Friday, December 13, 2019

Vale Sir Peter Snell - New Zealand's Sportsperson of the 20th Century

It is a measure of the impact Sir Peter Snell made on the athletics world that the world record he set for 800m, on a grass track at the now-defunct Lancaster Park in Christchurch, remains the New Zealand record 57 years later.

On February 3, 1962, Snell ran a time of 1m 44.3s for the 800m and while at it, he also broke the world half-mile record. This a week after breaking the world mile record at Cook's Gardens in Wanganui with his time of 3m 54.4s, the first four-minute mile run on New Zealand soil.

That was Peter Snell, a strong, powerful runner whose sustained speed allowed him to dominate middle distance running during the first five years of the 1960s. 

Based on the Arthur Lydiard mileage he put into his legs, he had the strength to achieve success in clusters: his three world records in a week in 1962, his Empire Games gold medals in the half-mile and mile at Perth later that same year and his two Olympic gold medals in the 800m and 1500m at Tokyo in 1964, followed soon after back in Auckland by another world mile record of 3m 54.1s and the world 1000m record.

On top of that, he several times visited the United States to take on their best runners in traditional track running and on boards on the indoor circuit.

Snell, as time has shown, was a phenomenon achieving success like very few individual sportspeople from New Zealand have managed.

Yet, at the same time, he was his own man. His disputes with Lydiard, when they had differences of opinion, were a demonstration of that although Snell remained a Lydiard disciple throughout his life.

He was concerned during his competitive years that he hadn't made the best of his schooling and that drove his later commitment to academia and the PhD he achieved in future years. That involved moving off shore but he retained a connection with the country and his achievements were acknowledged in various sports facilities named after him and with suitable bronze statues created.

He was judged New Zealand's Sportsperson of the 20th Century and there was never any dispute that he deserved the honour.

That can be measured in the fact that his Tokyo Olympic double success has never been repeated.

From an era before the modern massive media attention that makes even ordinary sportspeople household names, Snell was a genuine sporting hero. Others had high profiles like Sir Murray Halberg, Sir Colin Meads, Sir Brian Lochore, Sir Wilson Whineray and a horse named Cardigan Bay, but Sir Peter Snell enjoyed the highest-profile of all.

His impact and achievements in his area of expertise may never be repeated.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

World Cup loss wasn't the worst

Self-appointed New Zealand rugby historian, Stephen Jones, of Sunday Times fame out of Wapping, London, described England's Rugby World Cup semifinal triumph on Saturday as inflicting the worst defeat on the All Blacks.

Or to put it more accurately, he asked: "When did New Zealand suffer the most crushing defeat in their history? No, you don't need the record books. It was yesterday. It is not a matter of points. It may not look desperate on the scoreboard but they have surely never had so little of a big game, have never been played to a standstill and then to something approximating a rabble."

Forgetting all the journalistic hyperbole, and the never-ending desire to get a rise out of New Zealand fans, the simple fact is that it wasn't the most crushing defeat.

Disappointing yes, but more from the fact that the All Blacks were unable to impose their game, a style of rugby that the world genuinely needs at the moment for the benefit of the game. But most crushing? No.

As players are frequently saying, although many of them will now be more aware of the reality, World Cups are different and are all about winning by whatever means it takes. England were pragmatic to perfection and even in their defensive style there were attributes to admire.

That said, the most crushing New Zealand defeat must remain the third Test 17-6 loss to the Springboks in 1937. 

This was a game in which New Zealand, in the series decider, were so comprehensively out-played, and out-thought, that South Africa scored five tries to nil. And if Gerry Brand had had his goal-kicking boots on it would have been even worse. Based on modern scoring the score would have been 27-6.

Under the laws of the day South Africa opted for scrums every time they had a lineout and they scrummed New Zealand into the Eden Park mud. It was relentless. And if New Zealand looked bereft in the face of England's challenge in Yokohama, they at least continued to play and to try and get some momentum throughout the 80 minutes.

But the men of 1937 were stuffed from the first time the Springboks called for a scrum. The South Africans said they knew from the looks on the faces of the All Blacks that they realised they had been completely caught out tactically and they faced a long day at the office.

It was all to do with New Zealand's complete inability to cope with changing from their 2-3-2 scrum back in 1932.

So sorry Stephen, the reality is otherwise.

There are other contenders as well: the 1999 meltdown at the hands of France in another World Cup semifinal would be one. On that occasion it was positive attack that undid them, even after they built what should have been a match-winning lead.

That's not to forget the 2007 quarterfinal against France where tactics were again awry.

Then there's the 1964 20-5 loss to Australia at Athletic Park.

Some of the contenders in non-Test matches would have included the lamentable 17-40 loss to Sydney in 1992 or the 0-12 loss to Munster in 1978.

But if there is one thing that is common among all the losses, no matter how bad, it is that recovery has followed and so long as that continues All Blacks fans will be happy.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Running and its contribution to our world

When Running Made History by Roger Robinson, Canterbury University Press (Ed), Christchurch, 2018

Sportspeople by their nature tend to be too wound up in the 'now' to spend time considering the impact of their actions and effect on the world at large.

They have goals to reach, preparation to complete and a life to live in order to put themselves in the best place to achieve all they want.

They are busy, pre-occupied and, in many cases, understandably selfish. There is winning to be done, milestones to be knocked off.

The time for reflection is once the quest has been fulfilled.

Only then does the realisation occur that they have been involved in something that has had a profound effect, even on people they have never met.

This phenomenon is not easily understood in a world that lives from televised sporting moment to televised sporting moment, whatever the field of interest may be.

There can be no denying that sport provides inspiration, comfort and pride in a way that few other activities can in the wider community, not only for participants but also for those who follow from the margins.

Think of how England is feeling at the moment not only after winning the Cricket World Cup but also the latest Ashes Test.

Consider how New Zealand felt after the initial America's Cup success of 1995 and then the winning of the trophy again in 2017. That's not to forget the collective relief after the Rugby World Cup win of 2011.

How did Fiji feel after their outstanding Sevens side won the country's first Olympic gold medal in 2016?

There are numerous other examples through time.

Quantifying that contribution to humanity is not usually the participants' job.

But that doesn't make it any less significant.

Academic, writer, historian, athlete Roger Robinson has seen and experienced it all in his chosen athletic pursuit. In a lifetime of devotion to running, even to the cost of two knees, he has been in a unique position to assess just what the running movement has contributed to our world.

From witnessing the genesis of the African emergence on the world stage as Abebe Bikila ran barefoot through Rome to a Marathon gold medal through the women's running revolution to the salving effects of September 11, 2001 achieved by the New York Marathon of that year, or similarly to the people of Boston after the bomb attack on their great event of 2013.

He recounts the growth of his own interest in what became his sport in the aftermath of the Second World War, through a golden era of British running, and an equally memorable era after his migration to New Zealand.

Witnessing the emergence of the jogging movement and the road-running phenomenon in New Zealand and the United States respectively, and of the embracing of the fun-run concepts in cities around the world, Robinson has encapsulated the breadth of just one element of wholesomeness in sport in his book When Running Made History.

A compelling read made the more enjoyable by the occasional personal perspective of an 'almost good' runner. Robinson eloquently puts his case for the value of running in an undeniable manner. The evidence he offers cannot be disputed, although it is too often overlooked.

It shouldn't be and the sooner policymakers and politicians understand that the world might be a better place.

Apart from the obvious benefits for so many from the exercise movement, Robinson has also been part of the Masters movement which in its own way adds further to the benefits his sport, and others, and which have added to community health and well-being.

There is a reason people are living longer and the benefits of exercise have to be right up there with the reduction of disease and development of beneficial drugs.

Robinson says: "I once heard the leading authority on the theory of leisure, John R. Kelly, explain that the most important thing in activities for the old is to avoid 'violation of the continuity of the self'. As we move up in years, Kelly said, we never identify as 'old person', whatever younger people may think they see, but as the same person we have always been, grown somewhat older. Therefore, the best activities we can choose are those that respect that continuity."

Robinson added that in one way his book was his tribute to the insight Kelly had given him that the 78-year-old author was the same thinker as the nine-year-old who watched Emil Zatopek run in 1948.

That comes through clearly throughout the book.

Sport too rarely celebrates what it contributes to the lives of so many. It would be difficult to achieve that given the breadth of sports.

But, nevertheless, the fact remains sport is a significant factor in life and books like When Running Made History are a reminder that it is a positive and welcome part of a world that needs those qualities more than it has surely ever needed them.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Sir Brian Lochore: Rugby greatness personified

In a sports-mad country like New Zealand, as a sports journalist, you get to mix and mingle with some outstanding sports people, who leave you with varying impressions.

It would be fair to say that Sir Brian Lochore will always be the measure by which assessment will be made. That's the very highest standard that others have to live up to.

Yet it was a standard that was completely natural and appeared to come with complete ease to a gentleman in all respects of the word. That's what made him the man he was.

Apart from my first exposure, as barely a high school student, to his ability to impart messages meaningfully at the Gore Wool Exchange when he and Colin Meads were invited, in early 1968, by the local Tin Hut Club to speak on their experiences on the 1967 tour of Britain, I next met him when he came south with Wairarapa Bush in their quest to relieve Southland of their place in the old National Provincial Championship in the promotion-relegation game of 1981.

A game Wairarapa Bush duly won to end one of the more harrowing seasons in Southland rugby history. That game was discussed many times over in subsequent meetings.

Transferring to Wellington there was considerably more contact with him, not so much in an active playing of the game sense – he had retired from coaching in 1987 – but in seeking opinions, comments and the like. It was also a time when he headed the Hillary Commission and it was in that respect that I saw the real Lochore mastery.

The New Zealand Sports Foundation, under its chief executive Chris Ineson, decided to host a "Captain's Forum" with as many of New Zealand's international sports captains who could possibly attend, as well as the Hillary Commission chairman, Sir Brian.

Held in Christchurch, it was an eye-opener and it was a privilege to be one of two sports journalists invited to attend. What transpired was a shocking indictment of sports administration in this country as captain after captain went through the process by which they had been appointed to their roles. The common denominator amongst them all was the complete lack of preparation they had followed by an absolute lack of support once they had accepted the role.

If ever there had been a need for a long, hard look at how these matters were handled this forum certainly provided it. Sir Brian sat through it all and offered various elements of wisdom from his own experience.

One gem he offered was that at his first pre-game team talk, before the first Test against the British & Irish Lions on their unfortunate tour of 1966, he had unleashed a torrent of swearing in trying to rev his players up. He recounted that afterwards Charlie Saxton, who would be the manager of the famed 1967 team, took him aside and told him that swearing wasn't necessary under those circumstances. He was the All Blacks captain and already had the respect of the players. Sir Brian commented to the captains that he had only sworn because that was what he thought was expected. But the word from Saxton set him on the straight and narrow and he never swore again in similar circumstances.

Lochore acknowledged after coach Sir Fred Allen's funeral in 2012 that his decision to appoint Lochore as captain had been life-changing, although he hadn't appreciated it at the time. Allen had gone for Lochore ahead of other more favoured contenders like: Colin Meads, Kel Tremain, Kel Tremain and Chris Laidlaw. And Allen said in later years that had been one of the master-strokes of his career.

It was interesting that while in a break during filming of a couple of interviews we did for the All Blacks Legends series for, Sir Brian related an interesting sequel to that night in Gore. He and Meads were staying in Invercargill where their wives were quartered but they returned home via central Southland where they called in on fellow 1967 team member Jack Hazlett's farm. Hazlett and a crew were hard at work taking full advantage of the long southern nights and warm weather to harvest some crops he had on his farm and they ended up working through the night to give Hazlett a hand, catching up with their wives the next morning.

Such a situation would surprise no one who knew either Lochore or Meads but it was typical of the qualities that made them such icons in the game.

What will be missed now that both men have been lost is the innate wisdom they so willingly shared, Meads in a more humorous sense and Lochore in regard for the legacy he loved and represented so willingly. 

Theirs has been a special generation in rugby and the game will do well to see their like repeated.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Maori First World War contribution comes alive

Whitiki! Whiti! Whiti! E! – Maori in the First World War by Monty Soutar, published by Bateman Books, Auckland.

Understanding the impact of the First World War has been one of the results of the attention paid to the centennial of the conflagration over the years from 2014-2018. The world was a significantly different place 100 years ago and attitudes and understanding related to a completely antithetical social circumstance than what applied in New Zealand, and other countries.

New Zealand was still finding its way in the world, admittedly as an outshoot of the British Empire but starting to contribute in its own distinctive manner, especially to the dining tables of Mother England.

The country itself was a willing responder to the call of empire when war broke out in Europe and where Britain was drawn into the conflict on the basis of its treaty arrangements made over many years.

When New Zealand chose to be involved, the role of Maori to the contribution became a source of considerable discussion. Paternalism towards the indigenous people was a significant hurdle that had to be overcome before Maori were able to take their place among the forces who represented the country, in Samoa, Gallipoli and latterly, in France and Belgium.

Historian Monty Soutar has developed a significant reputation in his field serving for three years as the World War One historian-in-residence at the Auckland War Memorial Museum from 2014-2017 and also as a member of the First World War centenary panel and the Waitangi Tribunal.

He was ideally placed to provide the first Maori perspective of their contribution to the war effort. Coming as it did less than 50 years after New Zealand's land wars, the First World War was a test of attitudes for the country. The background to sending Maori overseas is a central theme running through this story as politicians and Maori elders attempted to reach common ground in the role for Maori in the war.

It wasn't easy as some tribes still harboured more than reasonable resentments at their treatment by the same crown that was now calling on them to contribute to the cause of empire. Soutar has bored into the nitty gritty of the debate and takes the issue beyond just war history into societal structure, contributing even more to the national understanding of New Zealand's story.

That is the most compelling feature of this story. While the deeds of the 28 Maori Battalion of the Second World War are more firmly entrenched in modern minds, that is largely due to the more recent time span, and the connection with those who, until recently, were still living and able to tell their stories.

What Soutar has achieved is a leap beyond that effort to 20 years earlier and the far different attitudes that Maori had to contend with. He has described the machinations which saw the contribution change, sometimes as the result of an administrative whim by less than understanding British commanders, or due to lack of reinforcements at key times.

There was also the placement of Maori alongside other units before finally winning recognition for their feats in the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion which ended the war as a much more complete representation of the Maori involvement.

The politics being played out at home are another key element that is vital to the story and it appears that no stone has been left unturned in painting a complete picture.

Abilities demonstrated by those who played such a key part in keeping communications and logistics lines open through sometimes hellish artillery fire leave no doubt as to their role in the war. 

What Soutar has also ensured is that the gritty, dirty, wet, unhealthy, mud-bound conditions for all who fought on the Western Front are hit home in accurate fashion. You almost have to take a hot shower to rid yourself of the detritus of the battlefront after reading. 

Given that so many who took part, talked so little about their experiences, if they were unaffected by them, it is perhaps as well that the mothers of those sent across the world never had to know the full extent of what their sons were exposed to.

Time has allowed a perspective that both encapsulates the achievements of those who took part while adding the freshness of viewpoint provided by time. When coupled with brilliant illustrations and maps, this is not a book of military minutiae incomprehensible to all but the technicians who study these things. It is a book for the people, of the people, and has a resonance far beyond the deeds of the Maori who fought in the First World War.

Modern historians have done an outstanding job in their reflections of all aspects of the centenary of the First World War and Monty Soutar's book is yet another example of the worth of the joint exercise of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Massey University and the New Zealand Defence Force in applying a modern perspective to the war which had such a significant impact on the world we now live in.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Paul Jesson's tale well worth telling

'Oh, THAT Tour!' – The Paul Jesson Story by Des Williams. Last Side Publishing, 2019.

As New Zealand cyclists start popping up among the results lists of major European events, especially, in more recent times, it is timely that the autobiography of one of the trailblazers for Kiwis competing in Europe has been published.
Paul Jesson, an outstanding talent from Christchurch, wasn't one of the earliest pioneers, they were a generation or two ahead of him, but because it was so hard for Kiwis to break into the European scene, the gestation of more permanent opportunities was a long time coming.

But when they did Jesson was to the forefont of that happening. The reviewer was privy to the earliest days of Jesson's development as a competitor in the Tour of Southland and the less forgotten annual Queenstown tours that used to be raced over Queen's Birthday Weekends. If the Tour of Southland was notable for weather variations, the Queens Birthday weekend had one consistent quality – the cold.

Jesson had two wins and two second placings in the Tour of Southland, and in the season after his second win, the flood-plagued tour of 1978, he was racing professionally in Europe achieving 10thand 13thplacings in stage finishes on the Tour de France.

A year later he was the first New Zealander to win a stage in a major European tour, La Vuelta a Espana, where he won the 10thstage. 

However, it was soon after that success in which he finished 29thoverall that Jesson's career ended. Riding the criterium of the famed warm-up event for the Tour de France, the Dauphine Libere and impressing with how well he was doing, tragedy struck Jesson, around the eight-minute mark.

As Jesson said: "Our reconnaissance rides earlier in the day would have given me some idea of the road ahead, but about 800 metres from the end of the race itself I came around a corner, hell for leather, eyes down on the road and crashed into the back of a stationary Lancia car. The course had supposedly been cleared of all vehicles prior to the start of the prologue."

That was bad enough in itself, but what followed was worse. Having badly damaged his knee and suffering other injuries, he was taken to hospital but arrived during a shift change. That resulted in delays to his treatment and control of blood circulation.

It was then found the hospital staff lacked the expertise to treat his injuries and he had to be taken 700km by ambulance to Belgium. The surgeon there had a reputation for dealing with similar types of sports injuries but then he realised he couldn't handle the task and Jesson had to be transferred to another hospital.

He had 12 major operations over three weeks, three of them to deal with a gangrenous leg which eventually resulted in amputation.

Jesson spent another four years in Belgium where he had been based. But when he returned to New Zealand he became involved in support work for New Zealand cycling teams and became a masseur for sportspeople.

But as it turned out Jesson would resume racing. In 1995 after cycling experiences, while travelling through Europe, he returned to riding and became involved in competing in 'differently-abled' events. Those reached their peak, after any number of trials and tribulations, when he won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic Games time trial/road race at the Athens Paralympics. That followed an 11that Sydney's Paralympics four years earlier and a fourth in the 3000m individual pursuit.  Back in 1998, he had won two world championships in the 4000m individual pursuit and 18km road time trial.

Jesson's story has not been as well known in New Zealand sports history as it should have been but Des Williams' effort in putting the story together is a worthy tribute to one of cycling's trailblazers. The resulting story reveals just how much of an impact Jesson had made in the hard world of European cycling and how bright his future looked.

While he was denied that as a result of his accident, his story is nevertheless a fulsome reminder of the triumph of the will and deserves its place in New Zealand's sporting literature.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Another slant on a famous NZ cricket story

What Are You Doing Out Here – Heroism and Distress at a Cricket Test by Norman Harris, Last Side Publishing, 2010.

In days when cricket was not the subject of wall-to-wall television coverage, the written word was the means by which the on-field events in games were transferred to those not lucky enough to be in attendance.

That was especially the case at Ellis Park in Johannesburg over the Christmas break in 1953. New Zealand were touring and playing South Africa in the second Test of a series in which New Zealand would be well beaten – they had never won a Test match by this stage.

And they weren't destined to win on this occasion either, but as Paul Irwin, the cricket writer for South Africa's Sunday Times said, the New Zealanders did win a red badge of courage.

This was the infamous test played against the backdrop of the worst rail disaster suffered in New Zealand's history at Tangiwai on Christmas Eve of that year. On the train, and one of the victims, was the fiancée of one of New Zealand's players, fast-medium bowler Bob Blair.

The story of that fateful Boxing Day which because of the time difference and body recovery at the scene of the tragedy meant that Blair didn't learn the sad news until early in the morning has been forever enshrined in New Zealand journalism, not just sports journalism, in tour correspondent R.T. 'Dick' Brittenden's book, Silver Fern on the Veldt, still one of the finest pieces of writing in New Zealand sport.

Certainly Brittenden covered the events for the immediacy of his daily writing requirements, but with the perspective of time, and there was plenty of that when the team headed home across the Indian Ocean by boat, he wrote so memorably of the dramatics that unfolded as New Zealand succumbed to the pace bowling of South African Neil Adcock.

Bowling in conditions that suited his fast pace and ability to lift the ball off a good length, Adcock had New Zealand reeling that morning. Players were hit, coughing up blood while ace batsman Bert Sutcliffe suffered a blow to his head which saw him taken to hospital for x-rays only to return to the fray, head bandaged and taking to the South Africans to avoid the follow-on. 

Then, when it appeared the New Zealand innings was complete, out of the grandstand emerged Blair, who distraught with grief back at the team hotel thought the one thing that might help him forget the change that had overtaken his life's plans, would be to go to the ground to be with his teammates. 

It was never intended he would resume playing, but in the side's dire need he decided to bat hence Sutcliffe's utterance of the title of the book, What are you doing out here?

The crowd, at the great old rugby ground which was in use while the famous Wanderers ground, the traditional home of Transvaal cricket, was being revamped, were on their feet in recognition of the great emotion of the event playing out in front of them, saw Sutcliffe and Blair take 25 runs from off-spinner Hugh Tayfield's over, a world Test record, before the innings was ended.

The story was revisited in 2010 when New Zealand sports writer Norman Harris, better known for his athletics writing in the 1960s and who had moved to Britain subsequently, penned his book. He added significantly to the story, especially in adding the geological background to the washout of the railway bridge at Tangiwai, the result of a lahar breaking high on the adjacent mountain, Mt Ruapehu.

Harris has also found how Nerissa Love, Blair's fiancée was only on the train because her friend and neighbour Janet Trevelyan had convinced her to take the place of another friend who was unable to make the trip. He placed them in the third carriage from the front of the train, and when the accident occurred six carriages and the engine plummeted into the flooded Whangaehu River.

Then the pieces are put together in a fashion that time never allowed for Brittenden. The story, woven around the tragedy and the Test match, is another raw telling of what happened which is not lessened as a result of the passage of time.

By placing paragraphs at the end of his book on those involved in the Test match, Harris has placed the story in perspective and produced another version well worth reading.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Track and field historian/statistician made great contribution

World track and field lost one of its great contributors when Italian statistician Roberto Quercetani died in Florence, aged 97 on May 13.

One of the great historians and statisticians of world athletics, Quercetani, or RLQ as he was known, was a founder member of the Association of Track and Field Statisticians, serving as president of that group from 1950-68.
He first published his A World History of Track and Field Athletics in 1964, regularly updating it and added other titles all highlighting statistical and historic areas of interest in the sport.

When undertaking research for Conquerors of Time, the story of the great era of mile and 1500m running bounded by the 1932 and 1936 Olympic Games, I arranged to meet with Quercetani while on a European trip to discuss one of the central characters in my story, Luigi Beccali, the winner of the 1500m in Los Angeles in 1932 and bronze medalist in the 1936 classic race in the Berlin Olympics.

He walked into the hotel in which I was staying and said it had been where all the athletes had stayed for a major track meet in the city. 

He explained then that Beccali had been his inspiration to becoming involved in athletics. He carried with him a copy of a special issue of the Italian magazine Il Secolo Illustrato which was devoted to Beccali's career. He thought it might be of help to me, although sadly it was in Italian and I would need to get it translated.

He was surprised when I told him I already had a copy of the magazine, and that it had also been translated for me. It was then that I was able to tell him that Luigi Beccali's son Gene had loaned me a copy after I met with him at his home on New York's Long Island in 2003.

At the same time he was delighted to learn that Gene had been such a fund of information about his father, because there was so little known about Luigi Beccali after he left Italy to live in the United States from 1938. 

Quercetani said that while he had spoken with Beccali when he was awarded an Italian knighthood, Caviliere in 1965, he thought, it was only a brief conversation and there had not been the time to talk about his life beyond Italy. He did tell Quercetani, "I'm too American to Italians and too Italian to Americans."

Quercetani was very supportive of the effort going into the book and highly complimentary when it was published.

Appreciation of Quercetani's achievements by New Zealanders may have been diminished due to Kiwi Peter Heidenstrom establishing himself as a track and field statistician of the highest order in this country.

However, there is no doubting the knowledge and understanding that Quercetani brought to track and field and his history is a must-have source for every event on the track and field programme.

He was a big fan of New Zealand runners, Jack Lovelock, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg especially.

Quercetani was in no doubt of the significance of the 1500m final at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

"The Berlin 1500m is still remembered as a classic in the history over the event, were it only for the tactical skill displayed in it by a man who had keyed himself up for the occasion with unsurpassed precision. This man was Jack Lovelock," he wrote in the 2000 edition of Athletics – A history of modern track and field athletics (1860-2000).

And in my interview with him he said: "The 1936 1500m final was a masterpiece. It was one of the greatest 1500m races in history because it put together three great champions." They were Lovelock, American Glenn Cunningham, and Beccali.

All Blacks pictures worth a thousand words

Black Boots – New Zealand's Rugby Legends, words by Phil Gifford, photographs by Barry Durrant and Morrie Hill, published by Bateman Books.

New Zealand's rugby history has traditionally been well served both in written and visual form and the latest offering Black Boots continues that legacy not only through the photographs of Barry Durrant but also the late Morrie Hill.

Writer Phil Gifford provides the mortar to their brickwork with his knowledgeable and authoritative captions, many of them classic vignettes in their own write (pardon the deliberate pun).

If rugby has changed since that day in 1995 when southern hemisphere rugby administrators bit the bullet and decided their future lay in a professional enterprise, then so too has the coverage.

Demands of commercialism and brands have seen photographic rights tied up and restricted and the sort of pictures included in this selection may never be seen when illustrating the modern era of the game.

The book is also representative of a more evocative, amateur age. 

The choice of Bryan 'Beegee' Williams on the cover stepping his way past a London Counties defender en route to the goalline, was a telling reminder of the frustration that attended Williams and many other backs during their careers. 

Inhibited by the damages caused the game by what was known as 10-man rugby played by New Zealand during the 1950s and for the first half of the 1960s, and as a default mechanism when things got tough in the 1970s, players of the quality of Williams had to wait their time to get a chance to do what they did best, run with the ball.

Williams had suggested a potential change in the All Blacks game on his brilliant tour of South Africa in 1970, a tour on which he set the rugby world alight with his speed, power and sidestep when barely out of his teens.

Yet New Zealand's rugby strategies of the day rarely allowed him the opportunity to show that quality again. That he scored only nine tries in 38 Tests was an indictment of the rugby played and the squandering of talent was all too common in that era.

At the same time, New Zealand produced some winning rugby and photos from both Durrant and Hill provide memories of some significant occasions.

Colin Meads, naturally, appears in many but was there ever a more representative photo of the skills he brought to the game than that from the outstanding 19-0 win over Wales at Lancaster Park in Christchurch? Ball tucked in his left hand, resting on his hip, he is looking to cut inside a defender while right on hand in support is prop Ken Gray with hooker Bruce McLeod behind.

Shots of crowds streaming out of the old Athletic Park after the second Test of the 1956 series with South Africa, are not only representative of the rugby of the era, but they are a snapshot of New Zealand society.

Another shot of a distressed loose forward John Graham being held by local medical men as they try to prevent him going back onto the field in the days when replacements for injuries were not allowed, is a reminder of the arcane practice of that era. 

Nowadays Graham would have been taken away for a head injury assessment and judging by the photograph would not have made it back onto the field. And he would have been replaced.

The concentration of photos are on the respective 1963-64 and 1972-73 tours of Britain, Ireland and France, because the two photographers covered one each of the tours, but there are many others from other years which round out a book which is another telling reminder of the legacy of rugby in New Zealand, but also of an enduring era in the game.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Maori Battalion B Company story vividly told

Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! (Forever Brave) by Wira Gardiner, David Bateman Ltd, Hobsonville, 2019, Price $49.95.

World War One centennial commemorations have faded in a publishing sense, after the scramble of activity between 2014-18, and the field of military interest has widened again.

One of the latest offerings is the immensely-readable, prodigiously-illustrated Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! by Wira Gardiner.

If military history to the general populace is about reducing the amount of jargonised description of battles and skirmishes in all their technical detail, then Gardiner has managed to tell his story appropriately. 

This is written in an easy format and while dealing with military matters, as it must, it is in a readable style that those with a non-military upbringing or background can enjoy.

What will appeal most in this story of the B Company of 28 Maori Battalion is the description and personalisation of events as they affected the Company whose members were drawn largely from the Central North Island and Bay of Plenty. This is not only of the eye-catching examples of personal bravery and acumen but also of some of the less palatable behaviour of Kiwi young men overseas.

Gardiner, already a chronicler of 28 Maori Battalion nearly 20 years ago, has backed his writing with a marvellous collection of photos of many of those who were part of B Company throughout the Second World War, not the least being the roll call of all who served, with a high percentage of photographs to accompany their individual placement in a special section towards the end of the book.

But, as in all the most readable war histories, it is the personalisation of war activities that lends authenticity to the book. 

There is time for a brief appreciation of what a Maori Battalion represented especially after the efforts of the Maori Contingents, the subsequent Pioneer Battalion with its mixture of Maori and Pakeha Companies, and then finally the creation of the New Zealand Maori (Pioneer) Battalion in 1917 during the First World War.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, much discussion occurred on the best way to involve Maori and by January 1940, 28 Maori Battalion was established. Issues of establishing the command structure of the group, and the recruiting for the Battalion are covered by Gardiner before they sailed, initially for Egypt with the Second Echelon, but then being transferred to England when the invasion of Britain appeared imminent.

Once joining the Division in Egypt, there was little time before they were shipped on to Greece and the sorry episode that resulted in the retreats from Greece and Crete, both with significant numbers left behind and to spend the rest of the war in prison camps. Stories of escape and derring-do began in those difficult days, not least being the famed bayonet charge at 42ndStreet on Crete. Accounts of the action and its aftermath make for chilling reading.

Likewise, the accounts of B Company's involvement in battles fought in the to and fro of the early years of the North African campaign are supplemented by personal description which capture the events vividly, especially in the breakout at Minqar Qaim.

Equally, the key battles at Tebaga Gap and Takrouna are brought to life, and the toll on B Company in the latter, is especially telling and evocative.

Across in Italy and with the impasse at Cassino there was some humour in one instance where a patrol under Stewart Black, that had been given instruction in mine warfare, and how to clear mines, had picked up 25 mines. At one stage they were carrying out their tasks, initially some distance from the Germans. Black related: "We got closer, ten yards, five yards and then we stood still. A section of Germans was passing us and our section passed them at the same time. They did not seem to know we were there. However, we knew they were there. They marched and we marched too into the night."

Having been close to some German pillboxes during the incident they reached the last pillbox and one of the members of the group said: "Bugger this, we're not going to come all this way without some excitement." 

Black said: "He returns and lobs a grenade into the pillbox. Everything exploded. Well that was the fastest 250 yards, the fastest time in the world we ever ran."

Progress beyond Cassino was slow as they and the NZ Division crossed river after river before finally war ended with the securing of Trieste.

Gardiner's story does not end there. Returning home, and all the adjustments that took are also described while on-going activities of B Company and the Battalion overall are included to complete a full and rounded tale that is not only a worthy record of B Company but highly readable for those without any connection to the group.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Vale Ray Harper - a true rugby man

You're lucky in life sometimes when in your everyday working life you come into contact with people like Ray Harper, the former New Zealand Rugby Union councillor and life member of Southland Rugby, who died on Thursday after a lifetime of devotion to the game.

For 10 years as sports editor of The Southland Times, it was my privilege to work with Ray in his role as Southland's representative on the NZRU of the day and as member of the Southland Rugby Union's management committee.

Ray Harper, right, showing off Rugby Park's readiness for the 1987 Rugby World Cup games played in Invercargill to the tournament boss John Kendall-Carpenter while the writer tagged along for a few words for The Southland Times.
He was a terrific representative for the province who never held back if the province needed defending and ensured that every time a North Island rugby team was in town for a game with Southland, and the sun was shining, he would enquire if their travelling reporter ever needed sunglasses in order to cover the game.

There was none happier on the July day in 1977 when Bay of Plenty visited and the ground at Rugby Park was so dry that dust was raised whenever a high kick fell to ground. It helped that Brian McKechnie completed the feat of scoring in each possible way in Southland's win.

But there was a much stronger connection to the province. He was well known and respected in the commercial sector for his carpentry business.

It was at one SRFU management committee meeting around about 1980-81 that Harper said it was only a few years until Southland was due to celebrate its rugby centennial and he thought a committee should get together to start preparing for the occasion which would be in 1986. From that arose a relationship with Craigs Publishing which saw me commissioned to start working on a book to celebrate the occasion that became Something to Crow About. The luxury of five years to research the subject was typical of Harper's thinking.

It was while interviewing Ray about his own extensive playing and coaching involvement with the province in which his side beat the touring British & Irish Lions in the opening game of their 1966 tour and which a year earlier went within an ace of relieving Taranaki of the Ranfurly Shield when they drew 6-6, that he revealed how much rugby had helped him recover from the loss of his father as a youth when the pair of them were cycling on a street in Invercargill and his father had been killed.

He worked through a tough period in the New Zealand game around the 1981 Springbok tour which created so much division while running into him on the 1986 morning it was realised that the country's best players had flown out the evening before on an unofficial tour to South Africa he was mortified that such a thing should have happened.

The game was always the thing for Ray and it was fitting that he should have been given the job of managing Graham Mourie's side on their centenary tour to Wales in 1980. He revelled in the opportunity and carried his style into the international league with a memorable speech at the centennial dinner in Cardiff. He said he knew he could never hope to match the eloquence of the speakers who had gone before him, but as he listened to them and gazed above to the intricacies of the woodwork in the ceiling of the famed establishment they were in he wondered aloud how many of them might have been able to construct something like that they were seated under.

He was also a good guardian of the significant financial resources the SRFU had carefully built up over the years and anyone seeking to spend some of that money had to have a pretty good case to get it past himself and the SRFU treasurer Fred Ward.

So it was with some interest, having been forewarned, when the late Peter Tait suggested the SRFU needed to do something about further developing the all-weather grounds at Oreti Park that Ray's reaction was slightly less than muted when ballpark (excuse the pun) figures were thrown around about what it might cost. But it was decided to form a committee to look into the venture.

This resulted in the specific advancement of what became the Les George Oval with its own small grandstand and superb turf as a back-up playing surface to the often water-logged grounds in the city. Ray became one of its firm supporters and once again it proved a timely development.

Behind it all was his Pirates Rugby Club, now but all a distant memory in the wake of inevitable club mergers. However, throughout fair weather and foul, of which there tended to be plenty in Southland, Ray Harper was a constant attendee and there can be no greater measure of his commitment to the game. All the trappings that came with his subsequent appointments were just that, trappings. Ray Harper was your true rugby man.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

New Zealand's first contribution to South African rugby

The following article appeared in Dunedin's Evening Star on April 13, 1928 in a special feature celebrating the departure of the 1928 team for their tour of South Africa

"Most followers of rugby probably think that the New Zealand Army team that toured Africa in 1919 was the first New Zealand side to display its prowess in the land of the veldt, and they will be interested to learn that a side of dominion players made its mark there in 1903.

It was after the Boer War that a number of young New Zealanders settled in South Africa and that sufficient of them came to live near Pretoria to allow of the formation of a modest social and sports club. Among the British, Dutch, and colonials there was much competition for appointments in the new civil administration, but the New Zealanders received quite a fair share. All hands settled down to work, and later to play. It was only to be expected that when a Rugby football competition was inaugurated that the New Zealanders should take stock of themselves and form a team. About seventeen, many with senior football experience in New Zealand, and some who had gamed interprovincial honors (sic), were found who were willing and anxious to try conclusions with the best the Transvaal could produce. 

But the Transvaal Rugby Union flatly turned down the application, of the New Zealanders to be entered as a senior team. Considerable heart-burning followed, and representatives were sent to plead with the controlling body, who thought a few New Zealanders could hardly produce a team class (sic) enough to make anything like a respectable showing against the crack Transvaal teams. To prove to the New Zealanders that they were not class enough the T.R.U. invited them to play a game against ” The Diggers,” who had the champion team of the Transvaal.

In an amused but sporting manner, the New Zealanders accepted the challenge, it being agreed that if they made a reasonable showing they would be admitted to the inner circle. When the day of the great match arrived—it was played at Johannesburg—the New Zealand team could muster only fourteen players. The surprising result of this match, in which the New Zealand team was reduced to thirteen men in the second half, was that the Diggers, with a full team, scraped home by only 11 to 9. In the eyes of the T.R.U. it was as good as a win for the New Zealanders, who were admitted without delay to the senior grade competition.

During the 1903 season the New Zealand team, frequently playing short owing to the long distances that had to be travelled, won every match of the competition, when it was beaten by the Wanderers by a single try for the championship. The Wanderers held an unbeaten record for the season. An Auckland writer last year gave (from memory) the team which played in the first match as follows:—Full-back, J. Freeth (Wellington); three-quarters— Merle Bonnor (West Coast), Tom Baker (Hawke’s Hay), Pat Fitzherbert (Manawatu); five-eight, Jack Gatland; (Thames) ; half-back, Fritz Haselden Rangitikei); wing forwards, H. Knight (King Country), Willoughby Wilson (Auckland) ; forwards—Geoffrey Haselden (Rangitikei), Burton Taplin (Manawatu), Charlie Lewin (Christchurch), “Yorky” Smith (Auckland), Jock McGregor (Thames), “Toby” Foreman, (Taranaki). Others who played in the team were “Scotty” Peebles (Woodville), and W.H. Foster (Wellington). In a match against a side at Pretoria the British team of internationals me. a three-quarter line all New Zealanders.

The part which New Zealanders played in the development of African Rugby in another part of the country was referred to in an interesting article written for the ‘ Star ’ in 1921 (at the time of the Springboks’ visit here) by the late honorary secretary of Pietermaritzburg Rugby Union (a resident of Dunedin). He stated: ‘Members of the Tenth South African Contingent may remember the doings of their team, led by D. Gallagher (All Black captain). After easily defeating; the leading Transvaal teams, they met and defeated a representative Maritzburg team by a narrow margin. 

On my arrival in Durban in 1903 I joined the New Zealand R.F.C. This 'club had commenced the previous year. Prior to that date Rugby enthusiasts could only muster occasional scratch teams. We played out on a mud flat, with a handful of spectators; but the New Zealanders had such an excellent team —we had Australians as members, too—and played such open and pretty football that gradually keen rivalry was started, other clubs were established, and eventually Rugby gained a footing at Lord’s, the big Durban sports ground.

“It was almost entirely due to the little band of New Zealand enthusiasts that Rugby became a popular game in Durban. The Durban New Zealanders were disbanded in 1907, but during their career they held the championship cup of Natal for five consecutive years, defeating the Pietermaritzburg Club on each occasion. During 1904 the South African College team, winners of the Cape competitions of that year, toured Africa, and defeated all the leading clubs in the Transvaal and Eastern Province, besides defeating representative Durban and Pietermaritzburg teams. The only match lost on the tour was that against the Durban New, Zealanders, who defeated this redoubtable team by 4 points to 3). A. J. Sise, a well-known Dunedin boy, was playing in this match. The only “fly in the ointment” of this game was that we were one man short, and played Dave Nourse, the well-known South African representative cricketer and Soccer player. Nourse also represented Natal at Rugby, and he fluked tho potted that goal that won us the match. 

“In the 1905 Durban representative team there were nine New Zealanders, and there were six in the Natal team of the following year which toured Johannesburg for the Currie Cup tournament of 1906. At Pretoria, the New Zealanders also had a club and took a leading place in the senior matches on the Rand. Other New Zealanders could be found sprinkled throughout the union in the various clubs.”

Friday, March 8, 2019

Harshness reflected in 1972-73 tour account

Sports books revisited, No.3
It's said that it is important to maintain a healthy balance and that due consideration should be given to all sides of an argument before making a judgment on all manner of events.

That thought kept running through the brain when revisiting J.B.G. Thomas' account of the 1972-73 tour of Britain and France by Ian Kirkpatrick's All Blacks, The Avenging All Blacks.

Thomas was among the first of the British rugby critics who used to provide New Zealand rugby fans with all manner of angst for his reported comments on games involving the All Blacks. He and T.P. McLean were seen as journalistic rivals, much in the manner of the great Australian poets Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, forever competing over the justice or injustice of the award or non-award of Bob Deans' try in 1905. The comparison with the poets is intended as an example, not of their literary capabilities.

In maintaining that sense of balance it must be said the McLean had the ability to upset the British in the same way as Thomas did antipodean readers.

Overall The Avenging All Blacks was a disappointing read. If Thomas made the point that the All Blacks were insular, uncommunicative and dour once, he made it ad infinitum throughout the book.

Halfback Sid Going came in for plenty of treatment, as he did on tour for his perceived inaccurate feeding of the ball to scrums, a campaign waged throughout the media all tour. Going's truculence toward the media was understandable given the pressure that had started against him a year earlier during the 1971 British & Irish Lions tour of New Zealand.

But as Going explained in Behind the Silver Fern, British medical officials had tried to have him ruled out of the tour with an 'irreparable ankle injury' after the first tour game. Going felt he was being set up from the outset.

There was a sense of hungover triumphalism as a result of the Lions' success in much of Thomas' coverage of the tour. He didn't attend every game, a broken arm restricted his ability to travel, but he called on New Zealand scribe Bob Howitt to fill in the blanks for him.

In terms of a contribution to the annals of rugby literature, the most valuable part of the book is the foreword by Lions' coach Carwyn James, a man who cast his own influence over the tour by coaching Llanelli to beat the All Blacks in their second game of the tour, and for working with the Barbarians in the outstanding tour finale in which Gareth Edwards scored his outstanding try.

Even now James' words ring true: "The strength of New Zealand rugby is, and in fact always has been, in the power of its forwards, in the magnificent way they support and back one another up, the way they drive into the ruck and the next ruck, and in the contrived way they set up artificial platforms for delivery of the usable ball. The pattern is machine-like in its precision; it calls for dedication discipline; it is highly technical and teachable, and it is governed and controlled by the coaches who are very much in command of the game they know, and will not allow it to develop into an area which they do not comprehend or is not coachable."

At the same time, James said the rigidity of the approach while suggesting strength was also inhibiting and with that in mind the strength became a weakness. James believed the loss to Llanelli inhibited Ian Kirkpatrick's side causing them to play a game based around their loose forwards and halfback Going.

James believed, after seeing the attacking potential of the side unleashed late in the tour at Leicester and Neath when 40-point scores (four-point tries then) were posted, that if they had started their tour again, with the benefit of what they had learned, they would have been a formidable side.

Presciently James noted: "The question facing New Zealand rugby thinkers now is this – can they afford to stick to their traditional pattern, play the Going type scrum-half and neglect the genius of generations of exciting players like [Bob] Burgess, [Bruce] Robertson and [Bryan] Williams. I think not."

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and James' view was not long in being borne out, especially in the late-1970s, the late-1980s and, of course, since the introduction of the professional game.

Like many British journalists, Thomas placed too much emphasis on referees, in his case determining who were good chaps and deciding who had the best interests of one side at heart, and that one side wasn't the All Blacks. He also had his say on the Murdoch incident although, unlike a good wine, it hasn't aged well as time has revealed more pertinent facts. As a representation of the time, it could best be described as typical of the day.

It should be said, in the interests of the aforementioned balance, that New Zealand's journalists struggled with the tour, McLean titled his own account They Missed the Bus. 

But longer-term benefits of the tour did occur. New Zealand's back play did advance. Future tours were much happier and the side did achieve much recognition for their travelling to Belfast to play Ulster in the midst of Northern Ireland's troubles. It wasn't all bad, and that deserved to be recognised.