Ask John
Frano Botica, hat-tricks against the All Blacks, the 'Big Five' and rugby playing priests
John Griffiths
January 4, 2010

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask John where renowned rugby historian John Griffiths will answer any rugby-related query you have!

So, if there's something you've always wanted to know about the game we love but didn't know who to ask, or you think you can stump our expert - then get involved by sending us a question.

In this edition, John answers questions on Frano Botica, hat-tricks against the All Blacks, the 'Big Five' and rugby playing priests.

In rugby union, how many people have scored a hat trick against New Zealand? Gavin Taylor, Ireland

New Zealand have played nearly 1200 matches since 1884. When Bryan Habana crossed three times for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in December he became only the ninth player to score a hat-trick (or more) of tries in a match against New Zealand.

4 (tries) - N Ball, Wellington, 1932
4 - G Cornelsen, Australia, 1978
3 - J Curley, NSW, 1897
3 - D C Reid, NSW 2nd XV, 1925
3 - R H Mordt, South Africa, 1981
3 - D K Junee, Sydney, 1992
3 - O Toulouze, French Barbarians, 1995
3 - M C Joubert, South Africa, 2004
3 - B G Habana Barbarians 2009

Can you shed light on Frano Botica's caps for Croatia? Ryan Spencer, Wales

Frano Botica won two caps for Croatia during their Rugby World Cup (RWC) qualifying matches in 1997 and 1998.

Earlier in his career, the first five-eighth who won six caps for New Zealand in 1986 had to play second-fiddle to Grant Fox in the All Black set-up. His seventh and last Test was as a replacement second five-eighth against Argentina in 1989, before converting to rugby league and playing for Wigan and the Auckland Warriors. He returned to Union with Llanelli after rugby went open in 1995.

The first RWC competition that involved ALL IRB member unions was the 1999 tournament. Qualifying began more than two years before the finals and Croatia were drawn in a pre-qualifying pool with Moldova, Norway, Bulgaria and Latvia. Only one nation went forward to the second qualifying stages and the results fell in such a way that when unbeaten Croatia and Latvia met in Split on 17th May 1997, the fixture carried winner-takes-all status.

Frano Botica made his debut for the country of his grandparents in that match, turning out as second five-eighth in a 43-24 victory. Botica's proud father Nick was there to see his son score five penalties and convert four tries, the 23 goal points more than making up the margin between the sides.

Croatia, coached by New Zealand-born Anthony Sumic, thus progressed to a second qualifying round involving Georgia, Denmark, Russia and Italy in the autumn and winter of the 1997-98 season. Eight New Zealand-born players stiffened the Croatian side for its first match of the next stage, a 29-15 defeat in Tbilisi against Georgia, but with few changes the Croatians landed a famous home win in Makarska when they beat Russia 23-16. Injuries had prevented Botica taking part in these matches, but after Croatia's relatively straightforward win against Denmark he returned for their final pool match (at home against Italy) on 6th June 1998.

Botica featured at first five-eighth for this crucial match - a Croatian victory would have enabled them to progress to a final European qualifying stage later the same year. He had another former All Black, Matthew Cooper, alongside him in the threequarter line that day, but their combined experience was not enough to upset the Italians, who ran out winners 39-27, Botica and Cooper sharing the points for Croatia.

When was the last Welsh team selected by 'the Big Five' ? Russell Jenkins, Wales

The first 'Big Five' were appointed in September 1924 and selected the Welsh teams for international matches up to 1990. The phrase was coined by the Western Mail's rugby correspondent, W J Hoare.

It is interesting to note that when Clive Rowlands retired as Welsh coach in 1974, Carwyn James was invited by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) to put his name forward as successor. The forward-looking James responded saying that only the coach could be responsible for pulling together all the strands that go towards fielding an international team, adding that it could not be achieved by the selection committee process then favoured by the WRU.

James certainly wanted the Welsh coaching job, but on his own terms without the complication of reference to a committee. The WRU, though split, were unready for a visionary who was prepared to stand or fall by his own judgements and James consequently went down in rugby history as the best coach Wales never had.

It was during Ron Waldron's tenure as Welsh coach/team manager (and at the same time as the launch of the Heineken Leagues in Wales) that the composition of the selection committee eventually evolved.

Waldron appointed former Welsh internationals Tony Gray and David Richards as his fellow selectors but additionally created a nine-man panel of selector-advisors under the chairmanship of Clive Rowlands and including Pontypool stalwarts Terry Cobner and Charlie Faulkner.

Three years later, when Alan Davies was in charge of the national side, the WRU temporarily returned to a larger selection committee system. Ex-internationals Elgan Rees, Geoff Evans and Derek Quinnell were co-opted to assist Davies, Gareth Jenkins (who was then Davies's assistant as coach) and team manager Bob Norster in a group that was promptly christened the 'Big Six'.

This season there has been much conversation about the absence of rucking from Premiership and International rugby. I have read through the ELVs and it does not appear that rucking has been banned - however, it does appear to be absent. Why, and what rule change has prompted rucking to disappear? Jonny, England

There is no ban on rucking. Quick ball from this phase of the game is still the holy grail of coaches in both hemispheres. It is not simple explaining precisely what has changed rugby as a spectacle this season, though arguably two aspects of the game have led to the decline of rucking.

1. There seems to have been a clampdown by referees on players using their feet on bodies on the ground. Clean, efficient rucking often involved removing bodies on the floor with a backward motion of the boot as forwards drove over the ball. While stamping (in which the boot comes down vertically on bodies) was never an accepted part of the game, the difference between rucking bodies off the ball and stamping on them seems to have become blurred.

2. The IRB, responding to queries submitted by the New Zealand and Australian Rugby Unions, issued a clarification of the tackle law in mid-2009. The Board ruled that a tackler or the first player arriving at the breakdown should be permitted to play the ball provided he stays on his feet. In the past, most rucks naturally evolved from a tackle situation. The ball was released on the ground and opposing forwards arriving at the breakdown bound together around the loose ball to form the ruck. Now, with the ball legitimately in someone's hands more often after a tackle, the opportunity to form a ruck has been greatly reduced.

The board's intention was to open up competition for possession at the tackle, but in reality the clarification has led to more unedifying pile-ups, fewer opportunities for attacking situations and consequently fewer tries.

Monsignor Tom Gavin, who died in Coventry on Christmas Day, was reported as having played rugby for Ireland. Was he a practising Roman Catholic priest at the time of his caps? Anon

"Catholic priest in Ireland fifteen" read the headline in a national newspaper when Tom Gavin was selected to win his first cap, against France in 1949. The article went on to say: "A Roman Catholic priest is for the first time to play for Ireland at Rugby football. He is Father Gavin, the London Irish centre."

Ireland lost 16-9 but he kept his place for the 14-5 victory over England which set Ireland on their way to back-to-back Triple Crowns. He gave way to Noel Henderson for Ireland's last two games of the season.

He is thought to have been the only practising priest to have played Test rugby. Early last season he was the guest of honour of his old club for their Guinness Premiership match against Sale Sharks at the Madejski Stadium, London Irish giving early notice of their improving stock by thrashing the then league-leaders.

Marnie Cunningham (Ireland 1955-56) and Terry Curley (Australia 1957-58) were priests after their Test careers, Curley having given up rugby at the age of 20 to become a Marist Brother. Paul Markham (also known as Father Paul Kane) played for the All Blacks against New South Wales in 1921, but New Zealand does not classify that match as a full Test.

Who was British rugby's first knight? Anon

Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Ian McGeechan are rugby's highest profile knights today, but the first man honoured exclusively for services to rugby was Sir Bill Ramsay in the New Year's Honours list of 1971.

A former captain of Old Millhillians, Ramsay served on the RFU committee from 1946, was President of the Union in 1954-55 and uniquely was elected to serve a second separate term in the RFU's Centenary season in 1970-71. He died in 1973.

Previous high-profile English rugby men to be knighted included Wavell Wakefield (1944) and Rowland Hill (1926). Wakefield captained England between 1924 and 1926, was for many years his country's most-capped player and was RFU President in 1950-51. Hill was secretary of the RFU from 1881 to 1904 and served as President from 1904 to 1907.

Their knighthoods, however, also recognised their contributions to public life as Conservative politicians. TG Devitt, who as Sir Thomas Devitt won four caps on the wing for England between 1926 and 1928, was a baronet, having succeeded his father in 1923.


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