Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
22 June 2017
This story first appeared in the excellent NZToday Magazine's June-July edition. The author knows it is true as he remembers it. Some family members doubt his recall.
RIP to an Old Lion
By Keith Quinn from nztoday.co.nz
British and Irish Lions rugby teams have been a 60 year fascination for me. It was through childish eyes that I first admired them; then as a teenager I scrambled to get tickets to watch them play, finally in my career as a reporter I was fortunate to comment on them in several different parts of the world. I wrote two books about Lions tours to New Zealand.
But I recall one Lions story in particular; it is a very private one if I may say. It has not seen the light of day before.
The year before the 1959 Lions tour of New Zealand, in 1958 when I was 11 years old, I had noticed that selected boys from my new school at South Wellington Intermediate ran the sidelines as ball boys each week at Athletic Park, the capital’s main rugby ground.
We were a new family in town then, just Mum and her five boys. Our dear Dad had died several years earlier from a cruel cancer. We had come from the country to the big smoke. Finding a house near Athletic Park was lucky for me. Without much money it became convenient for us boys to regularly watch rugby games. There was no charge for kids.
From my free seats with growing envy, I noted our school’s keenest lads running the balls which had been kicked out from the playing field back to the star wingers who would then throw them back into the lineouts. Straight away I knew I wanted to be one of the ball boys, especially as next year, the Lions were due to come.
12 months later when my name was posted as a ‘chosen one’ it was probably the biggest lift I had had to that stage in my young life.
There was a quite a bit of discipline involved; each week six of us had to be impeccably turned out with white bootlaces, boiled every Friday night and wearing pressed white shorts. We were also given a black Wellington schoolboy rep jersey to wear – such a badge of honour!
Looking back, I now feel that tour and what happened from it contributed massively to what was to unfold for me in my future years in the sports media.
The story I’d like to get off my chest is the one my family members remain sceptical about; but hey – it’s my story!
You see, in those days of overseas tours to New Zealand the visiting team always supplied one of the two touch-judges needed for every game. It was a nice touch from the amateur era. The invited tour touch-judge was just there to raise his flag where the ball crossed the sidelines or when it went over, or not, from an attempt at goal.
When the Lions ran out to play the Wellington representative team in the first of three tour games to be played on my beloved Athletic Park there I was, with my ballboy mate Ross Pickett, waiting expectantly to see which Lions touch-judge we would work the sideline with that day.
It turned out ‘our’ touch-judge was a squarely built Irish prop by the name of Gordon Wood. Interestingly he was not wearing a tour blazer but instead a heavy woollen pullover which added to his burly exterior. He asked us our names and we told him ours; Ross and I respectfully called him ‘Mr Wood.’
He also asked us what our Dad’s did for a living and I had to tell him that ‘I had no father.’ I swallowed as I did so. I never knew quite how to frame those words.
Gordon Wood was very bright and friendly and he chatted away, especially when the ball was on the opposite of the field. When that happened your future TV reporter instinctively sensed his one in a million chance. I took to asking Mr Wood repeated questions about the play and the players in the Lions team. I knew them by sight of course from a scrapbook I had been keeping. I must have asked him 20 questions by halftime! Mr Wood cheerfully replied to each!
At the end of the game which the Lions won by 21-6, he gave me the ultimate tribute; a tussle of my hair as he jogged towards the grandstand. With my Dad gone a tussle of the hair just never happened for me. ‘Follow me boys,’ he said, in his southern Irish brogue, ‘I’ve got something for ye.’
Ross and I then waited outside the Lion’s dressing room in the steamy, crowded corridor under Athletic Park, while men in gabardine coats pushed past, heading for the after match function and their warm beer.
Gordon Wood came out and presented us each with a bottle of lemonade, a piping-hot meat pie and two gold-plated British Lions tour badges. ‘One is for you and one is for your best friend,’ he said. Ross and I knew we had made a new true friend and that we had gold of the rarest kind to savour as we triumphantly walked home.
A fortnight later the Lions were back in the capital for the second test match. This really was the big time! Ross and I were in place again, with boots shining in the brightest sunlight, our laces doubly boiled. This was a test match and a Wellington record crowd of 58,000 came to watch. The roar as we two crossed the field before the teams came out was massive. We loved it!
But what was this? When the Lions and All Blacks ran out to play, jogging behind them to our side of the field was, once again, our ‘Mr Wood!’
Once the thrilling test was under way we three raced about, doing our respective duties, but still with enough time for me to ask as many enquiries of my touch judge friend as I could.
One question was, ‘how come you’re not playing in these games Mr Wood?’ He replied that he had injury problems, hence wearing the heavy pullover again, which meant he might not play any more of the big games on the tour. I felt sad for him.
The game was very close. Near the end the massive New Zealand fullback Don (‘The Boot’) Clarke dived for the winning try. It was 11-8 to the All Blacks. (In the newsreel footage you can see me jumping for joy)
Though Mr Wood must have been massively disappointed we ballboys were again given gifts by him in the steamy corridor. Two more Lions badges were pressed into our grateful hands plus the essential lemonade and pies. Ross and I swaggered home once more, our tummies warm and be-jewelled now with four of the highly-prized lapel pins.
Please stay with me; my story here still has decades to run.
The third Lion’s tour game in Wellington turned out to be a personal disaster for me. On the day of the game against New Zealand Juniors I had a dose of the flu so serious that Mum would not countenance her boy getting out of bed to go running around on a cold Wellington afternoon.
I was devastated of course, wondering what the game would be like but longing to know if Ross and my replacement would see our Irish friend again. Wood was not listed to play. I listened from bed to the radio commentary and marked the 29-9 win for the Lions in my tour scrapbook.
As dusk set in and still tucked up warm suddenly my mother came into the bedroom. In a strange tone she said, ‘Keith, there’s a man on the phone for you.’
I could not understand who it could possibly be. I did not play club rugby, I was not a boy scout or anything like that, so to get a call from any adult in those times was very strange.
But when I picked up the phone my heart soared. ‘Keith,’ said a soft, familiar voice, ‘it’s Gordon Wood here. I’m back at the hotel. Your pal Ross gave me your number. He said you were sick and I just wanted to know how you are. We missed you at the game today. I was waitin’ for your questions.’
The two of us then chatted away like old buddies; he answered all my questions of course. The conversation ended with him telling me he had given Ross a couple of wee gifts to bring me and that he hoped we would meet again one day. I immediately knew what the gifts would be.
So I’ve never forgotten Gordon Wood, the man who introduced me to a lifetime’s interest in the British and Irish Lions, and their culture of decency and concern. He will be in my mind when I see the 2017 team run out to play.
When I think back Gordon Wood seemed to care a lot about an inquisitive little boy who didn’t have a father. See how such things can affect kids for decades ahead?
When I later began a 40 year career as All Black TV rugby commentator I was lucky to visit Ireland a number of times but I never saw Gordon Wood again. He lived in the Deep South in Limerick; he was probably in town in 1978 when Munster beat the All Blacks. I was there too.
But in 1982 I read one day that aged only 50 Gordon had collapsed and died in a pub he owned. I was reflective and very sad. His passing no doubt was a grievous loss to his family. I understood totally when I also learned he had one son who was just ten years old at the time of his Dad’s passing.
That boy with the proud Wood name later grew to famously play 58 tests in the front row for Ireland and he also went on two British and Irish Lions tours.
You remember Gordon Wood’s son don’t you? He is retired from playing nowadays and has worked extensively in the rugby media in Ireland. I hope he asks endless questions. Gordon’s son’s name is Keith Wood.
Now, bring it in tight here; can you not blame me for wondering all these years? Was the son Keith Wood actually named after a skinny ballboy with shiny boots who his Dad, Gordon, cared enough about to ring up and express concern for on a Lions tour in faraway New Zealand in 1959?
In a strange way I hope that I never find out for sure. But it’s my favourite Lions story and I am sticking to it.
So finally here is my chance to say RIP ‘Mr Wood’ of the 1959ers - and thank you so much for being a great and powerfully influential British and Irish Lion.
It was 145-17 in Bloemfontein. Marc Ellis scored 6 tries and Simon Culhane kicked 20 conversions. Plus from others there was a lot more!
Hawke’s Bay, East Coast and New Zealand
9 internationals for New Zealand 1924–30
A legendary figure in a legendary team, the 1924 ‘Invincible’ All Blacks. Only 19 at the time, George Nepia played all 38 matches during that gruelling tour of Australia, Britain, Ireland, France and Canada.
British sides were unstinting in their praise of Nepia, the rock on whom so many of their attacks foundered. His courage under the high ball and in repelling foot rushes, the crunching certainty of his tackling and the strength of his spiraled line kicking – all of these combined to restrict opposition teams to no more than 180 points against the All Blacks in the 38 games.
Nepia could also run with the ball. He had started his first-class career as a wing, then a five-eighth, before outstanding fullback displays in 1924 resulted in his being chosen as the only last line of defence. Early in the tour of Britain he made a sizzling run, but the dictatorial Mark Nicholls told him to leave the running to his five-eighths and three-quarters: his job was to defend. It was not until the 37th match of the tour, in Canada, that Nepia scored his first try!
A bogus telegram which advised the selectors of Nepia’s ‘unavailability’ cost him a place with the New Zealand Maoris’ trend-setting tour to Britain in 1927, and his All Black career finished after the 1930 home series against the British Isles. After a temporary retirement, Nepia returned to bid for a place with the 1935–36 All Blacks to tour Britain but was surprisingly not selected, though then playing as well as at any time of his career.
With his financial security in tatters at the end of the Depression, Nepia readily accepted the lure of rugby league money and played two seasons in England, and then for New Zealand. Reinstated to rugby in what was then called the ‘war-time amnesty’ which allowed rugby league professionals to return without recrimination to the amateur rugby union, Nepia played for East Coast in 1947, and in 1950 captained the Olympians club in a first-class fixture against Poverty Bay. George Nepia, father and son, were the fullbacks and captains on this historic day, George senior being 45 years old at the time.
He became an active referee and many spectators went to games just to watch Nepia referee, rather than see the two teams doing battle.
Which prominent All Black back didn't play a test till after his 30th birthday?