Remembering the 'Prince of Centres' Bruce Robertson
Bruce Robertson, who died on Friday, May 12, aged 71, was one of the finest centres to have played for the All Blacks.
Tall, fast and with an unerring ability to feed his wings into try-scoring space, he was a central contributor to the revival of the All Blacks' running game, something which had been overshadowed by the strength of the All Blacks' forward game during the 1950s and 1960s.
Hastings-born Robertson made his mark with the Counties Union, for whom he would play 135 games before retiring in 1982. However, his ability was sufficiently evident when making his debut in 1971 to be called into the North Island team for the annual interisland game. He was then selected for the All Blacks' internal tour in 1972. He made his Test debut later in the season for the All Blacks against Australia in Wellington.
In the amateur days, when Test matches were often less than 10 a year, he played 34 Tests and 102 All Blacks games before his career ended in the home Test series against Scotland in 1981. He declined to play against the touring South Africans of that year.
On the tour of Britain, Ireland and France in 1972-73, Robertson's ability and courage were seen. However, in the Scotland Test, Robertson wanted to be replaced at halftime.
"The duty doctor said I had gone on with both legs bandaged so they said I had the injuries before the game started [so he could not be replaced]. In spite of the obvious hamstring injury, not long into the second half I slipped several players and kicked to the in-goal area and [wing] Grant Batty got through to score," he said in Behind the Silver Fern.
That helped the All Blacks to a 14-9 win in a hard-fought game.
It kept the side's hopes of achieving the All Blacks' first Grand Slam in Britain and Ireland, but in the Irish Test, the home team held the New Zealanders to a 10-10 draw. As a result, both Robertson and the All Blacks had to wait for the Grand Slam until another day.
Robertson said: "Ireland was one game we should have won. We probably didn't utilise the ball as much as we could have done, and in the end, we kicked it to them, and they scored a counter-attacking try and missed the kick that could have won the game.
We are saddened by the passing of Bruce Robertson, All Black #702. Bruce played over 100 games for the All Blacks, including 34 Test Matches.— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) May 13, 2023
We send our condolences to his family and loved ones at this sad time 🖤 pic.twitter.com/fhrS7M8U2Z
"It was one of those games where you come off and say, 'That game was probably one of the easiest Test matches I've played but we drew."
While other backs came and went through the mid-70s, Robertson was retained and, in 1974, was joined in the midfield by second five-eighths Bill Osborne in what became one of the great midfield pairings the All Blacks have enjoyed.
Robertson toured Ireland again in 1974 on the occasion of Ireland's centenary and took part in three games within a week at the end of the tour when the All Blacks beat Dublin 15-6, a Welsh XV 12-3 – a game which was a Test match in everything but name, and drew with the Barbarians 13-13.
In 1976 he toured South Africa and was famously the victim of incidents which denied New Zealand two tries in the fourth Test, one of which could well have been a penalty try, as the All Blacks were beaten 14-15 and denied the chance to draw the series.
He played in three Tests against the 1977 British & Irish Lions and toured France at the end of the season.
In 1978, he was part of the All Blacks side that finally secured a Grand Slam in Britain and Ireland, beating Ireland 10-6, Wales 13-12, England 16-6 and Scotland 18-9, in which he scored the match-winning try.
"It was dark, but I don't think it was bad as it appeared [on television]. You kept your eye on the ball and while you knew it wasn't as bright as if the sun was shining, you could still see. We made sure of the win after [first five-eighth's] Doug Bruce's chargedown and we toed the ball ahead. It was dark enough for Graham [Mourie] to say to Beegee [Bryan] Williams, 'Good try', but it was me who scored."
One of the most disappointing moments in his career was his non-selection for the 1980 tour of Australia.
"I was disappointed I didn't get picked initially for the Australian tour. [Coach] Eric Watson was critical of my defence. But then they called me over there as a replacement and when you get that sort of chance it is a case of proving you can do what they think you can't."
That saw him named to play the second Test and contribute to one of the great tries of the pre-professional era, a move that went the length of the field for hooker Hika Reid to score.
"What I remember about that try in Brisbane was that we attacked from our own twenty-two and several players handled the ball before Hika scored. It showed we were capable of playing that sort of game."
New Zealand won 12-9 to keep the series alive, although they lost the final Test 10-26.
His reward was to be included on the end-of-season tour to Wales to celebrate the Welsh rugby centennial – an All-Black team good enough for Mourie, its captain, to rank the best New Zealand team he played in.
After his retirement, Robertson continued to work in rugby with the Auckland Rugby Union as a coaching development officer while also getting involved as a coach with the Blues in Super Rugby, the New Zealand Colts and his Counties Manukau Union.
Sorry to hear of Bruce Robertson’s passing. Our thoughts go out to his family at this time 💙https://t.co/dgSYr739Up— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) May 13, 2023