Thursday, 24 September 2009

Gidday Southland. I write from 17,000 feet on my way to Wellington to hopefully witness another win from the Stags.

Weather aside, Wellington is a great a city and the Cake Tin is without peer as a rugby venue, as there’s not a bad seat in the house.

I have some wonderful rugby memories from Wellington but because I’m currently internet- incapacitated, I cannot use the columnist’s best friend, Google, to validate my aging memory banks. Three memories however do come to mind.

The first goes back to 1996 and the first and only test match I attended at the grand old lady, Athletic Park. In my more than 40 years of following the All Blacks I have never seen a better 40 minutes of rugby than what John Hart’s star-studded All Blacks dished up into the southerly in the first half against Australia.

They went on to win, by memory, 43-6, but that was hardly surprising when the team included Cullen, Wilson, Lomu, Bunce, Little, Mehrtens, Marshall, Zinzan and Robin Brooke, Michael and Ian Jones, Kronfeld, Dowd, Brown and Fitzpatrick.

Wouldn’t Graham Henry kill to have such talent at his disposal?

Fast forward to 2001 ( I think!) and I remember going to my first game at the Cake Tin and a gutsy Southland upsetting the highly-fancied home side featuring Cullen, Lomu and Umaga (I think!) courtesy of three Ashley Barron penalties.

I have a clear memory of 2005 and an election day visit to Wellington. Labour, under Head Girl Helen, just sneaked home over dithering Don Brash’s Nats but the Stags suffered a landslide defeat, conceding 50 or more points.

We ended up drowning our sorrows at the iconic Backbenchers bar just down the road and unwittingly gate-crashed Peter Dunne’s United Future party wake. At the end of the evening there was only a disconsolate Dunne, myself and Rugby Southland manager Craig Morton left in the bar. So we duly introduced ourselves, thanked him for the beer and left.

By the time you read this, the result will be history. Win, lose or draw I’m sure a good night would have been had by the entire Southland contingent and we will be awakening to a headache of some description. If fate has smiled on the Stags, however, there will one punter with a bigger headache than us. Here’s hoping he has 150,000 reasons to regret not backing Southland.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Dear Steve,

You won’t remember me, but we once played rugby against one another in 1977 in an age grade tournament. You were a handy centre for a very good Canterbury side that included four future All Blacks (Richard Loe, Albert Anderson, Jock Hobbs and Robbie Deans) as well as Joe Leota (a reserve for the Baby Blacks in 1986) and a very good fullback Vaughan Brown (famous for taking the tenth wicket when Richard Hadlee got the other nine against the Aussies in Brisbane in the 1985/86 test series).

But I digress. Our paths have not crossed since then so I thought, for old time’s sake, I’d take the opportunity to write you an open letter on behalf of the New Zealand rugby public.

Steve, they tell me you’re a good bloke to have a beer with but you must remember most of New Zealand doesn’t get that opportunity. We can only judge you by what we see, hear and read on television, radio and newspaper. And what we’re seeing doesn’t make good viewing.

American President Harry Truman had a famous plaque on his desk which simply stated “the buck stops here”. Steve, you need one of those! But instead, all we’re getting from you is mangled quotes from legendary Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi who said “they have not built any statues yet for critics and wannabes”.

Steve you’re missing the point. We critics and wannabes will be your eventual demise.

Admittedly, you raised a fair point when asked if you were under pressure to get the lineout right and you replied, “I had another job once as a policeman. That’s when you find out what pressure’s like”.

But even that paled in comparison to the Australian cricketing great Keith Miller whose wartime exploits were to give him a greater sense of perspective when he returned to the sports field. When asked many years later by Michael Parkinson about pressure in cricket, Miller responded with the famous quote; "pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse, playing cricket is not".

Steve, we all make mistakes but the road to salvation, redemption and forgiveness can only be paved by remorse. Admit your mistakes. Take responsibility for your lineout shortcomings, then the critics and wannabes - all four million of us – might give a sucker an even break.

We all share a common goal and dream - World Cup glory in 2011. So stop blaming others. Accept help from the likes of Andy Haden, Robin Brooke and Ian Jones rather than from some Aussie Rules kicking and catching coach.

I know I’ve been giving you a bit of stick about your borrowed quotes and paraphrasing but, to your credit, you came up with the sporting quote of the year after the loss to France in Dunedin.

“Flush the dunny and move on” you gloriously said. Well it’s time you stopped the crap - or moved on.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Tonight Southland finds itself in the unaccustomed position of being at the top of the Air New Zealand Cup table after six games. The last time that happened was in 1978.

So let’s hypothetically pit tonight’s Stags side against the Southland team of 1978, which defeated Australia 10-7, to see who’d win:

Glen Horton v Jeff Gardiner: The new boy Horton has to make way for the vociferous Gardiner, who might have been an All Black had he kept quiet and kicked the goals.

Matt Saunders v Garry Bennetts: Bennetts was quick but Saunders is an under-rated all round footballer. Saunders gets the nod.

Kenny Lynn v Wayne Boynton: Brains v Brawn. Lynn by the toss of a coin.

Jason Kawau v Steven Pokere: Kawau’s had an outstanding season but, sorry Jason, there’s no shame in losing out to arguably the most talented back (Jeff Wilson’s the other) Southland’s produced.

Tony Koonwaiyou v Ian Donaldson: We haven’t seen enough of Koonwaiyou and the versatile Donaldson came up trumps in the big games.

Robbie Robinson v Brian McKechnie: The Boy Wonder has the rugby world at his feet but he’s not a legend in the number 10 jersey yet. The Colt was.

Scott Cowan v Terry Butson: Cowan’s filling in for older brother Jimmy. Butson filled the gap between Dave Shanks and Chris Hiini. The impressive Mini-Me Cowan gets my vote.

David Hall v Ash McGregor: The never-say-die Hall has maroon flowing through his veins but he’s out of position and out of luck here. McGregor was unstoppable in prime at No.8.

Tim Boys v Sam Anderson: Anderson battled bravely in the shadow of some great loosies. Boys is turning into a great Southland flanker and gets the nod.

John Hardie v Leicester Rutledge: Young Hardie’s a beaut but Rutledge was the second-finest flanker (behind Ken Stewart) this proud province has produced.

Joe Tuineau v Fergus Dermody: Big Joe’s athleticism impresses but Gus is the go because every good Southland side needs a Dermody.

Josh Bekhuis v Bob Barber: While Barber was an All Black and jack of all trades he would struggle to hold his own at lineout time against a young man who might, one day, be an All Black.

Chris King v Phil Butt: King’s doing a sterling job but Scruffy prevails because he was a centurion and a legend.

Jason Rutledge v Dave Saunders: Two great work horses. I’m going with Rutledge because I don’t there’s a man more proud to wear the ‘S’ on the left breast.

Jamie Mackintosh v Kevin Duke: Whopper wins!

By my reckoning the 1978 team wins courtesy of having an 8-7 selection advantage. But hopefully the Stags of 2009 do better from here on in. In 1978 Southland won five of its first six games but lost the last four to finish eighth out of 11 in the NPC.

And here’s hoping 9/11 is a tragic day for the Bay!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

It’s good to see my old mate Tony Laker putting his proverbials on the line by taking on the 100th Anniversary Southland Half Marathon on November 22 as the Southland Times’ guinea pig.

I see he’s modestly described himself as having legs resembling a 1.9 metre stick insect and a running style that should be listed as a registered charity! I think he’s being somewhat uncharitable to himself.

These days Tony is one of Southland’s leading entrepreneurs (just ask him). He now owns one of the country’s largest travel agencies but I’ve known him since his days as a modest Air New Zealand employee and a simple Bluff fisherman’s son (these days he makes a fortune peddling that very story on the speakers’ circuit).

Back in 1995 when the Scream Team (Lee Piper, myself and statistician / technical assistant Podge Macpherson) started travelling to commentate the Stags’ away games, Tony was in charge of getting us there. More often than not he accompanied us so we built up a lasting friendship.

Unlike the table-topping Stags of today, some of the Southland sides of the mid-1990s were mixed in their performance. Whereas today’s side is mostly home grown, back then we had imports, some of whom should probably have been immediately exported.
The management however was largely home grown and I have fond memories of having a few quiets on the night before the game with the likes of Keith Robertson, the late great Roger Ramsay and Doc Pete Finlayson (who’s still there!).

Because the commentary tours of duty we undertook were relatively taxing, early on we realized if we were to survive, some physical activity other than elbow exercising was needed. Thus the running shoes were always thrown in with the broadcast gear (there was one notable exception - Podge always claimed someone had to stay at home to mind the valuables!)

So that’s how I came to appreciate the athletic prowess of Tony Laker - as we pounded the pavements and parks around the likes of Whangarei, Takapuna, Hamilton, Napier, New Plymouth, Palmerston North, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Timaru.

That athletic prowess will be sorely tested when he runs the 21.1 kms from Wrights Bush to Surrey Park. I’ve now mercifully retired from long-distance running with three marathons under my belt but I still reckon the Invercargill half marathon is the mentally-toughest run I’ve done. Seems bizarre, I know, but believe me, Queen’s Drive can take on Everest-like proportions when you’ve run out of puff.

So a 1.9 metre stick insect with a running style that should be listed as a registered charity? No, that’s a bit harsh Tony.

A new-born giraffe on P? Well maybe.

Good luck Big Guy. Break a leg!