Brian Ashby: My memories of Fergie McCormick

Lions versus AllBlacks – First test 26/06/1971 AllBlack – Rugby – Sport All Black fullback Fergie McCormick kicks a penalty in the first test against the Lions at Carisbrook Dunedin 1971.

Is it the same for everyone? My love of sport was underpinned by my earliest sporting memories.

I didn’t really know what the Ranfurly Shield was, other than it was a big deal- at that time the biggest deal in domestic rugby.

Canterbury had ownership of the “log o’ wood”, and their opening defence of the year was against Marlborough.

It was sort of the same for all the boys in my Under 8’s team at Burnside.

We all wanted to go to the game, but all our Dads were suggesting that more stern Shield defences later in the season would be more interesting games to attend.

They all got that one badly wrong. Canterbury lost and didn’t get another challenge until 1981, before ultimately flogging it from Wellington a season later.

So I was gutted. The Shield was gone, and I didn’t get to see Canterbury in action. Fast forward to September 1973, and England was in town. I finally got to go Lancaster Park for the first time.

I sat in the number three stand and amazingly saw Canterbury do what they constantly did through the 1970s, and roll an international touring team.

Truth be told, it wasn’t a great game, but the thing that struck me, was the love the crowd had for the chunky wee balding bloke in the number 15 jersey.

Every time Fergie McCormick touched the ball, the crowd lit up. My perception at that time was that fullback was where you poked the awkward unco-ordinated kids to kind of hide them from the action.

But this was different; Fergie was the action. Grizz Wyllie was the Boss, but he had a very staunch Sergeant barking orders and waving his arms at the back.

Life was a little different back then. Rugby was seen as something that was good for boys to “let off a little steam”.

In other words it was as rough as guts. It flowed through to general society too- thankfully we live in more enlightened times.

The hard men of the era were the heroes we looked up to. Life must’ve been tough for more bookish types.

At 1 metre 70 and 83 kilos, Fergie was far from the biggest bloke on the field. But he was completely fearless. He was renowned as an almost lunatic tackler and thrived on smashing the big blokes. He would bring them down any way he could. It’s fair to say that by today’s standards, he’d cop one or three yellow cards, at the very least..

The other thing fans loved about Fergie was his goal kicking. Turn the clock back to his era. Other than a couple of flashy Five Nations blokes, it all was all square toe boots. You kicked front on off the toes- none of this poncy around the corner stuff.

The grounds were glorified mud baths, and the heavy leather balls had all the aerodynamics of week-old road kill. But Fergie had a good radar and his chunky little legs were able to fire them over from a fair range.

With super-boots that followed like Hewson, Fox, Deans, Mehrtens, Carter and others, it’s easy to forget that Fergie’s 24 point haul for the All Blacks against Wales in 1969 was a longstanding world record.

On Saturday afternoons, we’d go over to Burnside Park and watch our senior team.

Burnside was a fairly new club back then, and was often cannon-fodder for the older established clubs. It was always really cool when Linwood came to play at Burnside Park.

You’d get to see All Blacks up close in the flesh. Terry Mitchell scoring tries from all over the park, Tane Norton striking tight heads at will, and then the stroppy bloke at the back ! Everyone loved Fergie. Amazingly, at club level back then, Fergie wasn’t the number one goalkicker for Linwood, with Peter Jellyman setting all sorts of club rugby records with his season hauls.

The beginning of the end came for Fergie in 1975 against Scotland. In the first half, Ferg missed a couple of shots at goal from pretty much in front. The crowd turned on him. During the half time break, the ball boys practiced their goal kicking and were sending them over from where poor old Ferg had missed. The crowd loved it, but Fergie got the last laugh, with a magnificent second half try, that sealed the win.

Fast forward into the 80’s and I was playing as an ordinary outside back in an ordinary St Andrews College first fifteen. The Cantabrians rugby club organised a midweek game- come coaching session against us. Their side was made up of fringe Canterbury players and former representative stars. Fergie, who by this stage was approaching his mid 40s, was in the number 15 jersey. Our first five Ian Cowans put up a bomb, and bravely as ever, Fearless Fergie took it and was then buried by a pack of ferocious 17 and 18 year olds. Fergie was kind of a victim of his own reputation. He quietly exited the game a few minutes later, but post match, he was hugely animated as we broke into small groups for our coaching sessions.

William Fergus McCormick has never left rugby. He never stopped giving to the game, and I suspect from his point of view, the game never stopped giving to him.

Fergie won’t be resting in peace. He’ll have a pair of square toed boots on right now, and he’ll be practicing his goal kicking over the Pearly Gates. There won’t be much peace for those around him either, but they’ll all be having a great time.

Source: (10th April 2018)

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