From The Old Club: The History of the Christchurch Football Club 1863 -2013.
Written by Tony Murdoch
At the old Lancaster Park the school boys’ enclosure was located at the southern end of the embankment, alongside the entrance to the south ground. It was a separate area, set aside to allow younger fans to watch unimpeded. In 1965 Canterbury played the touring Springboks on a bleak winter’s day. It was a tense match mostly confined to the forwards and for the author it was fairly dull watching. Towards the end of the first half the South Africans swept on to attack in the Canterbury 25 [22m] at the northern end. Viewed from the enclosure this was some distance away but it seemed nothing could save Canterbury with the green shirted Springboks seemingly having an overlap of at least 2 players. For a moment eyes were averted and then in a nanosecond a huge roar went up from the crowd and to the delight of the crowd there was the flying figure of Billy Birtwistle heading towards the opposition goal line and the boys’ enclosure. The increasingly shrill voiced calls from this area rode with his every flying step and when he touched down the applause was deafening. Remembering that moment in 2011 Bill Birtwistle said, “I could see that we were in trouble and decide I would have a go at the intercept…it worked and I took off…I never had any doubt I would score.” For the author, Bill’s disclosure said it all because he was already a crowd favourite as in the preceding three seasons he had established himself as a crowd favourite with his smooth running and extravagant side stepping.
Born and educated in Auckland, Birtwistle, playing out of the College Rifles club, made his first class debut with two games for Auckland in 1961. Despairing of making a name in Auckland he and two mates decided to move to Christchurch and he linked up with the Christchurch Club. His first encounter stayed with him all his life. “Our first pre- season run was to the Sign of the Takahe, something that the locals were very familiar with… I eventually made it to the top and commented how tough the run had been…someone came back saying that if I didn’t like it I could go back to Auckland…I stuck at it and went into the seniors in 1962 and also played for Canterbury.” Later in his career when playing for Waikato he confessed that the way the Christchurch and Canterbury teams trained and played was “miles ahead of Waikato.”
In 1963 he scored 12 tries in as many games for Canterbury and played in the South Island trials to pick the 1963 All Black team for the tour of the UK and France. He sufficiently impressed the selectors to be put on stand-by as one of the back emergencies. The following year he maintained his try scoring ratio for Canterbury, touching down in each of his 15 games but failing to score in the first of his three games for the South Island. Following his breath-taking intercept try for Canterbury he was a firm favourite for the first test against South Africa but was not originally named, coming into the team when Malcolm Dick withdrew.
On a very windy Wellington day he scored in his first test, “taking a pass on the blind and using the overlap to score.” In this match he formed part of a defensive back four with flanker Red Conway playing as a roving defender. In the fourth test he scored one of his better tries and the match report bears this out, “A minute later, de Villiers fed Brynard on the blind side from a scrum, just inside the Springbok half. The winger was unable to take a poor pass and his opposite number Birtwistle was quickly on to the loose ball and sprinted down the right touchline. As Barnard and Wilson converged on him as he reached the goal line, Birtwistle braked, allowing Barnard to hurtle harmlessly by. He then side stepped inside to elude Wilson and score in the corner.”
Named the Canterbury Sportsman of the Year for 1965 he was greatly looking forward to the next season and the clash with the British Lions. His early club form was good and he had been named in the first test team. All was rosy until he severely tore his hamstring playing for Christchurch against Belfast on the often puggy Sheldon Park surface. The injury was to bedevil him both physically and mentally.
He battled to play for Canterbury against the Lions and suffered the indignity of attempting to fly hack a ball into touch and missing, allowing the Lions to score. Recounting the moment he shrugged saying , “as if I didn’t feel bad enough then Des Christian, the All Black selector, came up and said that he didn’t know I played soccer…it was a bad time.” With the hamstring still not healing he decided to take up an offer from Rotorua and use the mineral pools in the city and “some Maori healing.” Within a week he was running freely and finished the season strongly for Canterbury with 4 tries in five games.
When the season ended Birtwistle made what he described as, “the worst mistake in my life”. He left Christchurch for the Bay of Plenty and a new job. He did not explain the reasons for this statement but was adamant he regretted leaving the city and the Christchurch Club. Now playing for Waikato, he switched allegiance to play for the North Island and did well enough in the trials to be named in the touring team for the 1967 all Black tour of the UK and France.
Birtwistle played in eight games and scored nine tries, again keeping his ratio of games to tries about equal. “It was a very happy tour and we played good rugby… I scored against Wales but injured my knee and it never really came right…Fred Allan was a good coach but the team knew what to do to win matches and we just went out and did it.” Later in the tour he dropped out of contention for the big matches and this was because of his line-out throwing. “I just lost it…and couldn’t get it right.”
Despite having played in three of the four tests on the tour and trialling he failed to make the 1968 All Black team to tour Australia. He played for Waikato for another two seasons retiring in 1970. He kept his involvement by refereeing, coaching and playing Golden Oldies.
Seasons for CFC: 1961 - 1966
Matches For Canterbury: 59
Matches For South Island: 4
Matches For New Zealand: 12 (7 Tests)