Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
19 February 2015
I can remember clearly my first trip to the far north of New Zealand. It was in the hot, lazy summer of 1966. I had just turned 20 years old. I left Wellington with two Wellington College schoolmates, Dave Henderson and Evan Purdie, on a traveling holiday. I don't know why this story has come back to me now all these years later but once I got into clattering away on this keyboard the memories came flooding back.
At that stage of our collective lives it could be said we were just three larrikin teenagers looking only for chicks, surf and adventure. From the diary I kept of a wonderful three weeks there was plenty of enjoyable and adventurous experiences among the friendly locals, and despite many attempts and much bragging about possibilities very little success with young women. And for me at least no surf-riding at all.
We only had two surfboards between three of us. I never had the heart to tell my mates I never could balance on those damn things. I hated them. We slept in a tent or in the car and we ate badly where we could. This was a fish-and-chips and hamburger holiday. But my diary recorded many fun times and lots of laughs.
Though it was a scorching summer we of course, had stashed away a rugby ball, and if ever we felt lonely we would get the ball out and toss it around in any available park, beach or camping site. The rugby ball never failed to help us make new friends (Diary entry; ‘…in the afternoon we were joined by Margaret of Wanganui, who proved herself as adept with a football as she was later with a seven ounce glass full of brown foaming ale’) Looking back I don't recall how we so readily had beer to drink. The legal age for entering a bar or public house until was still 21. None of we three had reached that age!
In our eyes by far the highlight of the trip was the New Year's eve night we ventured into what might then have been New Zealand's northern most watering hole, the Awanui Hotel. When we tentatively entered the public bar and found a quiet corner we marvelled at how full the place was. The happy people were celebrating the imminent arrival of 1967. There was a party mood everywhere, but we three were on our own mission. Because the three of us were crazy kiwi rugby blokes we knew that Awanui in the far north was the home of our favourite hero from the 1956 All Blacks win over South Africa, Peter Jones.
In case you are younger than about 60 years you may not recall who Peter Frederick Hilton-Jones was. Let me tell you he was a block-bustling loose forward rugby hero of immense proportions. In his age he was as well known in New Zealand as Colin Meads was a decade later and Jonah Lomu and Richie McCaw still later. Peter Jones (he had shortened his surname along the way) scored the most famous rugby try of my youth. In the fourth test at Eden Park in 1956 - the one the All Blacks just HAD to win Jones kicked a loose ball through from a lineout on the South Africans 25-yard line. It bounced up into his hands and away he charged, swatting away flailing Springbok defenders. The try was greeted by nationwide adulation such as had not been seen in New Zealand before. Moments later the hated Springboks had been beaten for the first time in a series by our All Blacks. It was a momentous moment of national togetherness and celebration.
Peter Jones’ try was followed afterwards by a radio speech which shocked the nation. Jones was thrust to the microphone and believed he would be talking only to the cheering throng in front of him. Instead it was a nationwide radio hook-up to possibly millions of listeners. Breathing heavily, and clearly close to exhaustion Peter offered one of the most immortal quotes of New Zealand broadcasting history – “I hope I never have to play another game like that. I’m absolutely buggered,” quoth Jones. From then on he was loved as one of the great characters of all New Zealand.
And Peter Jones was always a North Auckland rugby man. From the base of the 90-mile beach each winter he drove hundreds of miles for training and playing for his beloved North Auckland. It needed dedication and commitment. Peter was a fisherman, he lost income with his time away doing rugby matters. But like all rugby people in this long, stretchy rugby union, you did it. What else was there in life?
It was in 1966, ten years after Jones’ stunning try that the three young travelers from faraway Wellington, eventually pushed our jugs and beer glasses away and inquired at the bar for directions to Peter Jones’ home. We were told he lives “go out the front, turn right and head down the Waipapakauri Road.”
We did just that and in time fuelled with confidence from the northern beers we arrived in our dusty car in front of a well-lit but old wooden home.
An elderly woman answered the door. She announced herself; ‘I am Peter’s mother, you can call me Molly. He’ll be here soon. Come on in.’
If you think I was impressed wth that generosity let me quote again from my tour diary. This is starry-eyed stuff from a 20 year-old future rugby reporter;
“Molly’s house was where the great Peter Jones had grown up. It was small and modest but adorning the wall of the sitting room where she had invited us to wait was a framed copy of the famous photograph of Peter scoring his historic try against South Africa in 1956…. The three of us were eagerly looking forward to Mr. Jones’s arrival. Soon two bright bobbing headlights loomed out of the Northland darkness. This was Peter’s old post-war car. Through the large dining room window we saw his huge shadowy silhouette cross the lawn. For a few seconds his massive frame was frosted against the front door. The handle of the door went down quickly and the door clipped open, revealing to us first a huge forearm, then a powerful shoulder and finally the rugged face of the great man himself. On seeing us, the face of Peter Jones wrinkled back into a wry friendly smile, the lips of his teeth pulled tightly over some slightly crooked teeth and his brown weather-beaten face shining in the pale electric light.”
This was a star struck lad writing about one of the most famous New Zealanders of that time. The diary goes on for page after page about that night, telling more and more about the fun and northern hospitality we were part of as all of the Hilton-Jones family arrived and we all toasted Molly into the New Year 1967. We then went with them from party to party around neighbouring farms and as I recall, though this bit is really hazy, I think we wound up on the 90-Mile beach around a fire. By then life had become a blur, if you get my drift.
As the night drifted into the early hours and 1967 had arrived we three thought we'd probably be sleeping in the car again. That would have been OK. We were used to it. We wouldn't have cared - we were over joyed.
But no that wasn't the end of it. We were even invited to cram into the spare bedroom at Peter's own place to spend the night. We could not believe our good fortune! My diary does not record if we noticed that Peter's children minded being woken at some ungodly hour and shoved into other sleeping arrangements.
The next morning as we packed into our car to head back towards Wellington we posed with Peter for a memorable photograph. Those were the days long before machine photography of cellphone cameras. From a Kodak Instamatic which I think was the only camera we had, we only had once chance for the snap. It is still a prized shot for me.
Years later when I had forsaken my larrikin days and had become a young sports reporter in Auckland I met Peter Jones several other times in the north and even interviewed him in depth about his All Black days. However I never quite had the brashness to ask him if he remembered the three lads who had, I am sure, stared boggle-eyed at the great New Zealand rugby star of the time.
One time when Peter and I talked in front of the TV cameras the subject of the epic tour of New Zealand by the 1956 Springboks came up. I asked him about the scoring of the famous try in the fourth test and the holding up of his arm as seen in the famous photograph we had seen in Molly's house. I wondered, “Was that a gesture in celebration?” “No,” Peter replied, “I just wanted the referee to know I had touched the ball down correctly.” Good on you mate! When we saw that arm jerk high the nation let out a mighty roar!
Peter died in 1994 aged 62. As he was born in 1932 it is very hard now to believe that he was only 34 when we intruded into his and his warm family's life, on hat was a truly memorable night for us.
(Incidentally my two travelling mates from that glorious holiday of way back then went on to play their part in New Zealand rugby in a not insignificant way. Dave (‘Charlie’) Henderson played 100 games for the Wellington rep team as a halfback and was an All Black trialist. Evan Purdie was a tough Wellington ‘B’ rep flanker. His son Justin Purdie played against the 2005 British and Irish Lions for Wellington and played for Samoa in the 2007 Rugby World Cup in France.)
TO SEE A PIC of Keith Quinn interviewing Peter Jones click on 'favourite photos' on this website.
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