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12 February 2015
In this day and age all of us must take compliments where we can. Most of the time they are very hard to come by. That is why I take a recent small newspaper comment by veteran Auckland sportswriter and author Phil Gifford about views I had apparently held a long time ago as a warm and hearty accolade. That's even though he himself would not be thinking what he wrote was a compliment. More like a stinging barb.
What Phil did in a recent edition of his regular Sunday Star-Times column was to hark back to my work on TV and in print, but from not five or 10 years ago. He went back 20 years!
My first reaction is to say, “How wonderful that anyone could recall any attitudes I might have publicly expressed from that far back in time.”
The comment which I am taking as a compliment came in Phil's column headed “Four tips on how to win the Rugby World Cup”. The sub-heading was “There are many pitfalls to avoid”.
In it he basically outlined how he felt New Zealand as a country must attend to certain disciplines of support for the All Blacks or else this year's All Black defence of the William Webb Ellis Cup would sadly fail.
Under the second of his four “How to Win...” categories, Phil wrote a curious sentence: ''Contrary to the anti-Laurie Mains camp, led in this country by Keith Quinn, the majority of the [All Black] players who went into the 1995 [World Cup final] against South Africa had genuinely been smitten with food poisoning...”
Now while I am, with tongue firmly in cheek, taking that as a compliment – I have to say in all honesty that such a comment is very strange indeed.
For a start, mentioning my name in a story about something that happened 20 years ago was at the very least superfluous, and if I'm not very mistaken, was actually not very pertinent to the point Phil was trying to make about the 2015 All Black team's winning chances.
And really, I have to wonder all these years later: did I have that kind of power over the New Zealand rugby scene in 1995?
I personally do not think so. Did I lead an “Anti-Laurie Mains camp”, or “Anti-Laurie Mains campaign”? I know I did not.
But apparently any commentary I might have made back then about Laurie Mains as the All Black coach has burned itself so deeply into Phil's recollection and clarity of recall that it is the only thing he can think of and hark back to from any reporter or broadcaster from that time.
It is true that when he was coach of the All Blacks from 1992-96, I felt Laurie was difficult and rather uptight in his dealings with pretty well all news media. I always thought that it was a case of, “Yes, he's a tough bastard, but with me and pretty well every other regular reporter on tour”. Some writers even took to calling him “lugubrious Laurie” in print. Funnily, I never did.
While I thought Laurie could be difficult to work with, in fact, fair enough, he gave as good as he got. I know he always felt I was 'aligned' with those people who thought John Hart should have coached the All Blacks in that 1992-96 time. If I was, I was certainly not alone in that belief.
One time when I was walking into Lancaster Park for a test match, Laurie, also there with his wife, approached me and asked me for my home fax number. He said he wanted to sue me for remarks I had made on national radio about him that day.
My radio comments on that occasion were about confusion I felt there was about the alleged food poisoning of the All Blacks before the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg in 1995. Laurie was the coach of that team.
The team had not played to their best in a very tough final that South Africa won in extra time 15-12.
At issue was this: were the players “poisoned” beforehand by food they had eaten, served or interfered with by a hotel worker called Suzy? Had such a woman ever even existed?
I had heard both sides of that most controversial issue and was confused and unclear. In 1999 when TVNZ invited me to front and write the six-part series called Legends of the All Blacks, I went back to the Sandton Hotel in Johannesburg, where the team had stayed. The TV crew and I made inquiries there about the alleged food incident.
On that trip I also interviewed… wait for it - Laurie Mains himself at Ellis Park. He lived in Jo’burg then while on a coaching stint with Transvaal.
By then, with the pressures of the All Black coaching job off his shoulders Laurie was cordial and even charming towards me (as he has been in the occasional times we have met in all the years since).
In the video interview we recorded in 1999 he did say that he knew nothing of a woman called Suzy and that reference to her “should not have appeared in my biography”.
I felt he was as confused as we all were over the whole issue.
In the end, in all my writing and broadcasting about that story – and it was a huge story at the time - I drew the conclusion that there was no evidence whatsoever that a woman called Suzy had deliberately poisoned New Zealand team members.
I concluded that yes, some members of the squad had caught some type of stomach bug, which could have been called food poisoning, but that there has never, ever, ever any definite evidence produced to say somebody intentionally “food poisoned” them.
(Incidentally, if you ever get the chance, listen to the warm commentary done, mostly by John Hart, but I was there too at the microphone in the minutes after that 1995 final. It was directed towards Laurie Mains and the beaten 1995 All Blacks as they waited exhausted for the presentation of their runners-up medals.)
But hey! Phil thinks that because of my expressions of doubt over the food-poisoning issue I must have “led the anti-Mains camp” in New Zealand in those turbulent rugby years.
To repeat, did I have that power? That influence on rugby history?
Of course I didn't.
Phil: in your column you were over-reaching, trying to justify reaching a conclusion that is simply wrong. You were talking hogwash.
Footnote: It’s easy for Phil Gifford to rewrite rugby history and imply that only one reporter led an anti camp with regard to an All Black coach. But Phil is overlooking his own public disdain for John Hart when Hart was in charge of the All Blacks.
In fact, I might go so far as to say Phil Gifford led “the anti-Hart camp” in New Zealand rugby at that time!
Coach Gordon Tietjens and injured captain Eric Rush led the team in Mar del Plata, Argentina. NZ beat Australia 31-12 in the final.
MCBRIDE, WILLIE JOHN
Ballymena and Ireland
63 internationals for Ireland 1962–75
17 internationals for British Isles 1962–74
One of the outstanding figures of world rugby who, in his time, set a record for most international caps by an individual player, and who gained great respect as a leader.
During the latter days of his playing career, William James McBride became known, as ‘Willie John’. He was an imposing lock, immensely powerful in all aspects of forward play, who specialised in giving only good ball to his halfback whether from lineout, maul or scrum. He had enormous determination and his rivalries with other top players of his day, such as Colin Meads of New Zealand and Frik du Preez of South Africa, were worth traveling miles to see. Perhaps his greatest attribute was his ability to inspire others to play with equal dedication. Perhaps it was a commentary on rugby in its time that those three men became firm friends after their rugby days were over.
In his time McBride knew success: as pack leader for the 1971 Lions in New Zealand, as captain of the 1974 Lions in South Africa and as captain of Ireland in its first championship win in 23 years, in 1974. But he also knew defeat: 26 of his games for Ireland were losses. From those varying results McBride emerged as a player of true character and greatness. He never gave in. He was idolised at home and deeply respected abroad.
McBride, then known as ‘Bill’, began his international rugby as a lock for Ulster in 1960–61, marking the great South African, Johann Claassen, in a Springbok tour game. The young McBride was one of nine new caps brought in by the Irish selectors for the match against England in 1962. Even though he was not in the winning team that day, or indeed that season, he was chosen soon after, as a 21-year-old, for the British Isles tour of South Africa. His courage was epitomised that season when he played the last part of the game against France with his left tibia bone broken.
South Africa in 1962 was a baptism of fire. The young Ballymena man played in two tests: both were losses. He also suffered the pain of defeat in New Zealand in 1966 when the All Blacks wiped aside the Lions by four tests to nil. Two wins against Australia were small consolation.
In 1968, on the Lions tour to South Africa, McBride was again in the losing team, and it was not until 1971 in New Zealand that he smelt the sweetness of victory.
His ultimate performance was with the British team of 1974, which won its test series with the Springboks so dramatically. On that tour McBride, the captain, exhorted his men to ‘take no prisoners’. They reacted superbly to his leadership demands and did not lose a game on tour. Their three test victories, with a draw in the fourth test, represented the biggest humiliation for a major ‘home’ team in rugby history.
On that tour the cry ‘99’ was also used. It was said that McBride had previously suffered at the hands of All Blacks and Springboks in the physical side of the game. He was determined that there should be no more. Thus ‘99’ called for all his players to get alongside their team-mates and if necessary physically fight the opposition together. It was a controversial tactic but one which McBride and his team felt was necessary.
Between his Lions tours he added to his tally of Irish caps, building towards the massive total, in that time, of 63. His five Lions tours, three in all to South Africa and two to Australia and New Zealand, added another 17 caps, bringing his total to 80 caps. Thus he became the world’s greatest cap-winner, an honour he kept until his fellow Ulsterman Mike Gibson passed it in 1979.
In all his test matches McBride scored only one try, against France in his second to last game for Ireland.
After his retirement in 1975 he was, for a time, the Irish coach. In 1983 he was manager of the British Isles team in New Zealand.
In the decade from the 1960s through to the fourth test of 1970 the All Blacks played exactly 100 test matches. What % did they win?