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Victor Cavanagh - NZ Rugby Legend



When Otago lifted the Shield from Southland in 1947, it signalled the birth of one of New Zealand rugby's legendary figures - Otago coach Victor Cavanagh. 

Cavanagh moulded Otago into a formidable team that repelled 19 Shield challengers between 1947 and 1950. His side provided 11 members of the 1949 All Blacks to South Africa and many, including tour captain Fred Allen, believed the side would have won the series if the NZRFU had not stunningly overlooked him as coach. 

Cavanagh's noted powers of deep thinking and clear articulation of ideas once prompted a newspaper columnist to write that he "needed only 15 fit boneheads on the field of play. As long as they had the mental capacity to follow orders, Cavanagh could win the game". 

However while Cavanagh's impressive brain and natural charisma made him immensely popular in the deep south, his forthright nature did not enamour him to many people further north. 

It seemed you either loved or hated the "Otago game". Supporters viewed the side as a mixture of wonderful forwards and backs who concealed their limitations with remarkably accurate handling; detractors considered it 10-man rugby based on minimal risk, ruthless forward play and incessant kicking. 

Cavanagh certainly had all the skills for coaching. He was an unrivalled thinker, communicator and motivator, and blessed with a phenomenal memory. He also knew what made his men tick and was able to build remarkable cameraderie among his squad of farmers, students and city workers. 

His team talks were famed for their clarity but Kevin Skinner, one of New Zealand's finest-ever props, believed Cavanagh was at his best when talking rugby at the "happy hour" he and his players enjoyed at the Criterion Hotel after every match. 

One of the great games of Cavanagh's era came in 1947 against Auckland, who contained the likes of Bob Scott, Fred Allen, Percy Tetzlaff and Johnny Simpson. The home side trailed 12-3 at halftime but famously the coach didn't let rip during the break. 

Instead he paced up and down in silence, letting the atmosphere charge up to the point where only a few sharp words - alas not the oft-quoted "out you go again, girls" - were required to ram home the message. Auckland were shut out, 18-12. 

Otago's grandest year was 1948. They scored 41 tries in seven Shield matches, crushing Southland 25-0, Canterbury 31-0, Poverty Bay 40-0, and South Canterbury 36-6. However Cavanagh's finest moment came in 1949 when, minus his 11 All Blacks, he built a new team and repulsed six challengers. 

Otago's grip on the Shield finally slipped when least expected; beaten by an unfancied Canterbury side mid-week in front of a small crowd that expected the home side would come good right up to the end.

With thanks to Matt McIlraith and the NZ Rugby Union.


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