which defending backs had to stay behind the scrum until the ball had been heeled by the opposing team and direct kicks to touch were forbidden outside the 25-yard line.

Initially opposed by the New Zealand Rugby Union, they were accepted in 1921. Anticipating developments in the global game by decades, the amendments produced what Laurie Knight remembered 50 years later as “fast, good-handling forwards whose support of clever back lines has never been equalled”.

They were also made for Ifwersen, remembered by Winston McCarthy as “as talented a player as ever played second-five”, by Terry McLean as as “an Artful Dodger” and “a tactical genius”.

Hawkes Bay coach Norm McKenzie remembered that he “always seemed to be the master of every situation”. For Auckland coach Vin Meredith, who devised “early pass” tactics — passing to a supporting teammate as soon as you received the ball — Ifwersen was, McLean recorded, the “ideal of a constructive, clever, attacking midfield back”.

He was back in the Auckland team before he had played a club match, and an All Black within a few months, with the selectors sufficiently keen to get him into the team that they dropped skipper George Aitken — later to become a Rhodes Scholar and play in Scotland’s Grand Slam-winning all-Oxford threequarter line in 1925 — and moved the brilliant Mark Nicholls to centre for the third and deciding match of their first ever series against South Africa.

Karl Ifwersen could have helped improve the 1926 All Blacks, pictured above performing the Haka. E. Bacon/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Too bad it was to be a foul day even by the standards of Athletic Park, Wellington, with beating rain producing a pitch which Springbok hooker Tokkie Scholz as “like a lake, with an occasional patch of mud showing like raisins on a Christmas pudding”.

It was emphatically not a day for Ifwersen, or any other creative player. Bok full-back Gerhard Morkel fielded and handled brilliantly in the wet and it ended 0-0. The All Blacks were not to play another test until 1924.

Ifwersen was into rugby middle age by 1923 but still capable of scheming Auckland’s memorable Ranfurly Shield defeat of holders Hawkes Bay in a contest recalled by McLean as “an exposition of classic perfection”.

He was not, though, considered for the 1924 Tests because they were to be played on a tour of Britain, Ireland and France and it was feared that the home unions would refuse to accept a reinstated league player.

But he still played one of the early tour trials, slipped in just before half-time to placate his home fans as a replacement for injured skipper Cec Baddeley with Auckland provinces trailing 9-0 to Hawkes Bay provinces.

He inspired a remarkable recovery to win 18-9, receiving what he reckoned the greatest tribute of his career when the other players elected him skipper after Baddeley’s deputy in turn limped off.

The All Black “Invincibles” arguably needed improving less than any other team in history, but it is possible that Ifwersen might have done it. Ifwersen went on into coaching and administration, acting as a selector for Auckland in 1926 and North Auckland in the later 1930s.

He married twice and in later life, when it was reported that he suffered greatly from the after-effects of rugby injuries, often attended big matches with the help of Vin Meredith (by now Sir Vincent), who remained a devoted admirer.

He died on May 19th 1967, but achieved fresh recognition in 2010 when Sonny Bill Williams emulated his previously unique feat of becoming an All Black after first playing for the Kiwis.

Paul Neazor wrote early this century that: “The most obvious tribute to his brilliance is that 80 years on, and despite playing only one match for New Zealand, his name is still well-remembered. It is hard to think of any other one-game All Black to whom that applies.”

Distance increases and the centenary of that single Test looms, but it remains just as true today.

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