Sean Fitzpatrick holds the New Zealand record for playing 92 Test matches during his All Blacks career, and the world record for 63 of these being consecutive. Combined with the fact that he is also the most capped hooker of all time definitely establishes Sean Fitzpatrick as one of the greats of rugby union.
Making his way from University player to Captain of the All Blacks through a series of lucky breaks, Fitzpatrick proved himself as deserving of the role, his long spell as captain paying tribute to his strength and determination both as a player and captain.
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1963 Fitzpatrick began his rugby career playing for New Zealand University, New Zealand Colts and then his provincial side of Auckland.
He made his debut for the All Blacks in 1986, in the early stages of his career at the young age of 23, in a Test match against France. This jump to international rugby stardom may not have been so rapid, however, had it not been for opportunities that came his way through the misfortunes of others.
Fitzpatrick was initially in place as a reserve for the Test. However, a ban imposed on players who had taken part in the unauthorised Cavaliers tour to South Africa worked to his advantage. While these players were banned from playing the match, Fitzpatrick found his big break making his first appearance for the side.
This set the scene for what was to follow where in yet another lucky break for Fitzpatrick he found himself replacing Captain Andy Dalton in the 1987 inaugural World Cup. Dalton, who had to withdraw in the early stages due to injury, later returned but Fitzpatrick proved himself as one to watch and remained part of the team which went on to beat France and win the tournament final.
Rise to the Top
In the early 90’s Fitzpatrick’s career and reputation as one of the best hookers New Zealand had ever seen, escalated and it seemed right that his time had come when, in 1992, another chance opportunity came his way and Fitzpatrick reached the very top of his game, becoming captain of the All Blacks. Yet again this appointment came at the misfortune of another player. With a new coach, Laurie Mains, and the most likely candidate for captaincy, Mike Brewer, injured, Fitzpatrick rose to the top. Despite Brewer’s later reappearance Fitzpatrick’s role as captain began well and after leading the All Blacks in three matches against World XV in 1992, his position as captain was unchallengeable.
Setbacks and Triumphs
Fitzpatrick’s time as captain was filled with success, defeats and come-backs.
Despite losses in the Bledsloe Cup in 1992, this was followed by triumph in the British Lions tour to New Zealand in 1993, the year’s biggest Rugby Union event.
This success was closely fought, and despite winning the first test narrowly, the second test was undoubtedly the Lions’ with their highest scoring test win in New Zealand. What could have easily been Fitzpatrick’s biggest downfall, being only the second All Blacks player to captain his team to a loss against the Lions’, was luckily avoided and instead became a testament to his expertise as a captain, recovering from being ten points down to take the match and win the series.
Despite this win they later suffered defeat as England beat them at Twickenham later in the year during an All Blacks season tour.
More misfortune came in the World Cup final of 1995, the All Blacks being defeated by South Africa. They entered the final as a strong, well established side, players of world class quality including Ian Jones, Zinzan Brooke and Jeff Wilson in the line-up. Pre-tournament favourites, playing convincingly throughout and defeating England in the semi finals, it didn’t seem that much could go wrong but a drop goal by Joel Stransky in extra time brought a crushing blow to Fitzpatrick’s side, losing a closely fought match.
Fitzpatrick didn’t let this affect his position, and in a repeat of the All Blacks defeat and then consequent triumph against England, led the All Blacks to a win in the first Tri-Nations tournament in 1996. His determination remained strong and further success followed in a three match series in South Africa. Becoming the first New Zealand to captain a Test series win in South Africa, he was firmly established as one of the great players and captains of the game.
Fitzpatrick’s achievements and records are outstanding, ending his career with an overall tally of 55 points in Test Matches and 12 tries. Playing in 121 international matches and 92 test matches he also achieved the record of playing in 74 test match victories, more than any other player.
In total he played in 346 first class matches.
End of the Game
Despite an outstanding career it was clear by the mid nineties that Fitzpatrick’s career was coming to an end. By the end of a year tour of Wales, Ireland and England it was evident that a knee injury was affecting his game, resulting in him managing only 45 minutes on the pitch throughout the tour.
Fitzpatrick appeared in his last international game on November 29, 1997, as a substitute against Wales at Wembley, aged 34.
Recognised for his achievements, Fitzpatrick received the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1997 and figured in Rugby World Magazine’s Team of the Century. He went on to become ‘Rugby Consultant’ for the NZRFU and is now based in the UK working as an analyst for BBC and Sky Sports.
He will be remembered as one of the true legends of rugby union, reaching the top of his game and showing he had the talent and dedication to stay there.