Thursday, 25 November 2010

John Key did not make his weekly appearance on the Farming Show yesterday. He had much more pressing business on the West Coast, where we’ve witnessed the worst New Zealand tragedy since the 1979 Mount Erebus disaster.

The Prime Minister was right to say we should never measure human tragedy by the number of lives lost. If we did, Pike River would pale in comparison to Erebus where the loss of life at 257, was nearly ten-fold that of the 29 miners lost.

The media, rightly or wrongly, have taken some stick for their coverage. As someone who works in the industry, I know the fine line journalists tread between providing information and overstepping the mark in the pursuit of the story or a sensationalist angle.

But like them or loathe them, the modern electronic media played a huge role at Pike River.

Contrast that to telegram-dependent October 1917 at Passchendaele, where 850 New Zealand lives were traded for a senseless 500 yard gain in the bloodiest day in New Zealand war history. Or the sketchy radio coverage of the Tangiwai rail disaster of 1953 that cost 151 lives. Or the coverage, when television was in its infancy, of the 1968 Wahine disaster, where the toll was 51.

Even Erebus, 31 years ago, had limited media coverage by comparison.

Pike River was a tragedy that unfolded and played out for six days in our living rooms, on our radios and in our newspapers. Although most of us were geographically far removed, emotionally we felt close to the Coasters, that most hardy breed of Kiwis. We watched and waited, only imagining what it must have been like for families.

What made Pike River so tragic was the waiting, the not knowing, the hanging on to hope by a thread. We can now but hope the end for the miners came mercifully quickly on day one and that the families can recover their loved ones, equally quickly, to begin the grieving process.

I can’t imagine, for a moment, the grief of fathers who had sons trapped down the mine. Like Lawrie Drew, what father wouldn’t want to don the breathing apparatus and go into the mine, even though the odds were seemingly impossible? And I especially anguish for young Joseph Dunbar, just 17 years and one day of age, who was cruelly cut off just one day into his adult working career.

No doubt some hard questions will be asked and some unpalatable answers might be forthcoming, but now is not the time for the blame game. I wouldn’t swap places with Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall or police superintendent Gary Knowles for all the coal in Newcastle. The latter, especially, was on a hiding to nothing.

To quote a work colleague, Wednesday was a bugger of a day.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

By my reckoning Richie McCaw will play his 100th test match for the All Blacks against Japan in Hamilton in the second pool game of the Rugby World Cup.

That’s assuming he’s injury-free and takes the field against Ireland and Wales, plays in all four of next year’s Tri Nations games against Australia and South Africa and starts in the World Cup opener against Tonga.

The moot point will be whether he shares the honour with Mils Muliaina who also plays a record 93rd test, against Ireland on Sunday morning.

Without wanting to think ill of the former Southlander, I hope the three wise men give Muliaina a spell at some stage in the next seven internationals and bestow upon McCaw, alone, the honour of being the first All Black to play 100 tests.

Muliaina has been a very good All Black over the past eight seasons but the tag of true greatness eludes him. George Nepia, Bob Scott, Don Clarke and Christian Cullen were great fullbacks. Muliaina is very good.

No one, however, can deny the greatness of McCaw and - strike me down for this blasphemous utterance - if he leads the All Blacks to World Cup glory in his own back yard, he will eclipse Sir Colin Meads as our greatest All Black. Not to mention get a knighthood to boot.

McCaw will never replace Meads as the most iconic and popular All Black but even the mighty Pinetree had test matches where he didn’t dominate. The same cannot be said for McCaw, who has maintained a remarkable level of performance that has made him the most dominant player on the park in his 92 tests thus far. Only Dan Carter, at his imperious best, and Don Clarke could lay claim to being as influential.

With that in mind I decided to name my first fifteen of All Blacks greats. Some may not have been the greatest player in their position but the influence they had on the outcome of test matches in their era necessitated inclusion.

I hope this stimulates some debate around your pub, club, workplace or dining table:

1/ Colin Meads.

2/ Richie McCaw.

3/ Dan Carter.

4/ Michael Jones

5/ Don Clarke

6/ Sean Fitzpatrick

7/ Brian Lochore

8/ Wilson Whineray

9/ George Nepia

10/ Jeff Wilson

11/ Ian Kirkparick

12/ Bryan Williams

13/ Ken Gray

14/ Grant Fox

15/ Tana Umaga

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Hands up if you’ve heard of Robin Gibb?

No, he’s not a rugby player. He’s a Bee Gee.

Robin could never be mistaken for a rugby player. He must have ingested some fairly serious stuff in the sixties because these days he’s a shell of a man who’d struggle to tip the scales at 50kg wringing wet in his neat double-breasted pin-striped suit.

I went to Wellington on Wednesday to see Robin Gibb and the Pointer Sisters in concert, which brings me to the point of this column!

While the nearly-61 year old Robin battled manfully with some of the early Bee Gees’ classics such as Massachusetts, New York Mining Disaster 1941 and Words, he looked and sounded like an old man with a bad hairpiece on some of the hits from the disco era and beyond.

I couldn’t help but see a bit of myself in Robin as he butchered You Should Be Dancing and You Win Again. Admittedly I’m giving Robin a ten year start, have a full head of my own hair and left 50 kg behind 40 years ago. But as I watched a man I once greatly admired, I couldn’t help but feel Robin had hung on for too long. Father Time had caught up on him.

Life’s all about timing.

I feel a bit like that about my rugby commentary career. Lee Piper and I started out as young bucks taking on the world and the establishment in 1995. We were blatantly different, over-the-top and not everyone liked it. Only Paul Henderson and Mark Seymour from the Southland side of the day could really be bothered with us.

Eventually we outlasted the players and our critics, became accepted and carved ourselves a niche. We’re now very much part of the establishment. Like an old pair of slippers we slip into the commentary box but gone are the days of the child-like screams of “missy, missy, chocolate fishy” when a Flash Harry Carlos Spencer is having a kick at goal.

We celebrated calling 200 first class games in the Otago Ranfurly Shield Challenge and at the Stags’ end-of-season prizegiving were presented with a wonderful caricature cartoon from Southland Times cartoonist Shaun Yeo. It’s going straight to the pool room.

My last game in the commentary box was the epic final Ranfurly Shield defense against Canterbury. Maybe not a bad way to sign off? Timing is everything.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Rugby is a game built around clichés.

It was a game of two halves, the boys dug deep, it was a real battle up front, we’re not looking any further ahead than Saturday, we’re moving forward together and, one of my particular favourites, no quarter was asked and none was given.

The latter aptly and cruelly describes the fortunes of the forlorn Stephen Donald. He was given a quarter in the cauldron of Hong Kong and when the questions were asked he had no answers. He’s now being described in the same breath as that most unfortunate of All Blacks, Colin Farrell.

An unfortunate All Black is of course an oxymoron. There’s no such thing. Every kiwi kid who grew up dreaming of wearing the silver fern will vouch for that. However there are some who probably wished they’d never been selected. Farrell, a fine fullback for Auckland in the 1970s, heads that list. Donald, also an excellent performer at provincial level, now joins him.

With that in mind, I thought I’d have a crack at a Fortunate Fifteen from the past 35 years (and I chose that arbitrary chronological peg in the sand for no other reason than being able to include Farrell in my side). To qualify, All Blacks need to have played a test match.

Colin Farrell (vice captain), Sosene Anesi, Shayne Philpott, Marty Berry, Isaia Toeava, Stephen Donald, Kevin Senio, Xavier Rush, Sione Lauaki, Mark Carter, Reuben Thorne (captain), Dion Waller, Saimone Taumoepeau, John Afoa and Perry Harris.

Some might consider 50-test veteran Reuben Thorne a shade unlucky to be included in Fortunate Fifteen, especially at lock where he generally performed with merit, but he made the cut wholly and solely on the back of his truly un-inspirational captaincy which peaked at the 2003 Rugby World Cup where he showed the leadership of a lemming.

There are three current All Blacks in the side. Donald’s Hong Kong ding-dong has seen him displace Simon Mannix, Wayne Smith’s “special project” Toeava is an automatic selection and Afoa makes it as a hooker who’s extremely fortunate to be an All Black prop.

And before all the do-gooders jump down my throat, they would need to remove my tongue from my cheek. Becoming an All Black in this country is still one of the greatest honours that can be bestowed upon a bloke. And given the chance, I would swap my lot at the drop of a hat to walk a mile in their boots, even Farrell’s wayward pair!