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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!
'Oh oh!' He scored 4 tries in Cape Town as NZ made the 3rd Rugby World Cup final. Beating England 45-29.
Cardiff and Wales
53 internationals for Wales 1967–78
10 internationals for British Isles 1968–74
Gareth Edwards was one of the most widely acclaimed rugby players of all time – a brilliantly versatile halfback and a strong physical competitor who captured the imagination and admiration of players and followers all over the world.
Edwards first came to prominence outside Wales as a teenager on the Cardiff club’s tour of South Africa in 1967, where he played in a number of positions in the backline. Once back in Wales his enormous talents were soon focused on scrumhalf play. He was chosen for his country three months before his 20th birthday and was never dropped until his retirement. Ten years later, with 53 caps, he had set a record for most internationals for Wales, which stood until passed by J.P.R. Williams in 1981. Edwards’s tests were consecutive – both a world record then, and a monumental feat.
In all his internationals, he was in the losing side on no more than 15 occasions. He scored 20 tries in internationals, at the time also a Welsh record, although later equalled by Gerald Davies and later still passed by Ieuan Evans and Gareth Thomas. Edwards’ total of 63 internationals was also, in its time of few tests in any year, the world’s highest for a scrumhalf. He was Wales’s youngest ever international captain (20 years, seven months in the match against Scotland in February 1968).
At the time of his debut for Wales, in the Five Nations match v France in 1967, Edwards was a physical education student at Cardiff Training College. Later, he switched clubs to Cardiff and became a successful businessman. Later still, at the end of his playing days, he was a media commentator and reporter on the game.
A master of the spin-pass, Edwards had all the other attributes of the complete scrumhalf. His kicking was skilful, his running devastating to any of the opposition that could stay near his electric bursts, and his competitiveness was relentless. He dominated many matches simply because of his presence on the field. He was a brilliant opportunist and scorer of tries.
Perhaps the only aspect of his game that did not reach the highest level was as a captain. Many people felt he was inhibited slightly as a leader, with the result that other Welshmen came past him to lead the national XV. He did not resent this, rather it allowed him to return his full concentration to the scrumhalf role. In all, he was captain of his country in 13 tests.
Edwards played superbly in partnership with that other great Welsh personality, Barry John. The two were together as a scrum-outside half combination on 23 occasions, then the world record. Edwards was part of the great era in Welsh rugby that followed almost exactly the dates of his career. He also played superbly for the British Isles in New Zealand in 1971 and in South Africa in 1974. Both those series were won during what were some of British rugby’s greatest days.
He took part in and, indeed, scored the try that is often hailed as one of the greatest ever seen in the game. It was for the Barbarians club against the All Blacks of 1972–73 at Cardiff. The capacity home crowd of 60,000 roared so loudly they distorted forever the television recordings of Edwards diving in at the end of a 90-metre movement.
Edwards possessed a most charming and modest personality, and became in his time one of the most revered characters in Wales – and the rest of the rugby world.
In 1997 he was one of the first players inaugurated into the International Rugby Hall of Fame.
Stories abound about Gareth Edwards’ prowess at the game. One story has it that on the day of an England-Wales game at Twickenham, one Welsh supporter could not get a ticket so he waited forlornly outside the ground hoping at least to soak up some of the atmosphere and to hear the result. Eventually he became frustrated at not knowing what was happening in the game, so he called up to some people who were in the ground and asked them what was happening. They happened to be English, so they called back ungraciously that all the Welsh team except Gareth Edwards had been carried off injured. This disturbed the already sad Welsh supporter, but he remained typically optimistic. When a huge roar erupted from the ground a few minutes later, he again called up to the crowd. ‘What’s happened, what’s happened?' he said, 'Gareth scored, has he?’
Such a story is typical of the admiration and affection that existed for one of the greatest of rugby men.
Which club supplied seven players of the 1971 British and Irish Lions touring team to New Zealand - five of whom played all four tests?