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Sean Brian Thomas Fitzpatrick is an all-time great by the standards of any sport. Born on June 4th 1963, he came through the ranks at Auckland and made his Test debut against France in Christchurch in 1986, in a severely-depleted All Blacks starting fifteen as a result of those suspended players‘ participation in the tour of South Africa, against the wishes of the New Zealand Rugby Union, earlier in the year.
At the time of his debut Fitzpatrick was a reserve hooker for Auckland and had made six appearances for the province. The day before the France Test, the All Blacks first choice hooker, Bruce Hemara, was forced to withdraw and Fitzpatrick replaced him.
Fitzpatrick and his fellow-debutants made their mark and the All Blacks won the Test, resulting in his selection for the squad for the inaugural 1987 World Cup.
A near-repeat of the previous year’s Test series against France in which he’d made his debut took place and Fitzpatrick replaced captain and first-choice hooker Andy Dalton, who had incurred an injury in training before the tournament opener, for all of the World Cup group matches. Dalton was ready to play again by the time the All Blacks had qualified for the Quarter Finals but there was no way back into the side for the captain, so outstanding had Fitzpatrick been. The All Blacks went on to defeat France 29-9 in the Final.
Between 1987 and 1990 Fitzpatrick developed into the player that we recognise as the all-time great today, starting with the post-World-Cup victory Bledisloe Cup win against Australia in Sydney.
In 1992 Fitzpatrick was elected captain of the All Blacks, chance again playing a part in his appointment, as the captain-elect, Mike Brewer, was injured in the final All Blacks trial match of early 1992, and Fitzpatrick captained the side for the three matches against the World XV as part of the New Zealand Rugby Union’s centenary events. Brewer’s return to the All Blacks team changed nothing, Fitzpatrick’s role as captain had been sealed in his absence.
1992 to 1995 brought mixed results for the All Blacks, including Bledisloe Cup- and a series defeat to France, a series against the British Lions which was as closely-contested as the fixture had seen, the All-Blacks winning the series 2-1. The 1993 tour to Britain was an almost-perfect thirteen wins out of thirteen, other than defeat to England at Twickenham. 1994 Test results were mixed, a 2-0 series victory against South Africa and 0-2 defeat against the visiting French side, who were the first European team to achieve this.
The disappointment of the 15-12 defeat to South Africa at Ellis Park in the 1995 World Cup Final was the catalyst for the All Blacks’ development into the world’s best side. The All Blacks had been clear favourites to win the World Cup: their 45-29 Semi-Final demolition of England and the fact that the hosts hadn’t played with any real fluency in the early stages of the tournament seemed to support this view. A drop goal in extra-time brought South Africa victory in the narrowest of wins.
In the three years, 1992 to 1995, the All Blacks squad had developed into a fiercely competitive and skilled unit and this was reflected as clearly as Fitzpatrick and his team mates could deliver in 1996 in their 43-6 victory over Australia at Athletic Park and in the same year their defeat of South Africa in South Africa.
The first Tri-Nations Series followed the World Cup disappointment and the All Blacks didn’t disappoint, going unbeaten, before returning to South Africa for the 1996 three-match Test series in which Fitzpatrick’s side became the first All Blacks team in South Africa to win a Test series, 3-1 the result.
Fitzpatrick continued to enjoy success in New Zealand with Auckland in the National Provincial Championship and with the Auckland Blues in the new Super 12 competition until his ninety second- and final Test appearance in November 1997 against Wales. Of those ninety two- Fitzpatrick had won sixty three consecutive Test caps between 1986 & 1996 and captained the All Blacks side fifty one times, starting in 1992. He retired from the game just before the start of the 1998 season owing to the knee injury that had started to trouble him towards the end of his career.
Fitzpatrick played only forty five minutes of rugby on the 1997 tour of England and Wales and at thirty four years old decided to bring an end to an extraordinary career. He played in 346 first class matches in total. A hundred and twenty eight, including ninety two Tests, were for the All Blacks, 127 for Auckland and 25 in the Super 12 for the Blues when they won the first two titles in each of the 1996-97 seasons.
He has remained characteristically active in the game, working as an ambassador and managing New Zealand Colts sides and the Blues in the Super 12 before becoming a television commentator and analyst in Britain in 2004.
British and Irish Lions Series Victory 1993
Capture a piece of Sean Fitzpatrick's legacy with this iconic print from VintageSports.com