One of just four men to have both captained and coached the All Blacks in test matches, Fred Allen was arguably New Zealand’s best rugby coach of the amateur era. He was certainly the most successful; the team lost none of its 37 matches during his tenure, winning all 14 tests. A traditionally stern disciplinarian in his approach to coaching, he took advantage of changes to rugby’s laws to develop a more open style that made the game more enjoyable to play and to watch.
Frederick Allen was born in Ōamaru on 9 February 1920 to Florence Beatrice Robertshaw and her husband, railway employee Frederick Allen. The family’s fifth child, he had three sisters and three brothers. Fred’s parents separated in the 1930s, and he distanced himself from his physically abusive father. He found work as a delivery boy at age 13 to help pay his family’s bills.
Fred began playing rugby at seven. After the family moved to Christchurch, he attended Phillipstown School and was selected for the Canterbury Primary Schools team in 1933. He came up through the grades at the Linwood club. Initially small in stature, he eventually grew to 1.78m and 79kg – typical dimensions for an inside back of his era. Fred captained Canterbury Colts in 1938 and played for Canterbury seniors between 1939 and 1941, from 1940 as captain. He gave up cricket, having captained the Canterbury under-20s team, to focus on rugby.
At 16 Fred became an errand boy at Ballantynes department store in Christchurch. The company’s policy of rotating young employees between departments soon gave him valuable insights into the business world.
When the Second World War began in 1939, Fred backdated his birth by a year and enlisted in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF). After basic training at Burnham he was posted to the 30th (Infantry) Battalion and eventually sent to the Solomon Islands. In January 1944 he concealed a neck injury so he could take part in a raid on Nissan (Green) Island to assess potential landing beaches and sites for airfields. He also helped save an isolated platoon on Vella Lavella from annihilation by Japanese forces.
Following the 3rd New Zealand Division’s return to New Zealand, Fred joined the Royal New Zealand Air Force with the intention of becoming a fighter pilot. He topped his class at Woodbourne flying school, representing Marlborough at rugby on days off. The British authorities lowered the maximum age for trainee fighter pilots, leaving Fred too old to participate, so he rejoined the army and was sent to Italy with reinforcements for the 27th (Machine Gun) Battalion. He had another narrow escape when knocked unconscious by shrapnel on 17 April 1945.
After the war in Europe ended and while soldiers waited to return to New Zealand, trials were held for a 2NZEF rugby team. Captained by pre-war All Black Charlie Saxton, the ‘Kiwis’ won 29 and drew two of their 33 matches in the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Germany between October 1945 and March 1946. Sixteen of the 31-man squad would become All Blacks. More significant than their success was their implementation of Saxton’s philosophy of ‘position, possession and pace’, which envisaged that all 15 players would be capable of passing, backing up and kicking with precision while running at top speed. The goal was for 14 men to combine to give the 15th a half-yard advantage over his marker. This was a return to the approach of the 1888/89 Natives and the 1905/06 Originals. Allen played in 28 of the Kiwis’ matches overseas and all five of their games in New Zealand in mid-1946.
After returning to New Zealand, Allen turned down an offer of £4500 to switch to rugby league in the United Kingdom. Needing to make a living, he borrowed £1000 to launch the Fred R. Allen brand of womenswear (he legally adopted the middle name ‘Richard’ in 1958). He was soon employing 20 machinists to make dresses for leading Auckland department stores such as Milne & Choyce and Smith & Caughey – and for his former employer, Ballantynes. As managing director he regularly travelled around the country to promote his products and build up the business, balancing business and rugby commitments. He favoured simple styles that would not quickly go out of date.
With few pre-war All Blacks returning to top-level play in 1946, the selectors were reliant on form shown by the Kiwis and in provincial matches. Allen performed well as captain of Auckland, and was the obvious choice to captain the All Blacks. He played six tests and 21 matches in total for New Zealand – all as captain – and 21 for Auckland, as well as captaining the North Island team in the annual inter-island matches between 1946 and 1948. He was lauded by commentator Winston McCarthy as one of the finest New Zealand five-eighths and the greatest side-stepper off either foot, a skill he used to devastating effect when attacking on the blind side of a scrum or ruck. The stocky Allen was also a strong tackler. McCarthy and rugby writer Terry McLean disagreed about whether his best position was first-five-eighth or second-five; he apparently preferred the latter position.
Aged 29, Allen retired from playing rugby after the disastrous 1949 All Black tour of South Africa, during which all four tests were lost. Effectively manager and co-coach as well as captain, and suffering from a leg injury, he had taken on an impossible burden and dropped himself from the test team after the second test.
He married dress designer Norma Edith Murray in Parnell, Auckland, on 3 October 1957. The couple raised their children Marianne and Murray in Kohimarama, Auckland.
After his retirement from playing, Fred Allen’s involvement with rugby at the local and national levels shifted to coaching. From 1957 to 1962 he served as the Auckland provincial team’s selector-coach, securing an extension when Auckland won the Ranfurly Shield from Southland in the last challenge of 1959. They lost the shield to North Auckland at the third defence, but after regaining it in Whāngārei 11 days later held onto it through a record 25 defences over three seasons. From 1964 to 1968 Allen was a North Island and New Zealand selector. He convened the national selection panel in 1965 and was appointed to coach the All Blacks the following year.
His first five tests at home – the 1966 British Lions series and a one-off New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) 75th Jubilee test against Australia – were all won. A tour to the northern hemisphere in late 1967 was a sterner test of Allen’s coaching credentials. He laid his cards on the table when the team was announced. Taking advantage of 1964 changes to the offside laws, they would run the ball at every opportunity and win by scoring tries, not by kicking goals. This was a return to ‘position, possession and pace’, an approach which had lost favour since the late 1940s.1 They lived up to this promise, winning all four tests in style and remaining unbeaten in 17 matches. Allen’s shrewd selections included combative fullback Fergie McCormick and the creative first-five Earle Kirton, whom he encouraged to take calculated risks. He understood that forward dominance based on a strong scrum was the key to success. However, he insisted that his forwards deliver the ball quickly to the halfback, giving the backs more space and time to attack their opposites.
Allen varied his approach to accommodate differing personalities, but his coaching style was old-school. Brian Lochore later observed that he was not nicknamed ‘the Needle’ because of his love of sewing. ‘He could strip a player of any pretensions with a word and a withering look. He was ruthless but his heart beat for rugby and for his players.’2 Players were not to talk during training sessions; he kept them moving, using all the basic skills, until they were exhausted. In one drill, the squad ran two lengths of the field, with each man allowed only two strides before he passed the ball. If it was dropped, they started again. Unsurprisingly, Allen’s teams were renowned for the quickness and accuracy of their passing. His 80-minute training sessions simulated matches. The forwards ran from scrum to ruck to lineout to tackled ball, with the backs seizing possession from each set-piece and spinning the ball.
In 1968, the All Blacks won all 12 matches they played in Australia and Fiji, and their three home tests against France. But Allen’s independence of mind and deed grated with the mandarins of the NZRFU and, suspecting he would not be reappointed despite his team’s success, he stood down as All Black coach at the end of 1968.
Fred Allen continued to be involved in coaching when asked. In 1973 he ran a single training session with the Marlborough representative team. A tape-recording of his team talk inspired the underdogs’ famous Ranfurly Shield victory over Canterbury. The following year he coached teams in the United States. A decade later he managed Rugby News youth teams which won tournaments overseas. A number of these players later became All Blacks.
According to McLean, Allen turned down an offer of $150,000 to coach the rebel New Zealand Cavaliers on their 12-match 1986 tour of South Africa after the 1985 All Blacks tour was prevented by legal action. Nor was he a fan of the professionalisation of rugby in the 1990s that saw the top players in a previously amateur sport earn large salaries, with big matches being broadcast live only on subscriber television.
Allen maintained his clothing business for more than 40 years, finally closing his factory and retiring in 1990 at age 70. He and Norma spent their retirement years at Manly Beach, where Fred turned his energies to campaigning to save the Manly Sailing Club in 1998 and helping to ban fishing nets from the swimming area in 2002.
Fred Allen received an OBE in 1991 and was knighted in 2010. In the same year, on his 90th birthday, he was guest of honour at a civic luncheon in Auckland hosted by mayor John Banks and attended by 12 former All Black captains. Among many other honours bestowed on him in later life, he was patron of the Auckland Rugby Union and was inducted into the International Rugby Hall of Fame in 2005.
Fred cared for Norma at their home for three years until her death in 2009; their son Murray, too, had died aged 44 in 2004. On 28 April 2012, at the age of 92, Fred succumbed to leukaemia at Orewa, where he had attended an Anzac Day ceremony just three days earlier.