Saturday, June 24, 2017

Fifty years on from one of the great rugby tours

Much attention has focused on the 30-year anniversary of the first All Blacks team to win the Rugby World Cup in 1987, but also worthy of celebration is the 50-year anniversary of the 1967 All Blacks.

If the inaugural World Cup champions played a leading hand in revolutionising the way rugby was played in their time, then the honour of changing a fixation, and adapting quickest to new laws to speed up the game must go to Brian Lochore's side of 1967.

The side toured Britain and France, the Irish leg of their tour was cancelled due to a foot and mouth outbreak in England, and were unbeaten when living up to coach Fred Allen's statement at the beginning of the tour that they were going to run the ball and British and French fans should make sure they took the chance to watch them.

Their feats may seem like ancient history to the modern generation of rugby fans but to those who lived through their era they managed a revolution in the game and changed rugby forever.

It has become fashionable, especially in the midst of the 2017 British & Irish Lions tour, to claim the 1971 Lions had a huge impact on All Blacks rugby. To an extent they did, especially in scrummaging, and they did show, in their provincial games only, that it was possible to run the ball from everywhere.

But in terms of impact the fire was lit by Allen and Lochore's men, with not a little of assistance in terms of intent from tour manager and captain of the famous 1945-46 Kiwis Charlie Saxton.

Their mix created a huge impact in Britain and their feats have been recorded for the more recent rugby fan by Alex McKay in his book, The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks (Published by New Holland).

The coach of the 1971 Lions, Carwyn James and journalist John Reason, said in their 1979 book The World of Rugby, "…it was the statement of faith in 15-man attacking rugby, after years and years of ten-man attrition, that made the 1967 All Blacks so important in the development of the game."

They also added, "For at least 60 years, New Zealand had played in nothing like the same style, but by making such a commitment to attack, the 1967 All Blacks did the game of rugby football throughout the world a service which even they probably did not appreciate."

For British & Irish Lion and Wales flanker John Taylor was just at the start of his international career when playing for Wales against Lochore's team at Cardiff Arms Park and he recalled to the reviewer that he and his team-mates were well aware that they were facing something new in the game with the way the All Blacks were playing.

And while the score was only 13-6 to New Zealand in the Test Wales had been well beaten, he said.

McKay has set the scene for the tour by looking back at the time and the condition of rugby. He saw it from a close angle having often been a ball boy at Okara Park in his home town of Whangarei. In researching the book he travelled to New Zealand from his base in Australia and spoke with as many of the surviving players as he could.

Having worked in academia he wanted to write the story in a more free-writing style in telling the stories of what he was a diverse range of individuals who moulded into such a successful team.

After so many years he was impressed with how honest the players were.

"I was really impressed with them, I didn't expect that," he said.

They had been a literal Band of Brothers and he felt a central part of their story was what they had done after their careers was over. In the case of the 1967 side it is a remarkable contribution to the game.

Lochore's subsequent deeds are well known and are reflected in his position as patron of New Zealand Rugby. But others like: Earle Kirton, Ian Kirkpatrick, Colin Meads, Graham Williams, Alistair Hopkinson, Waka Nathan and Sid Going had significant coaching careers while others like Malcolm Dick, Ian MacRae, Kel Tremain and Meads again had been involved at a high level of administration.

Chris Laidlaw, Tony Steel, Ken Gray and Grahame Thorne went on to careers as politicians while Jack Hazlett had a significant career in business. Bill Davis also represented New Zealand at softball.

All of this is revealed by McKay and demonstrates why this was such a special side and deserving of a revered place in New Zealand rugby history.

McKay has left no stone unturned and it is significant that he has highlighted that not everyone in the side was enamoured with Allen and his methods, which is a healthy balance in any appreciation.

The story of the side deserves a special place in New Zealand's burgeoning rugby literature and McKay has filled a significant gap in that regard.

The presentation of the book is effective, if disappointing for the number of errors not detected in proof-reading, but that aside it captures its subject splendidly and that after all was its aim.

The Team That Changed Rugby Forever – the 1967 All Blacks by Alex McKay. Published by New Holland, Price $35.00

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Airlines have been doing it for years

United Airlines deserves everything that is coming at them over the disgraceful treatment of a passenger on an overbooked flight.

No matter how much events may have been worsened by real or imagined comments from either party, the simple fact of the matter is that the passenger entered into a contract with the airline, was in his seat, and then United decided to break the contract.

But this sort of thing happens far too often and personal experience has me on the side of the passenger every time.

It was in Edinburgh after the 2007 World Cup game between the All Blacks and Scotland that I arrived at Edinburgh Airport to find my ticket would not respond at the check-in machine for a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt where I was to catch a flight to Marseille en route to my next stop in Aix-en-Provence.

Approaching the inquiry queue at Lufthansa's check-in I was given no explanation and told to stand in a line to one side. The line grew steadily and discussion started that others had also been unable to get their tickets to respond at the appropriate place.

After a considerable period of time, and almost to the scheduled departure time, a muppet, not literally, but for all intents and purposes a Lufthansa lackey who looked and sounded like one, emerged to tell the group that our flight was full and we wouldn't be making our trip.

That was it, no apology, no explanation, just go and shove it up your arse.

As an aside, I could never understand why a supposedly international airline would bother to overbook a flight when there was an international sporting event in that city and there would obviously be people wanting to get out of town with a minimum of fuss. I don't accept that rugby isn't a German sport – people employed in these companies know when all sorts of events, sporting, cultural or otherwise are on.

One by one we checked with the poor person behind the inquiry counter, it wasn't her fault (we were to hear that many times in the next hour or so) and she told us to go to another counter to try and book another flight.

So those who were still prepared to fly with Lufthansa duly approached this other counter where another muppet showed little or no concern for the inconvenience his company had imposed on myself and my fellow travellers.

It wasn't his fault, he said. But it was his airline's fault, he was told.

A seat on a later flight was arranged, but it meant missing my connection to Marseille. Another flight was then arranged for 6.45am the next day. So a night sleeping at the airport then?

"Oh no sir, Lufthansa will arrange accommodation for you."

And that's another story, we'll get there soon.

While there is a complete feeling of helplessness, because scream and carry on as much as you like (which I didn't, I left that to others) there is nothing that is going to change, there is also a sense of power. You see the Lufthansa man is vulnerable, and he feels the pressure.

You tell him you are a working journalist and you need somewhere to do the work that Lufthansa has denied you the opportunity to do in the comfort of your hotel room in Aix-en-Provence later in the evening. So he does get you a place in their flight lounge where you can wait for your flight.

He advises that compensation for your inconvenience will be available when you get your accommodation voucher at the desk in Frankfurt.

Have you ever been to Frankfurt Airport? It is not small.

It is a Lufthansa hub, so there are a lot of desks you can call at looking for an accommodation voucher. After walking around for about 45 minutes the requisite desk was duly found, and another queue was formed.

While my own details were being sorted, accommodation voucher, offer of a free Lufthansa flight as compensation which drew the response "Why would I want that, I don't ever intend to fly Lufthansa again" which drew a snort and an upraising of eyebrows, out of a door appears another Lufthansa muppet who claps his hands and says, "All staff stop work please, we are having our farewell for so-and-so."

This doesn't go down well at 11pm after you have been dicked around by said airline. So your response is not unexpected.

"Er, hang on a minute mate, we're in the middle of some important business here as the result of a stuff-up made by your airline."

"But we're farewelling a staff member," he said.

"Sorry mate, we've been 12 hours, (taking in the time difference) getting sorted, your staff member can wait."

Anyway, once all that was sorted, those of us left standing were to be found in a queue waiting for the bus to take us to our accommodation.

It was at this point that I struck up a conversation with a young Swiss couple who had been to the said Rugby World Cup game the day before. It turned out he had gone to school in England and had played rugby, was a big All Blacks fan and the trip had been a birthday present from his wife. This fact is important as we will see.

The bus arrived and we headed off into the night to pull up at this hotel just down the road. In we go, bags and all, the bus disappears and we troop into reception.

Checking in we are informed that the hotel is completely booked out. Nice one Lufthansa, didn't even check if there would be room at the Inn.

Well this proved the tipping point for my new Swiss friend.

It would be fair to say Hitler at the Nuremburg rallies could not have been more animated than the dressing down my Swiss friend gave the poor chap behind the desk. Paint almost peeled from the walls as he gave it full throttle.

I mean, it gets like that when you have struck incompetence and lack of care for more than 12 hours, taking in the time difference, of course.

Eventually, the bloke behind the desk rang the next hotel down the line and Hallelujah, there were rooms to spare.

So now a taxi had to be called to provide the travel. Lufthansa got that bill too as I recall.

By 1am you finally have a room but it's a hollow victory knowing that because of airport security requirements you will have to be up at 5am to go back to the airport. And after an effort like that, the heart is racing and the last thing it feels like doing is slowing down in order for you to sleep.

In all you feel like you might have had two hours sleep. But you do get up, and it was just as well you were early because the security line is right out the door. Sunlight helps your way across the tarmac and about an hour later you are in Marseille and heading for Aix-en-Provence.

Can I get a plug in here for the delightful university town in the south of France? If there was anywhere you were going to relax after the ordeal you had been through it would be in Aix.

Ah, but you're a working journalist on assignment and a quick check of your fellow media tells you there's a press conference at the All Blacks hotel that morning.

A few days later, you are in Toulouse airport awaiting a flight to London where you will eventually catch a train to Cardiff for that fateful quarter-final event. On the wall of the departure lounge is the European Union's Passengers' Rights poster which is well worth a read. It is available at this site, start about Article 5 for the relevant information, it is worth knowing if you are ever bumped.

I should say that at no point did Lufthansa ever make the effort to put a copy of passengers' rights in front of us.

So, Lufthansa, United Airlines, you're all at it, and it stinks.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

John Clarke - a rare talent lost

Talk about knock me over with a feather, Trev!

John Clarke's death at the far too young age of 68 has robbed us of one of the great New Zealanders.

True, he hadn't lived in New Zealand since the late-1970s, but his presence was with us all the time, and courtesy of his work, he was available to all through his marvellous sketches on the ABC with Bryan Dawe. 'The front fell off' the most typical of his comedic style but only one of many brilliant examples of his abilities.

Forever revered in New Zealand for his character Fred Dagg, he was the rarest of beasts, a genuine Kiwi comedian. He was so good a major New Zealand food sales company still employs a very poor imitation of his style to try and drum up business.

But there will only ever be one John Clarke.

His New Zealand persona was transferred easily to the Australian market where his efforts in two series of comedies before the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 titled The Games were David Brent and the Office well before Brent, and Ricky Gervais, had even been heard of.

Multi-talented, he provided the voice for Wal Footrot in the film of Footrot Flats, the originator of whom, Murray Ball, died two weeks ago, but he also starred in and wrote many film scripts.

His documentary series Sporting Nation was a three-part study of Australian sporting history and psyche, and was magnificent in its breadth of achievement in bringing out some outstanding stories of sportspeople under pressure. The separate interviews, or extras as they call them in DVD compilations, are a treat in themselves.

The credits for such an impressive career in satire will long be John Clarke's legacy. Australia will remember him in one way, but in New Zealand it will always be for the ability he demonstrated in bringing a bumbling rural bumpkin into the mainstream in a way that several of his catch phrases remain part of the vernacular.

"That'll be the phone", being probably the first of his many great lines. Others being, "Geddinbehind", "Kick 'er in the guts, Trev" and the immortal "Over she goes" describing a 'borrowed' car going over the edge of the Wainuiomata Hill after a night on the turps.

His songs were automatic hits, "Gumboots" and "We Don't Know How Lucky We Are" can still raise a smile. He was a product before his time but who latched onto the funny bone of a country that had been too serious about itself for far too long.

There are other memories. A personal one related to time spent as the 'Entertainment' reporter of The Southland Times. This was a pretty good gig, you got to review all the records that were sent in, you went to all the shows that came through town of which there were many in those days, and sometimes you got to interview the participants.

John Clarke was one such interview. He invited me into his room at the Don Lodge, then one of the inner city hostelries run by the Invercargill Licensing Trust. Being a Sunday and having travelled from somewhere to the bottom of the world, he was relaxed during the interview – he was, in fact, flat out lying on his bed.

Pulling up a chair, it was a case of just chatting away and noting down the answers. Not many questions asked stick in the memory, although there was a recall of asking where he drew his inspiration for his ever-changing material.

"The front page of the newspapers, that's the key. There's a wealth of comedy material there," he said.

Anyway, interview done, it was back to the office to write it up and it had to be said it was one of the more enjoyable assignments.

The next day while going about the usual sort of Monday morning reporting duties, the Racing Editor, the always gentlemanly Norman Pierce, came through the Reporters' Room door heading toward his office while informing me that there was 'someone' outside to see me.

Going out into the entrance way there was John Clarke. The immediate thought was "What have I stuffed up in my interview?"

So saying, "Gidday John, what brings you around here?"

He replied: "Gidday Lynn, I've got nothing to do for the morning so I thought I'd come around for a chat!"

Well this was serious, time to find a place for a yarn. So it was down to the Southland Times cafeteria. It had just been vacated by the hordes, that's what used to be employed in provincial newspapers in those days, hordes of people, so we had the room to ourselves with the coffee pot still bubbling away.

What followed was the most entertaining and interesting hour it had been possible to enjoy to that stage of my career.

Clarke was full and frank. He told me that if Rob Muldoon got elected in the forthcoming 1975 General Election he would leave the country that was for certain. He told me the pittance that the NZBC (New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation) used to pay him for his ground-breaking skits and we talked about all manner of other things.

You could tell word had got round that John Clarke was in the building because it felt like every one of those afore-mentioned hordes trooped by the cafeteria by going out of their usual way to have a look at this character of the moment.

Journalism is a game that provides many highlights beyond the norm and being able to share of John Clarke's time in that fashion was certainly one of them.

His loss at a time when the world could do with his type of humour and satire will be all the more obvious as time goes by.

Farnarkeling will never be the same again. John 'Fred Dagg' Clarke, RIP.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Burf and Barb's Excellent Staycation - Pt 1

With summer finally shedding its heat on Auckland on Friday, what better than to get out and take advantage?

For some time the Okura walk off East Coast Bays Road between Long Bay and Silverdale has been a McConnell target and today was the day.

It was well worth it. What was truly impressive was the obvious care with which Auckland's City Council staff are attempting to stem the Kauri dieback disease and also the pest control through the walk.

The value in that was especially appreciated when walking on elevated duckboards through a section of the track which could best be described as 'Kauri Avenue'. It demonstrated the delicate environment in which these magnificent trees are flourishing, even in their relative youth, and by which they still manage to impress with their rigid growth to poke above the bush canopy.

Long may it continue and here's hoping all visitors perform the necessary shoewash before and after their walks, at the facility provided.

At low tide the end result is the chance to walk along the floor of the estuary taking in the brilliant birdlife and what is left of the Pohutukawa show, New Zealand's colourful Christmas tree.

A slip just before the estuary exit has prevented the track continuing through the bush, but the estuary walk is compensation enough and at its end, before heading sideways around the waterfront towards Stillwater and the exit to the track, there is a magnificent vista of the Hauraki Gulf looking along the Whangaparoa Peninsula with Great Barrier Island standing guard in the distance.

As for us we turned around and went back whence we had come thankful for the opportunity to enjoy the track in reverse mode.

And all within 10 minutes drive from home. Auckland continues to surprise. And if the weather continues its belated arrival for the holidays, who knows what might be next?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Another New Zealand case of what might have been

Brendon McCullum Declared, with Greg McGee. Published by Mower Publications.

Brendon McCullum achieved, for a New Zealander, a significant place in cricket.

Just how that will be remembered, time will tell. There's no doubt he had an impact on the game with his blistering batting when on song. He retired with a dossier full of statistical credits.

Second highest run scorer in New Zealand's Test cricket with 6453, behind Stephen Fleming's 7172.

The highest score by a New Zealand batsman in Tests, 302, and the fastest century by any player in the world off 54 balls, and he has the three fastest Test centuries by a New Zealander.

He achieved the world record for most sixes hit in Test cricket with 107.

Second on the list of New Zealand wicketkeepers' dismissals with 179, behind Adam Parore on 201 – a feat that would have been significantly improved had it not been for back issues that forced him to give up 'keeping.

He was third on the list of Test appearances with 101, behind Daniel Vettori on 113 and Stephen Fleming on 111 and third also on the list of ODI appearances (260) and ODI runs (6083).

He captained NZ in 31 Tests, won 11, lost 11, drew nine, averaged 45.28 as captain, 38.64 as not and he captained NZ in 62 ODIs, won 36, lost 22.

There are many other credits in his career, including that memorable knock to launch the IPL cricket phenomenon that elevated his personal wealth quite significantly.

He led the New Zealand side in a distinctive fashion, not always with the support of the entire cricket community, but definitely in how he felt the game should be played. It was a policy that won praise from those who had wondered at cricket's direction on the field, even if it didn't quite deliver as many wins as it might.

The fact he was in the position to impose that style of play came after a harrowing transfer of power that is the subject of a thorough scrutiny in his autobiography, rightfully pointing out that it wasn't of his making. The manner in which the whole affair was conducted was yet another indictment of the way New Zealand Cricket too often operates. A world where smoke and mirrors come to mind.

Similarly, the manner in which the International Cricket Council handled the anti-corruption episode involving McCullum whose evidence against former team-mate, and hero, Chris Cairns was leaked to an English newspaper.

This treatment made a mockery of the entire anti-corruption system and would have been laughable were the subject matter not so serious. There are times when international sports administrators demonstrate an ineptness that defies belief, and this was one of them.

Either you take corruption in the game seriously or you shouldn't bother. This instance was not a good demonstration of intent. It ranked with the IOC's miserable failure to deal with the Russian drugs issue ahead of the Rio Olympic Games – a complete and utter indictment of the IOC system.

If there was one element to his game that McCullum inevitably shared with many of his New Zealand contemporaries it was the 'what might have been' factor.

Specifically, this related to summation of events by the belief that the action was reasonable because that was how he played the game. That's fine to a point but there comes a time in any sport, in any contest, when the relevance of the now, the key moment, the turning point in a game, occurs.

That is when the cleverness, the nous, the understanding, the difference between winning and losing occurs. That is when greatness is demonstrated.

History will show, as it has with several other top New Zealand cricketers, that greatness eluded McCullum. Too often opportunities to win were lost because to have pulled back a little, to have made a subtle change of course, would have meant departing from a basic, but sometimes flawed, philosophy.

Cricket is a game of many lessons. In it, there is nothing new under the sun. McCullum may never have heard of former Australian captain and opener, and television commentator, Bill Lawry's adage, "You play 110 percent to win and you play 150 percent not to lose." Even if the concept is mathematically impossible, the message is clear.

If he had applied it, there might have been an even rosier hue to his final career record.

No more obvious example exists than what was seen in the 2015 World Cup final. New Zealand had performed brilliantly in securing their first final place. The cricket world was their oyster.

But at a time when instinct over-ruled pragmatism, McCullum succumbed. Batting first, the opportunity was there to unsettle the Australians, to knock them off their game, to make them wonder what New Zealand had up their sleeve?

History had its own example of that 'something different' when Martin Crowe and Warren Lees achieved that back in the 1992 World Cup by unleashing Dipak Patel as an opening bowler with his off-spin as the prelude to a sensational win.

Instead of leaving the Aussies to scratch their heads and wonder where things were going, New Zealand blew it when McCullum rolled the dice unnecessarily early and departed in the first over – opportunity lost. That was the way he played the game – and while he might feel there were no regrets, that won't be a feeling shared by a cricketing public who had waited 39 years for New Zealand to win a Cricket World Cup.

New Zealand fans, many of whom were new to the game and the success of the men capped in black, hoped this might be the time. But it was a case of situation normal, another setback of the variety to which New Zealand cricket fans have been inured over the years. Cleverness, of the opportunistic type, is something other countries do better.

'Brendon McCullum Declared' leaves no doubt about McCullum's approach to his career. It is a fascinating insight into performance in top-level sport and is crafted in a manner expected of such a fine writer as Greg McGee but it also serves as yet another reminder of 'what might have been'.