Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fred the Needle tells his story

New Zealand rugby literature had always had a gap in it – until now.

The country's most successful coach of the All Blacks Fred Allen, his 100 percent record is almost Bradmanesque – the only reason it doesn't match that description is that his time at the helm was much shorter than the great Aussie batsman - has finally committed his life story to print.

Fred the Needle by Alan Sayers and Les Watkins. Published by Hachette New Zealand.

But in many ways his influence, on the game especially, was as significant as that of Bradman in cricket.

Allen, whose own playing career was marked by the spark of brilliance he injected as a lively and constructive first five-eighths, had the All Blacks from 1966-68 and, to the regret of many, decided to forsake a job he must surely have loved because of the politics of the Kremlinesque New Zealand Rugby Union of his day.

Allen did things differently, like allowing top-flight sports journalist of his day Alex Veysey into one of his team talks during a tour of Australia. Allen had thought it was only for background but somewhere along the way the wires got crossed and Veysey filed the story for the next day.

Allen's team talks were regarded as well worthy of hearing but the alickadoos back in the Huddart Parker building in downtown Wellington were unimpressed.

Sharing Allen's style with the world wasn't deemed appropriate. So rather than wait to be shot down, especially after he had refused to accede to the NZRU's request not to take Colin Meads, Ken Gray and Bruce McLeod on the famous 1967 tour to England, he resigned.

Normally it might not have mannered and the New Zealand rugby goliath would have rattled on. But New Zealand, in their unbeaten state, were shaping for a crack at South Africa in 1970, and a chance to finally win a Test series in the Republic.

However, Allen was not going to be the coach and to the eternal regret of his players, and the New Zealand public he wasn't at the helm when the tour occurred with the usual result.

All is told in full in his autobiography, penned by Alan Sayers and Les Watkins.

The great coach also talked about his desire to rid New Zealand rugby of the stodgy 10-man game which was almost strangling all who embraced it – a dreadful form of kick to touch, lineout, kick to touch, lineout, all the way down the sideline until reaching ground close to the line and pressuring the opposition into a mistake and scoring a try.

Allen had played his rugby in the spirited days after the end of World War Two with the famous Kiwis team which toured Britain, France and Germany to win a special place in rugby's annals for their celebration of life in rugby, freed from the restraints of conflict.

He wanted his team in 1967 to play similarly – and they did, unleashing a 15-man game which great Lions coach Carwyn James said later had transformed the game forever. James, four years later would coach the British and Irish Lions to their only series victory in New Zealand.

Because of his ability to inspire, there are many stories in his book that have not been published previously and they provide a sometimes emotional understanding of the forces that made him. His military service, his tough upbringing and his frustration on the 1949 tour to South Africa where New Zealand lost 0-4 are all part of the fabric of his life and have been faithfully recorded in a book which ensures his example will never be lost.

When placed alongside the earlier book written in partnership with TP McLean, Fred Allen on Rugby – more of a coaching book, the Allen method is well and truly captured for posterity.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Conquerors of Time goes e-book

Conquerors of Time has become available as an e-book and is available at the link below.

You don't have to have an e-book to read it as you can download a reader for your home computer, it's called Kindle for PC, if you do a web search.

Remember the review comments for the book:

1: Roberto Quercetani's Review of Conquerors of Time (Translation)

"In these days of hustle and bustle there is an element of great joy in seeing a book dedicated to great middle distance athletes of over 70 years ago, especially one that has on it’s cover a great picture of Luigi Beccali and Jack Lovelock in perfect unison at the head of the pack at the Universiade of Turin in 1933.

"This was an indeed a great era, one during which the Italian equalled the world record of 3’49’’2 in the 1500 events.

"One could think that the efforts of those athletes pales into insignificance when compared to those of today and that their achievements should be just an obsolete memory, but in sport as in life, every generation is judged by its achievements and this book pays tribute to great athletic achievements of the day.

"Lynn McConnell from New Zealand is a historic journalist who has a strong attraction to the era and to the small group of middle distance runners that dominated the 1500m/one mile events between 1932 and 1936.

"Jack Lovelock, a New Zealander, is the principle subject of the study as the era culminated in his victory in the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and a world record of 3’47”8 ahead of the American Glenn Cunningham and our own Beccali.

"All the great races of the period are analysed with great attention to detail starting with Beccali’s victory in the Los Angeles games of 1932. The author has travelled the world and has contacted the descendants of his ‘heroes’ reconstructing in great detail the ‘entourage’ in which they lived and operated.

"To the most common names are added those of other great athletes of the age such as the Americans Bill Bonthron and Gene Venzke and the Englishmen Sydney Woodersoon and Jerry Cornes. The entire group is carefully dissected in splendid detail by the author.

"The men who ran in those days did so purely for enjoyment and National pride, but in doing so created history and in many cases formed great friendships that lasted for many years.

"Lovelock, who died tragically under a train in the New York Metro, is one of the athletes who have attracted the curiosity of historians - Of the books dedicated to him this is the most profound."

Athletics Weekly, Jan 21, 2010:

"Lynn McConnell brings alive a golden era in middle-distance running that few people today were around to witness. Conquerors of Time is the story of the race to win the 1936 Olympic 1500m title – a classic confrontation won by Jack Lovelock of New Zealand.

"The cast of athletes during the period was a who's who of milers. In addition to Lovelock, characters included: Glenn Cunningham, the world mile record holder from the United States; Luigi Beccali, the Italian who had won the 1932 Olympic 1500m gold; Jerry Cornes, the British runner-up in 1932; and Sydney Wooderson, the bespectacled hero of British athletics who would go on to break the world mile record in 1937.

"McConnell's book charts the progress of these runners, plus others, from the 1932 Games in Los Angeles to the Berlin Olympics itself. It also looks at what happened to them after their athletics careers were over.

"Such was the anticipation before the race in Berlin, the start was delayed slightly to allow Adolf Hitler to take his seat. The crowd was not disappointed either, as the race was won in style by Lovelock in a world record time.

"This is a terrifically researched book and a glowing endorsement has also been given by former AW editor Mel Whatman, who recently reviewed the book in Athletics International and wrote:

'Races at these distances are superbly reconstructed by Lynn McConnell, an award winning writer and editor from New Zealand who provides particularly acute insights into the career and personality of his compatriot thanks to reference to Lovelock's diaries.

'The other towering figures of that period are also well drawn and there is much for the enthusiast to savour in this 244-page paperback. It's a terrific, nostalgic story of the fascinating characters who contributed to an enchanting era in miling history.'"

Jamie McKay in The Southland Times, February 26, 2010:

"On a winning note, former Southland Times sports editor Lynn McConnell really has struck gold with his Jack Lovelock book Conquerors Of Time.

"As chronicled last week, the story revolves around the 1932-36 period and looks at the lives of Lovelock and his rivals for gold in the 1500m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

"His two main rivals were the Italian Luigi Beccali (who won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932) and the superstar American Glenn Cunningham, whom many considered the favourite for Berlin.

"The chapter on Cunningham makes compelling reading. Growing up on a remote farm in Kansas, Cunningham triumphed over terrible childhood burns in 1917 that left one leg shorter than the other and took several years of constant self-massage before he was able to maintain balance, let alone run properly.

"He escaped another childhood brush with death by hanging on to a cow's tail in a snow blizzard (a practice he'd developed during his recovery process to help regain his balance), the family cow getting him home safely to the barn when he would have otherwise perished.

"Then in 1928, as his athletics career was starting to flourish, a high school baseball accident saw him ignore the ongoing pain of several loosened teeth.

"It was only when he undertook a medical for entry into the US Navy at the advent of World War II that the full extent of the injury was realised.

"His teeth were badly abscessed, the dentist saying with all that poison flowing into his system, it was a wonder he could walk during his athletic career, let alone run through the constant pain he'd wrongly associated to his legs.

"For the record, Cunningham finished second to Lovelock in Berlin with Beccali third. Sports historians will thoroughly enjoy Conquerors Of Time."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Grassroots rugby in NZ gets a boost

For a country which has books of photographs showing off all its scenery spilling over on shop bookshelves, New Zealand has not been especially well served with photographic records of its national game.

But the times they are a changing.

Photographer Gregory Crow has taken to the road to capture the images of grassroots rugby in New Zealand, the oft-quoted foundation block of the game, and Gregor Paul has been enlisted to add the words.

For the Love of the Game by Gregory Crow and Gregor Paul. Published by Exisle. Price $49.99

The result, in Rugby World Cup year is a satisfying depiction of the game as it exists, largely in the provinces, and which is so vital to the sustenance of the more high profile professional game.

All the usual aspects of the game are covered, with written emphasis delving into both the origins and meaning they give to the game and the result is a seamless combination of picture and word.

The book follows in the path of the grandfather of them all, Peter Bush's outstanding, The Game for All New Zealand – a book based on the baseball classic, The Game for All America.

Bush produced some more, albeit based on the All Blacks, but his original took in all aspects of the New Zealand game in an outstanding record. It took rugby photography beyond the tour publications that used to follow major tours of the country by the likes of the British and Irish Lions and the Springboks, during the 1960s and 1970s.

Others have followed but more focused on the retail appealing international scene.

This is where For the Love of the Game marks its difference. It is devoted to the club, and it comes through superbly.

For the reviewer the section devoted to Bluff v Riverton, two of the oldest ports in New Zealand, and two of the oldest rugby rivals is especially poignant.

The image of club stalwart Ron Rouse, Southland representative and club identity as coach and administrator is a reminder of years spent covering rugby in the south. It is also sad that Rouse has subsequently died, around the time of publication.

Yet his presence in the book is a reminder that his involvement at his club was something replicated at every club in New Zealand. His generation did a fine job in ensuring the rugby message was passed through to subsequent generations.

It is up to those generations to pass the rugby flame – so long as they do New Zealand's rugby future is assured.

Crow and Paul have offered firm evidence that the ingredients for continued survival are there, they just need to be applied in the right fashion. And perhaps it is not without some relevance that the centrepiece of the striking cover photo, grassroots rugby epitomised, is a referee.

These are the people who are the most obvious sign of the health of the grassroots game, if refereeing numbers are down the problems arise.

Rugby is at a crossroads in New Zealand. The professional game has been bedded down, the amateur game is still finding its way. But Crow and Paul have shown the value of the amateurs in a memorable package.