Thursday, 21 January 2010

It was with heavy hearts rugby fans around the world mourned the passing earlier in the week of the great Bill McLaren – the voice of rugby.

I’d like to share my McLaren memories.

Like a lot of kids growing up in rural Southland in the 1960s there wasn’t a hell of a lot to do on a Sunday other than go to church, work on the farm or begrudgingly partake in the dreaded Sunday drive to visit relations.

Thankfully though, there was occasionally Sunday afternoon respite in the form of a new invention called television. Admittedly the reception wasn’t flash and the pictures were in black and white but this magical new medium was able to beam pictures from the other side of the world into our living room in Riversdale.

And that’s when I fell in love with the voice of Bill McLaren. Grainy old images of England playing Scotland at Murrayfield and the delightfully charming Scottish brogue of McLaren’s commentary. It didn’t matter that matches were three weeks old, because in those days live broadcasts of international rugby were still five years away.

From my childhood until his final commentary in 2002 (Wales v Scotland where the crowd sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” and one Welsh supporter displayed a banner claiming “Bill McLaren is Welsh”) he was the one constant in a game that constantly changed.

Keith Quinn is the closest we’ve come to McLaren’s legend, but even Quinn pales in longevity and achievement to McLaren’s 50 year broadcasting career (he incidentally also covered Scotland and Wales in his 1953 national debut on BBC Radio). For Quinn, criticism was a constant companion, whereas I’ve never heard or read anything derogatory of McLaren.

In more recent years I had the great honour of getting to know McLaren a bit, albeit from a distance of 19,000 kilometres. He was a regular guest on the Hokonui Gold Sunday Sports Show and we repaid the favour by posting him the monthly edition of the New Zealand Rugby World magazine, which he readily devoured.

In 2003 when I was in Scotland on a farming tour, McLaren and his lovely wife Bette, whom I always respectfully called Mrs McLaren over the phone, generously invited me to their home in Hawick on the Scottish borders. That I never took up the opportunity is one of my great regrets.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

If someone tells you 50 is the new 40, take it from me, don’t believe them! Fifty is 50. Fifty is old!

Since I’ve entered into my second half-century here on planet Earth, it’s like someone has flicked a switch in my body, told it to fly the white flag, submit meekly to middle age and would the last one to leave please turn the lights out.

My knees are sadder than Tiger Woods and I’m left pondering what sporting options are left for me while I bide time until I’m called to that great rugby paddock in the sky.

Long-distance running, if I’m to believe my physio, is no longer an option. Shame that, because I’ve had some great adventures from running. Mind you he also told me that gardening was bad for my uncooperative cartilage, so his prognosis was not all bad.

I’m not a good enough golfer to devote all my energies to world’s most challenging yet frustrating sport. And, let’s be honest, the only joy of the gym is the satisfaction of knowing you’ve burnt off some the calories you consumed over the bar the previous evening.

Heck, I’ve even weakened and contemplated bowls, even though I constantly rib my old rugby mates, who’ve happily taken up the sport, that it’s a holding pen for the cemetery.

However, any thoughts of a sporting future in bowls have now been firmly cast aside. Just like Gary Lawson has been cast aside by Bowls New Zealand. How could I possibly contemplate participating in a sport which cruelly devours its own, eats its young!

Lawson has now won 10 national titles and stands alongside the legendary Nick Unkovich as our greatest bowler, probably our best when you consider Unkovich won eight of his ten titles in the fours.

Who cares if Lawson and mates manipulated one end in a game of bowls to give themselves a better chance of winning a tournament for their country. If we’re going summarily execute those who toss games, let’s also hang Graham Henry for his rotation and reconditioning policy, the Black Caps’ top-order batting lineup every time they pad up, the Warriors for daring to take the field in the NRL and, while we’re being unkind, most male equestrians for crimes against manhood.

Think hard Kerry Clark and Bowls New Zealand. Your sport is bereft of icons. Don’t cut off at the knees the only one you have. Bowls needs Gary Lawson more than Gary Lawson needs bowls!
There’s a long-held festive tradition in my family. I buy my brother beer, he buys me old rugby books. He never tires of beer and I never tire of old rugby books.

However, whilst the same brand of beer suffices each year, a double-up of books does not. All of which makes his buying decision more difficult each festive season.

This year’s more-than-generous offering of books numbered eight. Five of them, Laurie Mains, Change of Hart, The Best of McLean, Winter of Discontent – the 1977 Lions in New Zealand (by T P McLean) and Lions 77 (by Keith Quinn) were already resident in my extensive library and will be passed on to other needy souls.

Of the others, Glory Days – The Canterbury Shield Team 1982-85 is a little gem. The Mark of the Bull (Bull Allen’s biography) is a new addition but one I could easily exist without. The absolute treasure in the trawl is Mexted – Pieces of Eight by Alex Veysey.

Unlike Bull Allen, who was a character but an All Black of modest proportions, Murray Mexted was a great All Black. And if you had any doubts about his rugby pedigree or place in All Black history, Mex’s book left you in no doubt of his greatness!

As a nation we’ve had a love-hate relationship with Murray since he burst on to the international stage with a sensational solo try against Scotland at Murrayfield in his test debut in 1979. The polarizing personality continues to this day, in his role as a television commentator.

Myself, I’ve always loved the flamboyance of Mex. He played the last of his 34 consecutive tests in the 21-21 draw with Argentina in 1985 and it was fitting that also bowing out on that day was Andy Haden, a man whose All Black career astonishingly dated back to 1972!

Haden and Mexted were pioneers. Rugby nomads in the days before professionalism, traveling the world plying their trade, with neither afraid to rock the boat and challenge the rather stodgy amateur administrators of the day.

Of particular interest to Southlanders are Mexted’s memories of three of our finest loose forwards - Ken Stewart, Leicester Rutledge and Ash McGregor. Stewart he held in the absolute highest regard, right alongside the great Graham Mourie. I could not find any mention of Rutledge, perhaps because they only played three tests together against Australia on the ill-fated 1980 tour.

In McGregor’s case, I don’t think Mex ever forgave Ash for taking his spot on the 1978 Grand Slam tour, describing him as “a diligent Southland type” who “through no fault of his own - was simply not a number eight for international rugby”.

The book finishes as it began – colourfully - with the back fly-cover featuring Mex jogging off into the distance in his powder-blue Stubbies, staring lovingly into the eyes of his running partner, Miss Universe 1983, Lorraine Downes.

You’ve gotta love the eighties and the number eight who dominated a good part of a fascinating decade!
Even though Santa brought me Billy Birmingham’s brilliant The 12th Man – The Box Set and an old Thunderbirds DVD, I, like most blokes, detest Christmas shopping with a passion.

This year the Mackay clan celebrated Christmas in Tauranga and I can tell you the allure of the good old days of the Riversdale Discount Store have never been more appealing, following my experience of the inter-isle chaos that is Pak N Save on Christmas Eve.

The Warehouse was no better. Christmas is a supposedly a time of peace and good will to all men but I reckon it’s open warfare in the country’s biggest retail outlet. However in every war zone there is an oasis of peace and I found mine in the book section. And in the bargain bin, no less, I trawled up a little gem.

The book is entitled My Sports Hero and it’s all about famous New Zealanders talking about people who inspired them. It’s been compiled by arguably the best sports writer in the country, the New Zealand Herald’s Wynne Gray, and he’s cast his net wide with some very interesting reading the result.

For instance John Key’s sporting hero was Sid Going, because Key was a halfback at school when Super Sid was in his prime. Daniel Carter’s hero was 1987 World Cup hero John Kirwan. Marc Ellis loves Muhammad Ali and Murray Mexted!

Not surprisingly John Walker nominated Peter Snell, Temepara George admired Sanda Edge, Keith Quinn (Winston McCarthy), Richard Hadlee (Dick Motz), Ruben Wiki (Mal Meninga), Yvette Williams (Jesse Owens) and Colin Meads (Bob Scott).

There were some interesting choices. John Hart (Cardigan Bay), Sean Fitzpatrick (Edwin Moses), Jason Gunn (Lance Cairns), Rachel Hunter (Allison Roe), Sam Neill (Peter Snell), Christine Rankin (Jonah Lomu) and Stephen Tindall (Danyon Loader).

Each of the famous New Zealanders had their own story to tell. Sky TV’s Melodie Robinson spoke of her teenage crush on David Kirk, Jim Anderton of the terrors of facing Gary Bartlett in full flight and John Clarke (aka Fred Dagg) on the joy of receiving a letter back from his All Black hero Terry Lineen.

I had to have a laugh at John Hawkesby’s account of marking the indomitable Grahame Thorne in a trial match for the Auckland Grammar First XV. Young Hawkesby was by all accounts a useful league player and he was brought into the trial to give the brilliant but greedy Thorne a bit of hurry-up to encourage him to pass the ball more to this wingers. Hawkesby was subbed early in the first half. Thorne for his part scored five tries and within a couple of years was an All Black!

It got me thinking about my own sporting heroes growing up. The 1967 All Blacks Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, Ian Kirkpatrick, Earle Kirton and Tony Steel were my idols. Not far behind was the Southland rugby team of 1969 which also adorned my bedroom wall. The first five-eighth (my position at primary school) was Lindsay Meikle from Mataura and he was my hero from afar.

A few years later I got to play a couple of senior games with him at Riversdale. It’s more than 30 years since I’ve seen or heard from Lindsay. But once a hero, always a hero.