50 years on: Super Sid Going still No. 1

As New Zealand open their Rugby Championship campaign against Australia on Saturday, one of the greatest All Blacks will be marking a double anniversary. It is both the 74th birthday of Sid Going — perhaps the best of the country’s formidable scrum-halves — and 50 years to the day since he made his international debut, by happy coincidence against the Wallabies.

That match at Athletic Park, Wellington itself marked an anniversary — the 75th birthday of the New Zealand Rugby Union, founded in 1892. Going and his teammates, among whom Waka Nathan was playing the final Test of a brilliant 14-cap career and hooker John Major his first and last, were proceeded on to the pitch by 300 former All Blacks including two survivors — George Nicholson and Billy Wallace — from their first team of all in 1903.

Going represented continuity in another sense — the Maori scrum-half tradition including the accomplished mid-century duo of Keith Davis and Vince Bevan and prewar virtuoso Jimmy Mill. There was more than an echo of Mill in the attacking talents which Rod Chester and Neville McMillan reckoned made Going “a match-winner… in a class of his own” with “no equal as a runner from behind his own pack.”

The mind’s eye recalls a compact, wirily muscular, prematurely balding figure performing with an effervescence that inspired the historians of his local union, North Auckland (now Northland), to lyricism: “A bundle of barbed wire, cast iron and rubber. Sid ran like a slippy eel making for the water. Without warning, he exploded like a bunch of firecrackers and some of his fantastic feats on the field could only be equalled in a topline circus.”

If that was the voice of local pride, New Zealand’s most authoritative and stringent chronicler Terry McLean reckoned Going was “an instinctive genius”.

For a decade Going rivalled Gareth Edwards for the title of the world’s finest scrum-half. Edwards recalled that he was “without doubt the finest scrum-half I played against. We had a battle over a long period of time and some he won, some I won. He was a great competitor, so dangerous, a match-winner. You had to keep such a close eye on the man.”

English writer John Reason, never knowingly understated, thought Going had the better of all but one of their dozen head to head confrontations, while Going himself recalled his pride at “getting the better of him in most of those Tests, possibly because our forward pack generally had the upper hand.”

The 16th inductee into the All Black Hall of Fame, he is wont to turn up around 10th-15th in the ‘greatest All Black’ listings which are something of a New Zealand cottage industry, generally beating out Dave Loveridge and Justin Marshall as the best scrum-half. He, wing Bryan Williams and back rower Ian Kirkpatrick rank as the outstanding All Blacks of the early 1970s, worthy successors in an era of slightly diminished achievement to giants of the previous few years like Colin Meads, Ken Gray and Brian Lochore.

One of five brothers who grew up on the family farm in Maromaku, Going was both an early starter and a late developer. He played for North Auckland at 19, but — like many a young New Zealander since — was then distracted by foreign travel.

Going puts boot to ball during New Zealand’s clash with the Barbarians in 1974.┬áS&G/PA Images via Getty Images

He was not, though, to be found tending a bar, teaching early years pupils or keeping accounts in London. Going spent two years seeking converts as a Mormon missionary in Canada. His faith, which made him a rare teetotal rugby player, has been a constant throughout his life, his example and achievements quoted to young believers at global congresses.

He returned home to find Chris Laidlaw, three months younger, established as the All Black incumbent. It was a classic contest of contrasts — Laidlaw’s quick hands and spin pass brought outside backs into the game while the more individualistic Going terrorised opposing defences with sniping blindside breaks.

Going impressed from the start as an All Black, sparking a five-try 29-9 thumping of Australia on his debut and scoring three tries in his next two appearances, both against France. In 1969 he was conspicuous in the thumping of Five Nations champions Wales, who were visiting New Zealand for the first time.

But Laidlaw, if fit and available, remained first choice, playing most of the Tests in Britain and France in 1967 and South Africa, where Going was one of three Maori players cast into the invidious role of ‘honorary white’, in 1970.

When Going finally made the position his own in 1971, New Zealand lost to the Lions. But their single victory, in the second Test, was built on his brilliance — Reason writing: “He dominated the game. His kicking set up rucks, and the rucks set up the positions. His running set up four tries too. Even his passing was much better than in his early years. With a half-back like him, New Zealand had no need of backs. On his own Going managed to frustrate the superior scrummaging of the Lions. This was genius indeed.”

It took specially-tailored back row selections for the last two Tests, and a week of training in which reserve scrum-half Chico Hopkins was deputed to impersonate him, for the Lions to devise a means of containing Going.

Three Going brothers — Brian partnering Sid at first-five with Ken at fullback — confronted the Lions for North Auckland. Where a few lines were usually sufficient to summarise the tactical variations of New Zealand provincial sides, the tourists needed several pages of text to explain the trio’s tricks and stratagems, and were still nearly undone by their party piece, a double scissors and dummy.

Going, left, with the great Welsh scrum-half Gareth Edwards. David Rogers/Getty Images

British audiences saw him at first hand in 1972-73, when he came as vice-captain on the last of the full-length All Black tours. They did not always like him — McLean reckoned him the main culprit for the team’s grimly unpopular demeanour on a tour blighted by the sending home of prop Keith Murdoch after a violent late-night incident in Cardiff — but were left in no doubt of his brilliance after, in particular, the 19-16 victory over Wales.

Going was never without his critics, not least in New Zealand. He was left out of the 1974 All Black tour of Australia because the selectors wanted to play in a more open style, and was finally dropped in 1977 when the astute Jack Gleeson, confronted by a dominant Lions pack, concluded that he needed the superior passing of veteran Lyn Davis to outmanoeuvre the tourists. But right to the end he remained an attacking threat — scoring a try in the first Test of the series and crossing twice more for the Maoris against the Lions on the day when he was dropped.

His 29 Tests at scrum-half for the All Blacks remained a record until equalled by Graeme Bachop in the 1995 World Cup final. Marshall, a prolific scorer in his early international days, surpassed his 10 tries in 1997. Among scrum-halves globally only the prodigious Joost van der Westhuizen, with 38 tries in 87 tests and Jerome Gallion, 10 in 27, have been more consistent scorers — Laidlaw by comparison scored three times in 20 matches and Loveridge three in 24 — with Edwards marginally behind on 20 tries from 63 matches.

Retirement brought a 1978 autobiography called ‘Super Sid’, a place in the New Zealand honours list and a life in which farm, family, faith and rugby — he was selector-coach of Northland from 1993 to 1996 — continued to dominate. It has been argued that the Going clan is the nearest thing the Northland has to a royal family, leaving no doubt who is its patriarch.

There is a hint of Nadal vs. Federer in the debate, always one to stimulate New Zealanders and Welshmen of a certain generation, as to where he stands in relation to Edwards. How does one balance head-to-head records against broader all-round considerations, particularly given the team context of rugby? Both nationalism and rugby ideology play their part.

There is, for example, little doubt that Edwards brought more out of players outside him, but is that an argument in his favour or simply a reflection of the remarkable talent in Wales and Lions back divisions during the 1970s?

There is of course, no definitive answer — but one very clear conclusion is that Sid Going was, by any standards, a very fine player indeed.

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50 years on: Super Sid Going still No. 1
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