The greatest full-backs of all time: George Nepia
New Zealand full-back George Nepia, epitomised the courage and skill his national side displayed, as they won all 30 matches of a four month tour of Europe in 1924-25
Major Teams: Hawke’s Bay, East Coast
Country: New Zealand
Test span: 1924-30
Test caps: 9 (9 starts)
Test points: 5 (1C, 1P)
Twice weekly he displayed remarkable pluck, uniquely appearing in every match of the tour. It was a real tribute to his stamina, strength and unflappable temperament that he managed to evade injury and stay fresh while the All Blacks traced their unbeaten path. “He was between short and tall and his thighs were like tree trunks,” said Denzil Batchelor, sportswriter of the day, adding, “Behind the game he slunk from side to side like a black panther behind bars.”
Full-backs of the Twenties were primarily expected to defend. Nepia was unflinching in the tackle, cleared his lines with long, spiralling touch kicks and possessed fly-paper hands that never dropped a high ball. His team-mates had absolute trust in him. The ‘Invincibles’ rarely used Nepia in attack, though his experiences as a five-eighth with the great Hawke’s Bay Ranfurly Shield holders of the 1920s equipped him with the pace and judgement to open up from defence when appropriate.
The most relished – and which underlined his courage – was diving at the feet of onrushing forwards to gather the rolling ball, before backing into them at speed and ricocheting off upfield on a counter-attack. Nepia was pure box office in Britain in 1924-25, but as a Maori he was unable to visit South Africa with the 1928 All Blacks and his Test career petered out after helping New Zealand defeat the 1930 Lions. Hard times farming on New Zealand’s East Coast in the Depression years compelled him to come to Britain as a league convert soon after. But for the title of the world’s outstanding full-back between the wars he had no serious challenger.