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Local club still close to All Black speedster’s heart

Flagstaff Team

Former All Black Don McKay is the oldest life member at North Shore Rugby Club. He talks to Rob Drent about his love for his local club, his All Black memories and growing up in Devonport during World War II.

Tight team… Don McKay and his wife Judy in their apartment in the Northbridge retirement village in Northcote

Don McKay has no recollection or record of how many tries he scored for North Shore or Auckland, but it would have been bucketloads if his All Black record is anything to go by.

In his 12 matches for New Zealand in the early 1960s, McKay scored 18 tries – one of the game’s best strike rates and up there with the likes of current star Will Jordan.

It’s a cliche, McKay admits, but it all started at North Shore Rugby Club. He lived just round the corner from Devonport Domain at Tainui Rd, and put on the green-and-white strip aged six. “Playing with my mates – that’s what was most important in all the teams I played in; the friendships and working together.”

McKay was always slightly different in his approach, which might be one reason he attained higher honours. As a youngster, he spent a lot of time listening to the tales of old rugby players who were living out their days in a rest home at Cheltenham. He also enjoyed chats with Bert Cooke – a member of the 1924 All Blacks ‘Invincibles’ – who was living in Devonport.

“I think I learned more from them than I did actually playing the game,” McKay said. A comparative lightweight at 73kg in his playing days, McKay was also an early adopter of weightlifting to increase his power and speed.

“Especially my acceleration,” he said. Born in 1937, McKay grew up in Devonport, “when it was an island… you could only get here by boat before the Harbour Bridge opened (in 1959)”. He went to Vauxhall School during the World War II years – a time he recalls created a sense of excitement with its curfews and other restrictions.

“The war was a novelty to us kids.

“Our house was between the Narrow Neck base and North Head, and soldiers were always marching past… ships were coming and going.”

Barbed wire stretched the length of Narrow Neck and Cheltenham Beaches. “We used to go under it to have a swim,” McKay recalls.

“Waitemata Golf Club was dressed up to look like an aerodrome, but I don’t think it fooled anyone.”

School lessons were punctuated with air-raid drills.

McKay went to Takapuna Grammar School (TGS), excelling at sports. He was the school sprint and swimming champion and a member of the 1954 1st XV.

One of his early sprint rivals at TGS was Rod Heeps, who later went to Mt Albert Grammar and was a wing alongside McKay on the 1962 tour to Australia.

After school, McKay trained as a pharmacist in the city and played for Shore’s under-21s for three years. “The seniors were keen for me to play for them, but I wanted to play with my mates.

“We were seriously fit. Every Sunday we would do two hours training on Narrow Neck beach.”

The ’50s were a sad time at North Shore Rugby Club. Some of the pre-war players hadn’t returned, and those who served in the military and came back as players or administrators were deeply affected by their wartime experience.

“The war years really knocked the club,” McKay says.

When McKay started playing senior rugby, he made an immediate impact, scoring tries and kicking goals in a promotion-relegation match.

He was selected in the Auckland side in 1958 as a 21-year-old, playing under renowned coach Fred Allen, and was one of the stars in the 1960 season – the beginning of one of Auckland’s golden Ranfurly Shield eras.

He made the North Island side that year, and a New Zealand XV, which played festival matches. “I was lucky, really, playing alongside very talented players, Terry Lineen and Frank McMullen… Paul Little was a great centre. I was very conscious of paying respect to the space I was given.”

In the North Island side again in 1961, McKay scored three tries in the inter-island match, and after playing in two trials was included in the All Blacks side for the first test against France at Eden Park.

McKay always felt he was lucky to make the All Blacks, as he wasn’t a member of the highly successful New Zealand Colts team of 1955 that launched the careers of Colin Meads, Kel Tremain and Wilson Whineray.

But on his first touch of the ball in a test, McKay raced across for a try, having been put in the clear from a blindside move. McKay retained his place for the second and third tests against France and, in 1962, he went on the tour of Australia. He played in seven of the matches on that tour and was the team’s leading try scorer, with 16, including five against Northern New South Wales and hat- tricks against Southern New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.

However, he suffered concussion from being spear-tackled in one of the early matches. “It really affected my tour. I went over as probably the number-one wing, but I wasn’t quite right afterwards and didn’t make the test side.” His old rival Rod Heeps, who had become a national sprint champion, and Russell Watt were selected as wingers.

It was the beginning of a frustrating run with injuries, which restricted his games for the rest of 1962.

However, in 1963, McKay regained his All Black place and played both of the early-season tests against England, scoring a try in the second of the internationals at Lancaster Park. But after playing in the trials, and scoring a try in each of his matches, he was surprisingly omitted for the tour of Britain and France.

McKay played 86 times for Auckland, playing against the 1965 Springboks (scoring a try in Auckland’s 15-14 win) and the 1966 Lions.

His abiding memory of the Springboks match centres not on the rugby but on a hangi organised afterwards at Eden Park by former Auckland number 8 and character Albie Pryor.

“It was either the worst or best hangi I had ever been to. I don’t think Albie was that experienced at putting down hangi and he had chosen the wrong rocks. Once they got hot, they started exploding and chipping all the nearby cars.”

McKay’s most memorable match was Auckland’s 19-18 end-of-season Ranfurly Shield win over Canterbury, in 1960.

It featured a match-wining try by Waka Nathan in the last minute and is a landmark game in the ongoing rivalry between the two provinces.

“It was played in front of a 40,000-plus crowd, midweek. The game started at least an hour late because all the Auckland players got caught up in the traffic trying to get to the match.”

By the mid-1960s, McKay looked towards a life after rugby, and in 1966 became the proprietor of his own pharmacy at Hauraki Corner. He was still playing for Auckland at the time.

“Playing with my mates – that’s what was most important in all the teams I played in; the friendships and working together.”

Don McKay

“I used to do half an hour of warm-ups in the pharmacy in my track suit, jump in my VW, and be at Eden Park in 15 minutes for training.”

McKay retired at the end of the 1966 season, having played 114 first-class matches.

He carried on his love of rugby with the Auckland Barbarians and at North Shore, coaching its under-21s, and its premiers for one season. He was a long-time committee member and was made a life member in 2012.

During an overseas stint in the 1970s, he coached Harlequins in London and did some youth coaching at London Welsh.

After 40 years as a pharmacist at Hauraki, McKay retired in 2007. Now aged 84, he still aims to get down to the North Shore club as much as he can, to follow the footy and catch up with old friends.

“I’ve always supported the idea of local a strong sense of loyalty and it really means something when a player puts on the green-and-white stripes.

“If you go down to North Shore on a Saturday, you will often find five or six of our All Blacks there: Wayne Shelford, Frano Botica, Gary Cunningham – Brad Johnstone, when he’s around. Shore is where they came from and they all do a lot around the club. It’s what it’s all about.”

  • North Shore Rugby Club celebrates its 150th year in 2023.

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