Sadness hangs over the famed 1971 Kiwi rugby league side once again with the passing of utility John O’Sullivan at the age of 68 in Christchurch last week, a little more than a month after the legendary Phil Orchard died in Rotorua.
Aucklander O’Sullivan, who had been living in Rangiora, was farewelled at a service in Orewa today.
The deaths of Kiwi #493 O’Sullivan on September 7 and try-scoring sensation Orchard (#475) in July once again evoke memories of the most successful Kiwi team to tour Britain and France.
The twin deaths bring to seven the number of players from the 26-man 1971 touring party who have passed away. The other five are prop Henry Tatana (#455) who died aged 53 in 1998, hooker Bill Burgoyne (#487) at the age of 52 in 1999, prop Doug Gailey (#476) aged 59 in 2007, winger Bob McGuinn (#481) at 64 in 2012 and loose forward Tony Kriletich (#459) aged 72 in 2016.
O’Sullivan, one of the youngest players in the touring squad, was selected as one of the two fullbacks. He didn’t make a Test appearance but was used in 13 matches in a variety of backline positions before going on to play 10 internationals from 1972-1975.
A Rosmini College product, he played for the Northcote Tigers in his junior days before forging a reputation with the outstanding Ponsonby side in the early 1970s. Like so many others in that team, he benefited from playing alongside the footballing genius Roger Bailey. In that era Ponsonby boasted an array of Kiwis past, current or future including Bailey, O’Sullivan, Brian Tracey, Rick Carey, Wayne Robertson, Mike McClennan, Don Mann and Tom Conroy plus the Rota brothers and other talented players.
O’Sullivan made 13 tour appearances for the Lory Blanchard-coached side on the 1971 tour when the Kiwis became the first official New Zealand team to win a Test series on British soil – taking the first two Tests 18-13 and 17-14 before losing the third – and following it up with victory in the first two Tests in France followed by a draw in the third.
O’Sullivan played in both Tests against Australia in 1972, added another appearance at the 1972 World Cup in France, featured in all three Tests in the 1974 home campaign against Great Britain and played against Australia, France, England and Wales in the southern hemisphere phase of the 1975 World Championship.
As an Auckland regular, he was in the side that beat Great Britain 11-2 in 1974 and Wales 31-5 in 1975.
O’Sullivan shifted to Wellington in late 1975 where he played for coached Upper Hutt and was also Wellington player-coach before returning to Auckland where he linked up with Northcote, initially as a player and then coach before having a stint as a Kiwi selector.
Always good company, O’Sullivan was well-suited to his vocation in the liquor industry during his working life.