Kevin Skinner entered the sporting mythology of two nations on a single afternoon. Rugby has rarely been played in a more fevered atmosphere than in 1956 when, as New Zealand’s eminently sober contemporary historian James Belich records, “the country went to war… with the South African rugby union team.”
The All Blacks were seeking revenge for a 4-0 whitewash seven years earlier in South Africa, when the Springbok front row had physically dominated and intimidated. So Skinner, a prop, was persuaded out of international retirement. At one level it was routine, the recall in adversity of a hardened veteran. But South Africans have never forgotten that Skinner had also been a heavyweight boxer.
Returning with some reluctance, Skinner imposed himself on the South African props. He admitted to punching each once – Chris Koch in retaliation for illegal play and Jaap Bekker following a verbal threat – although, he said much later, “I don’t think what I did had a big bearing on the match.” But South African aggression was checked and a legend was born. New Zealand won that third Test in Christchurch then sealed their first series victory over South Africa by winning in Auckland.
The New Zealand writer Warwick Roger pointed out that the faces in a famous post-match crowd photograph at Auckland show relief rather than joy. Any pleasure for Skinner, sole survivor of the 1949 team, was outweighed by interminable debate over his actions. He wrote to the Auckland Star suggesting that the press argue about something else.
The extraordinary coda to his international career – the Auckland Test was his 20th and last – risks detracting from the excellence of the whole. He had quit international rugby for the first time in 1954 as the then most-capped All Black, regarded by journalist Terry McLean as “the finest prop forward produced in New Zealand.” Time obliterated the record, but not the rating, and All Black contemporaries were unfailingly admiring. Full-back Bob Scott recalled “a great player with a great mental attitude,” while lock Tiny White thought him “without a doubt the best prop I ever met.”
Skinner emerged from two extraordinary rugby nurseries – St Kevin’s School, Oamaru, a small Catholic institution which produced seven All Blacks between 1947-60, and the Vic Cavanagh-coached Otago teams which revolutionised New Zealand forward play. Chosen for Otago at 19, he was an All Black at 21. By then he had won the 1947 New Zealand heavyweight championship but given up boxing, rejecting offers to turn professional.
“There were hardly any other heavyweights in New Zealand, so I would have to have gone to Australia for contests,” he recalled in 2003. “It was never an alternative to rugby, but only a means of getting and keeping fit. The gym work for boxing helped quite a bit, but when I started chucking weights around the boxing trainer got crook at me because he said it was making me too muscle-bound.” But he retained something of the boxer in preparing for matches. McLean noted that he “brooded upon the very important matches for perhaps 36 hours beforehand, turning very quiet, writing letters and keeping himself to himself.”
A powerful scrummager at a time when forwards routinely packed down more than 50 times a match, a line-out ball-winner, and vastly more mobile than the archetypal prop, Skinner was an imposing fixed point on the All Black teamsheet from the moment he displaced Ray Dalton for the first South Africa test in 1949. His first 18 caps were consecutive, through to the end of the All Black tour of Britain, Ireland and France in 1954. Captain in two home tests against Australia in 1952, he was offered the tour leadership but declined, later recalling of an era when after-dinner oratory was a basic captaincy skill, that “I didn’t like making speeches.”
Rugby was played in time off from the family grocery stores which Skinner, trained as a butcher, ran with his brother. He also farmed before moving with his wife, Laurie, to Auckland in 1960 to secure special schooling for their daughter, Susan, who was deaf. He later ran a supermarket, cafes and fast food outlets.
He coached at club level, was president of the New Zealand Barbarians and in later life became, once he had established the seriousness of questioners, an approachable and thoughtful raconteur. One tribute came from the more recent boxing All Black Sonny Bill Williams, who met him in 2012 and remembered him, on hearing of his death, as “Not just a great All Black, but a great man.”
Kevin Skinner, butcher, farmer and rugby union player: born Dunedin, New Zealand 24 November 1927; married Laurie (two daughters); died Auckland 21 July 2014.