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Ex-All Black Fergie McCormick's passing robs rugby of a 'committed character'
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McCormick made a record 222 appearances for Canterbury in an 18-year representative career from 1958 to 1975.

OBITUARY: Fergie McCormick – who has lost his battle with throat cancer – will be remembered as one of the toughest characters to wear the All Blacks and Canterbury rugby jerseys.

The former fullback, who played 16 tests from 1965 to 1971, died in Christchurch on Tuesday, aged 78.

McCormick's strength and courage belied his nuggety size. He was often photographed, crossing the tryline with opposition forwards clinging vainly to his broad back.

Champion Canterbury and All Black fullback Fergie McCormick is chaired off Lancaster Park after breaking Don Clarke's ...
Champion Canterbury and All Black fullback Fergie McCormick is chaired off Lancaster Park after breaking Don Clarke's career points record.

In his 1976 biography, Fergie, writer Alex Veysey claimed McCormick's commitment to rugby rivalled the great Colin Meads.

* McCormick dies after cancer battle
* McCormick seriously ill

All Black and Canterbury teammate Alex Wyllie once described him, admiringly, as the "original, brick crap house". 

Former All Black fullback Fergie McCormick outside his beloved Lancaster Park ground gates in 2016.
Former All Black fullback Fergie McCormick outside his beloved Lancaster Park ground gates in 2016.

T P McLean anointed McCormick alongside Billy Wallace, George Nepia, Bob Scott and Don Clarke as the great Kiwi fullbacks.

The statistics back the tributes up.

McCormick made a record 222 appearances for Canterbury in an 18-year representative career from 1958 to 1975, scoring a record 1297 points.

Fergie McCormick leaves Eden Park after scoring a then world record 24 points in a test against Wales in 1968.
Fergie McCormick leaves Eden Park after scoring a then world record 24 points in a test against Wales in 1968.

He turned out 28 times for the All Blacks, starring on two major overseas tours, to Europe in 1967 and South Africa in 1970.

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The Dan Carter of his day, McCormick once held a test record by scoring 24 points against Wales in 1968.

The Linwood club stalwart was 26, with six seasons of provincial rugby behind him, when he made his All Blacks debut in 1965 against South Africa.

Always outspoken in the best interests of the game, Fergie McCormick loved rugby to the very end.
Always outspoken in the best interests of the game, Fergie McCormick loved rugby to the very end.

He was still in his prime when dropped from the All Blacks in a kneejerk reaction to the first test loss against the British and Irish Lions in Dunedin in 1971.

In true McCormick fashion, he did his talking on the pitch – going on to to excel for another four years with Canterbury.

Early life

William Fergus McCormick was born in Ashburton on Anzac Day eve – April 24, 1939.

He came from top sporting stock. Father, Archie McCormick, was a two-time New Zealand amateur heavyweight boxing champion in the early 1920s and was a nuggety hooker on the All Blacks' 1925 Australian tour. Mother Helen (Jean) was a noted track sprinter who had been selected for the New Zealand hockey team's abortive 1929 South Africa tour. A sister, Helen, was a New Zealand hockey international, and two others, Joan (hockey) and Kathleen (softball) represented Canterbury at senior level. Fergie also represented Canterbury and the South Island as a softball shortstop and was a proficient club cricketer.

The McCormicks grew up on farms in the Belfast and Papanui districts where they had plenty of chores but young Fergie also found time to ride horses, raid orchards and poultry farms, stuff crackers in letter boxes and boot balls over back-field goal posts.

His biography noted there were also "plenty of scraps, though his ration of wins to losses was appallingly low".

Before long, he followed his father into rugby, a natural outlet for his speed, skill and innate competitiveness.

Archie McCormick doubled Fergie on the bar of his bike across Christchurch to play schoolboy rugby for Linwood, Archie's old club.

Fergie spent three years in the under five stone grade, representing Canterbury at lock despite weighing just over 23kg.

As time went on, McCormick found his niche at first five-eighth, representing Canterbury there right through to the Colts (under 21) grade.

After a year at Papanui High School, his parents switched him to Christchurch Boy's High School where he rose only as far as captain of the third XV before leaving early to take up a plastering apprenticeship.

By his own admission, McCormick (Fungus to his mates) played hard on and off the field, as a young man.

He and his mates turned up to Canterbury's dance halls with a five-gallon keg of beer in tow and an eye for a fight.

McCormick acknowledged in Fergie he was "a bit of a rebel and when we hit the booze and went to the dances there was gong to be trouble. I suppose I was an awful little bastard in those days. The boys looked after each other, stuck together when the chips were down. The whole environment of our lives was one flouting establishment rules. The philosophy was that if you couldn't handle yourself you couldn't survive."

There were brushes with law too, which McCormick ruefully recalled was bound to happen "when you think of the fights we got into".

Despite his rapscallion lifestyle, his rugby career remained unaffected and he would go on to serve his community, off the field.

Rugby breakthrough

McCormick established himself in Linwood's senior lineup in 1957 as an 18-year-old and was, initially, a backline utility playing everywhere but halfback. In one memorable match at centre, he conducted a running crash tackling duel with All Black centre Allan Elsom which left Elsom with a broken nose McCormick reeling from a challenge he claimed "put the fear of God" into him.

At first, McCormick hated playing fullback, which he thought was too far from the action. But Linwood rugby stalwart Harry Davis, who'd picked Archie McCormick for the All Blacks, insisted fullback would be the youngster's best position.

McCormick settled there and, as a 19-year-old, was thrown into the Lions den, against the 1959 British and Irish tourists.

While his mother fretted that he was too young and inexperienced for the international assignment, McCormick kept the Lions' star wing Tony O'Reilly in check and made a thumping tackle on David Hewitt as Canterbury celebrated a 20-14 win.

McCormick never looked back, going on to play a record 222 matches for Canterbury in a remarkable 18-year career.

With his shorts hitched high, he became a cult hero with the masses on the Lancaster Park embankment.

"The stooped, almost simian hulk of his walk as he defended the open spaces, the crunch of his tackling, the brashness of his attitude, the courage and quality of his rugby, here was a new sort of hero-figure," Alex Veysey wrote.

A brilliant attacker with swerve and verve, McCormick was not noted as a goalkicker early in his career, playing second fiddle to Buddy Henderson with Canterbury and Peter Jellyman at his Linwood club.

He first represented the South Island in 1960 and was selected for the New Zealand XV, but Don Clarke – the hulking fullback dubbed The Boot – had a mortgage on the All Blacks' fullback jersey from 1956 to 1964.

All Blacks era

McCormick was locked in a battle with Wellingtons Mick Williment in the race to be Clarke's heir apparent.

McCormick, who had played in Canterbury's win over the 1962 Australians, missed a handy goal kick which cost Canterbury victory against the Springboks in 1965.

Williment got the nod for the first three tests against South Africa, but McCormick's patience was rewarded when he became an All Black in the final fixture, converting one of five tries in a 20-3 to clinch a 3-1 series win.

However, McCormick was the only fullback on the 1967 All Blacks' European tour, starring in a lineup recently hailed by Steve Hansen as the best all-round All Black side.

He featured in series wins over Australia in 1968 and Wales in 1969 but had a less successful tour to South Africa in 1970 where his confidence was affected by an incident in the second test where Springbok wing Sid Nomis ran into his shoulder and broke several teeth.

McCormick was initially excoriated in the South African media - and by All Blacks manager Ron Burk – for a stiff-arm tackle. But he was exonerated when subsequent photographs proved his back was turned to Nomis and he was guilty only of obstruction.

Yet, he was mystifyingly dropped for the fourth test – won by the Boks to clinch the series – despite recovering from a back injury.

Back home, McCormick further enshrined himself in Canterbury rugby lore when, with his five-eighths flubbing, he stepped up and said "give the bloody thing here, I'll have a go" and duly dropped a goal to save the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington's clutches.

McCormick was dropped from the All Blacks after the first test against the 1971 Lions when he was targeted by clever tactical kicking from Barry John, who hatched a ploy, with coach Carwyn James, to kick the ball low to make McCormick stoop to collect and give the touring forwards time to shut down the feared counter attacker.

John told a gaggle of New Zealand rugby writers in 2002 that the series winning Lions were stunned to hear on the radio that McCormick had been dropped for Laurie Mains for the next test.

McCormick never played for the All Blacks again, but he remained one of the best players in the country, until injury forced him to retire in 1975.

An abiding memory was seeing him carried off Lancaster Park by Wyllie and All Black Hamish MacDonald after breaking Clarke's career points scoring record in 1973.

In later life, McCormick  turned to coaching Canterbury age-group sides and women's club teams. After leaving the freezing works slaughterboard team in 1970, he became a popular employee at the Canterbury Sports Depot and then ran several pubs, including the Shades Tavern where a young Steve Hansen once worked as a barman. He later worked in real estate and had a lifestyle farm.

His son, Andrew McCormick, played 84 games for Canterbury from 1988 to 1992 and captained Japan at the 1999 Rugby World Cup.

No fan of officialdom as a player, he eventually became an administrator, McCormick ultimately becoming Canterbury Rugby Union president.

Always outspoken in the best interests of the game, McCormick – a life member of Linwood and Canterbury - loved rugby and its people to the very end.

 - Stuff

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