1921 Jack Steel
John Steel, always known as Jack, was the outstanding wing in New Zealand rugby in the early to mid 1920s, one of the greatest players, along with fullback Mike Gilbert and forward Ron King from the 1930s, to be produced by the tiny West Coast union.
A track sprinter who won several professional races in the years immediately after World War I, Steel made an impression from the time he entered first class rugby with West Coast in 1919. He played for the Coast until 1926 and playing out of a small union, admittedly then more of a power than it has been in recent years, did not hinder his quick recognition at national level.
At 1.78m and around 82kg he was big for a back in the 1920s and with his size, speed and strength he was a difficult man to stop when he was at full pace.
He appeared for the South in the annual interisland match on seven consecutive seasons between 1919 and 1925 and in 1920 was chosen for the All Blacks’ tour of Australia.
He was a major success scoring nine tries in his eight appearances and in each of the three unofficial internationals against New South Wales scored a try. After playing in the national trials in 1921 was chosen for all three tests against the touring Springboks.
Steel was one of the All Blacks’ star performers in the drawn series and his try in the first test was one of the most spectacular not only in that series but in any New Zealand match. It was also an important factor in the All Blacks’ 13-5 win.
He collected a cross kick about the halfway line and with the ball in an awkward position almost behind his back raced away for his try.
Steel was again an All Black in 1922, captaining the side in the third unofficial test against NSW, and 1923 before being among the first picked for the Invincibles’ tour of Britain and France.
Though bothered by injuries on tour and not always at his best, Steel was still a man for the major occasion, as he proved in the international against England when he scored his second great test try.
With the All Blacks down to 14 men and facing torrid pressure from a strong England side, Steel gave the side the lead and a psychological boost when he was fed on the blindside by halfback Jimmy Mills and burst past a number of wouldbe tacklers for a try at the corner.
Steel scored 21 tries in 18 matches on the Invincibles’ tour and in the 30-6 win over France gained his third international try. That was the end of Steel’s All Black career which included 38 matches though he was still appearing in trials in 1927 before the tour of South Africa.
That year Steel moved to Canterbury and in 1927 and 1929 he played for that province in 12 matches.
A publican and prominent as a racehorse owner after he had retired, Steel was killed in his early 40s in a car crash, an accident that shocked his old team-mates. “I don’t believe it,” was the immediate comment of first five eighths Mark Nicholls. “Nothing could kill Jack.”
Also glowing in his tribute to Steel was another close friend, the great radio commentator Winston McCarthy. He described him as “thick set, curly haired and long striding whose knees rose and fell with the regularity of piston rods. Woe betide anyone who came into contact with those hips or knees.”
A relative, Tony Steel, also a track sprinter, was an All Black wing in 1966-68.
Profile by Lindsay Knight
for the New Zealand Rugby Museum.