Friday, March 23, 2018

A World Rugby Championship? Not a bad idea

Among the usual delights in the annual release of the New Zealand Rugby Almanack - the 2018 issue has just hit the bookstands -  is a noteworthy suggestion regarding the future of Test rugby by the editors.

Clive Akers, Geoff Miller and Adrian Hill have suggested that the top 10 teams in the world should play annually to give some credence to World Rugby's rankings.

"Perhaps the time will come, sometime in the future, when consideration will be given for a merger of the northern hemisphere's Six Nations Championship and the southern hemisphere's four-nations Investec Rugby Championship," they said.

That would see each of the 10 nations playing each other, no final would be played but the nation scoring the most championship points after the round-robin would be declared the winner.

With all the talk of a global rugby season, it is something that could almost be achieved within the parameters played now.

In their respective championships, the sides could play each other once, four games could be played in the November window leaving the June window as the chance to complete the series, or to be the start of the next year's competition.

Such a scheme, without a final, would leave the Rugby World Cup as the ultimate prize every four years.

The editors also made their case for some changes to the sending off, or red carding, of players during Test matches.

"Red cards are rare but when issued the contest is defused. Two classic examples have occurred in internationals in recent years.

"At the 2011 World Cup, Welsh captain Sam Warburton was sent off in the 18th minute of Wales' semi-final clash with France. It was heart-breaking for the Welsh fans who had paid big money to be at Eden Park that day.

"In the second against the 2017 Lions the All Blacks played with 14 players for 56 minutes following the sending off of Sonny Bill Williams. The All Blacks struggled throughout the 65 (sic) minutes. Would the Lions have won the test, and consequently drawn the series, had the test been 15-a-side throughout? We doubt it.

"We would prefer to see even contests and players placed on report for post-match examination, rather than time wasted while officials study television replays before making their decisions. There are instances when a player completely loses control and deserves to be sent to the sideline, but couldn't they be replaced to continue the contest the public have paid to witness?" they said.

That's a sensible discussion point worthy of earnest consideration.

But here's one you won't see included in newspaper reviews, that is if they ever bother to review the Almanack.

The editors expressed their concerns over the loss of sports reporters from regional newspapers.

"While this has little impact in the major cities, it will severely cut the communication between sports and the followers of local sports. Several provincial unions will be hit hard. Some unions do run an efficient and up-to-date website, but many followers of rugby do not use computers.

"The success of local sportspersons and sports teams at national competitions, whether at primary school, secondary school, or senior level, feeds pride within the region. The coming months will be interesting to see how the affected provinces cope with no regular and knowledgeable reporter providing stories of local club and schools rugby and to what extent it impacts on spectator support at games.

"Newspapers have been a way of life to readers ever since the invention of the printing press. Sadly, in many regions sports enthusiasts have lost their connection with local sports," they said.

The traditional Five Players of the Year should find plenty of favour. They were Sam Cane, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Codie Taylor and Portia Woodman.

The Promising Players of the Year were: Matthew Johnson Jr (Southland), William Jordon (Tasman), Du Plessie Kirifi (Wellington), Vilimoni Koroi (Otago), Mike Tamoaieta (North Harbour).


The 2018 Rugby Almanack, Edited by Clive Akers, Geoff Miller and Adrian Hill. Published by Mower.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Sir Nick Shehadie never forgot his rugby mates

Having only met Sir Nick Shehadie once was no impediment to understanding the stature of one of the great men of world rugby.

Under the circumstances, and having heard of his reputation from some of his opponents, there was something of a feeling of already knowing him. 

Two men specifically helped in this regard.


One was Southland player, coach and administrator Ray Harper who went on to become a New Zealand Rugby Union councillor and manager of the All Blacks in 1980 who spoke often about playing against the big Australian forward, and then meeting him several times during the 1980 All Blacks tour of Australia.

The other was a little more personal but involved another Southland rugby identity, C.E. 'Eddie' Robinson, a flanker from world rugby's southernmost rugby club Bluff who was an All Black in 1951-52 and who should have been on the 1953-54 tour to Britain and France, but that's another story.

While researching my history of Southland rugby, Something to Crow About, I rang Eddie to see if he would be available for an interview about his experiences with Southland. I knew he was pretty crook with cancer and said to him I was aware he wasn't well and that I would understand if he didn't feel up to it. He said, "No Lynn, come on down, it will be great to chat."

He was fantastic and had some great yarns. We talked for ages.

He said when he was selected for the 1951 tour to Aussie, Bob Duff took him under his wing. He thought it was because they were both prematurely bald. Duff and Shehadie were mates and so when Robinson came on the scene Shehadie always called Duff and Robinson 'Dad and Son'.

Robinson made a big impression on both sides on his first tour, having arranged for a significant number of Bluff oysters to be sent to Sydney for both teams to enjoy after the first Test.

Anyway, early on the return trip to New Zealand in 1952, Australia played Southland just before the first Test of the tour. Southland beat them 24-9, the only provincial side to win against the tourists.

At one of the first lineouts Shehadie went up for the ball and Eddie hit him. Shehadie ended up flat on his back in the Rugby Park mud. He looked up at Robinson and said ' Your bloody old man put you up to that didn't he?" 

The loss to Southland could not have been too off-putting, Australia won the first Test 14-9.

It was all part of the banter the trio enjoyed and Robinson recalled they had some great times together.

Anyway, 40 years later as a guest at the NZRU centennial  dinner in Wellington,  Sir Nick's and my paths were about to intersect. He and Tony O'Reilly were the guest speakers.

At the end of the speeches all the knobs gravitated to O'Reilly and Sir Nick was left sitting on his own.

I went over and sat beside him and said "Sir Nick, you don't know me from a bar of soap, but I wrote the centennial history of Southland rugby and one of the people I interviewed for it was Eddie Robinson."

He said, "Dear old Eddie, how sad it was when he died."

I said to him that Eddie had been very sick when I spoke with him, but that "when he talked about you and Bob Duff and the fun you had his spirits really lifted." 

And at that Sir Nick broke down and said "Thank you very much for telling me that, it means so much to me." I spent a few more minutes with him and then headed back to my seat.

For all that happened to him in his subsequent rich and fulfilling life, Sir Nick could still be moved by the memory of his rugby mates.


He was a man who defined the spirit of rugby at its very best.

That was evident when in 1983 he was asked to open the Golden Oldies rugby festival in Sydney, the third staging of the event. He was 57 then and when finishing his speech he said he would see everyone at the banquet at the end of the festival. But someone in the crowd shouted, 'Ave a go mate'. So he stripped and played a game.

He said to his new-found team-mates that he would be seeing them. And he turned out on both the second and third days to play.

"This is what rugby is all about," he said. "To start with it brought me out on the paddock again and I had three runs. I enjoyed myself immensely.

"The way in which the 16 nationalities involved here played the game and mixed off the field is a lesson for all the world. Surely, there would be no more wars if we all played rugby like the Golden Oldies," he said.

Australian, and world, rugby has lost a great man.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

World War One air stories long overdue

FEARLESS – The extraordinary untold story of New Zealand's Great War airmen by Adam Claasen. Published by Massey University Press, Auckland, 2017

If the work being put into the First World War Centenary History publications achieves nothing more than to publish this book Fearless then it will have been well worthwhile.

Dr Adam Claasen's achievement is all the more meritorious because it fills a gap that should have been filled many years ago.

It is well known that the history of New Zealand's First World War is poorly served, especially when compared to the effort that went into recording the Second World War histories, flawed as they may be. Possibly it was to avoid the situation after WWI that so much was put into the WWII coverage.

Whatever the story may be, there can be no doubting the worth of Claasen's work which in spite of the years between remains a compelling record of service, devotion, spirit and yes, sacrifice, of those who took to the air to fight between 1914 and 1918.

Remember war broke out just over 10 years after man's first powered flight achieved by the Wright brothers and just over five years and a week after Frenchman Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel. That the technology could expand so quickly to become a fighting weapon is extraordinary for the era.

That New Zealanders, so far removed from the developments in flight, should become so taken with it is little short of amazing, but then again in the wake of engineering achievements in other spheres it should not be a surprise.

However, the stories of these men who numbered around 850 by Claasen's study, most them pilots, some observers or gunners and others - various odd bods working as mechanics or other subsidiary roles - is compelling and readable.

The casualty rate does not make it an easy read but the achievements of these trailblazers cannot be under-estimated.

There had been little Government support for the benefits of flight – it was too early in its development to have been of interest as a means of speeding communication in the eyes of politicians. Some things do not change.

But the entrepreneurial spirit was alive, even in those early years and men like Henry Wigram, a businessman who had turned to politics, could see the benefits to be had but he couldn't sway fellow politicians who were still enamoured of the benefits of naval power.

Claasen describes flight's battle for acceptance in the pre-war years in New Zealand, producing highly readable accounts of some of the daredevil antics which proved so fascinating to citizens able to witness their flights.

It is in this area that the reviewer regrets two facts which emerge in the book, purely on a personal basis.

The first was the fact that New Zealand's first cross-country aircraft flight occurred on February 20, 1914 between Invercargill and Gore by Will Scotland. It was also the first flight in the South Island and was the first 'town to town' flight achieved in New Zealand. Not a word of it passed my eyes in my Gore High School history studies in Southland.

Scotland went on up the South Island to buzz a cricket match between Canterbury and Australia, The Press noting after the fall of a wicket, "Bishop went in, but the appearance of the flying machine caused a stoppage for some time."

Nor was there anything taught about the Gore lawyer Ron Bannerman who would become New Zealand's best fighter ace in the last year of the war.

These things weren't talked about often in that day and age, but they were surely worth more acknowledgment by the local community. Has there ever been an official plaque laid to mark the achievement? Like this book, perhaps it is not too late to mark the feat.

Back to Wigram. He set up one of two flying schools in New Zealand at the airport in south Christchurch which soon bore his name while in Auckland two brothers Vivian and Leo Walsh set up the New Zealand Flying School at Kohimarama. As Claasen points out, the onset of war only hastened the interest in flying and as he relates those who couldn't gain their training in New Zealand headed off to England to qualify. And from some of the battlefields, especially in the Middle East, there was no lack of volunteers to turn to flying.

What resulted was a significant contribution to the war effort, sadly not all of it was successful, and the loss of life, much of it due to lack of time for proper training, was horrendous.

But it was the intrepid approach of the New Zealanders, and others, which caught the imagination of the British and French. It is difficult to imagine the demands and dangers of night flying to take on the monstrous Zeppelins dropping bombs on England. Yet they not only took on the gas-fired behemoths but flew home to land in the dark.

Then there are the battles and operations over the Western Front, an area of conflict that advanced exponentially as the war continued due to the tactical advantages that could be gleaned from aerial observation.

Claasen has done an admirable job in scouring through all available resources to piece together some remarkable stories of heroism and rather than single out individuals in this review it's best left to the reader to admire the selflessness and courage of those who aspired to be part of this new form of warfare, often at the cost of their lives.


Fearless is precisely that, a story of which all New Zealanders should be acquainted because it is a sad yet powerful example of service that should never be forgotten. Claasen has lent even more strength to the phrase of remembrance 'Lest We Forget'. For 100 years the aviators may have been forgotten but not any more.

Walter Hadlee's diary a reminder of days of yore

The Skipper's Diary, Walter Hadlee, compiled by Sir Richard Hadlee, published by The Cricket Publishing Company. Book and DVD only available online www.theskippersdiary1949.com

Few cricket tours have resulted in quite as much literary treatment as that of the 1949 cricket tour of England and northern Europe.

Autobiographies of Walter Hadlee (Innings of a Lifetime), Bert Sutcliffe (Between Overs), John Reid (Sword of Willow and A Cricketing Life), Merv Wallace (A Cricket Master) and the tour book by NZPA correspondent Alan Mitchell, Cricket Companions, all helped ensure the place of the tour in New Zealand's cricket history.

While confined to three-day Test matches the tour was only ever going to produce Test victories if the New Zealanders collapsed.

They didn't because the side was one of the most skilled batting combinations to represent the country and while the first Test win over England would wait another 29 years, the foundation of New Zealand's cricket future was laid by Walter Hadlee's side on their first post-World War Two visit to England.

Blessed with batsmen of the quality of Martin Donnelly (2287 runs), Bert Sutcliffe (2627), Merv Wallace (1722), John Reid (1488), Verdun Scott (1572) and Hadlee himself (1439), the side proved highly competitive and attractive to the English public who were still getting over hosting Bradman's great Australian side a year earlier.

Hadlee Snr had toured England in 1937 along with Donnelly and Wallace, and fast bowler Jack Cowie, so was well aware of what lay ahead of the side. His diary is a fascinating look into a bygone era, an era never to be seen again, yet a reminder of the sort of devotion to the game such a tour took.

These tours involved six weeks at sea, in each direction, so three months of the year were gone already. The players were amateurs and times were tight. They were paid a basic allowance and due to their success in quickly surpassing expected gate takings they were paid a bonus.

All of it is described in Hadlee's diary, a fascinating record that has been well worth the reproduction in what is an outstanding publishing format and only available through website sales.

This reviewer did not expect to get as much enjoyment as he did out of the book which provides not only reasonable match coverage but a look at the goings on of a group of men thrown together to play international sport.

As captain, Hadlee was required to take issue with some of them at times with the resulting details coming through in his diaried comments.

But what is also obvious is the demanding social requirements of the side. Remember this was the time when Sundays were a day off and there were activities aplenty laid on to take advantage of that spare time. It wasn't all beer and skittles, or golf.

It is also obvious that as an accountant, apparently reasonably well-placed, Hadlee wasn't averse to using his contacts to his own and to the benefit of his clients back at home. What better time to hit up New Zealand's Minister of Finance about the import duty on a car bought in England and shipped home on the same boat as the team returned on, that when Walter Nash visited the side during the tour?

Numerous other business initiatives were taken by Hadlee during the course of the tour, many of them on the mornings before play started in the various towns around England. There were also the many visits to factories and warehouses were the team were able to take advantage of opportunities.

It was little wonder Hadlee required some extra storage room on the boat on the way home. There was none of that cursed extra baggage you have to pay so much for when flying home.

One interesting comment during the second game against Glamorgan resulted from his meeting Cliff Prosser, the secretary of the Swansea Rugby Club. "He told me he saw Rhys T. Gabe pull Bob Deans back from the goal line after Deans had scored a try against Wales at Cardiff in 1905 – it was a disallowed try. He hopes Gabe will publicly announce this before it is too late."

What makes the 'diary' even more compelling is the publication of the tour report and financial returns and the reflections of the players in the years after the tour, clearly taken from correspondence between Hadlee and his team.

His own summation towards the end of the book was prescient.

"It was important to learn lessons from this tour and share the knowledge for future teams and players. All the bowlers needed to learn that direction was as important as length. Length is not effective without direction and direction is hopeless without length.

"By having the emphasis on direction as well as length I was able to set some very good fields – the bowlers were asked to bowl to those fields and as a result the fieldsmen became keener and that helped team spirit. It meant that everyone was involved in the play.

"The batsmen learning the art of concentration had to be maintained. Some of our most successful efforts were due to the intense concentration in a crisis.

"I will never forget this experience and all the players will remain great friends for life," he said.


However, his subsequent career as a cricket administrator may be viewed, there can be little doubt that Walter Hadlee's legacy to the New Zealand game is significant and the publication of his diary is probably the most graphic demonstration of that. It is a commendable exercise and one that further strengthens the historical connection with New Zealand's cricket.