When I read Shayne Philpott’s rugby story in the news the other day it brought a lot of things back to me. Things I thought I had put behind me.
It also brought back a few tears. Some things are just so painful they never really left you.
Philpott was a handy utility back in his day, but was despised by many in rugby circles, because they considered him an inferior talent, and because his selection for the All Blacks meant more popular players missed out. That was back in the days before professional rugby and mass squad rotations. It was extraordinarily hard to get into the All Blacks back then, and players seldom came off the field unless seriously injured.
Shayne’s story sounds a bit like mine. The talkback abuse, the swirling rumours, and the sharpened pens of the rugby scribes writing poison—I remember them all too well.
But Philpott’s name at least appears in the record books. Not mine. I am the All Black you’ve never heard of.
I was first selected in 1990 against Australia in Christchurch. It was a solid team and we hadn’t lost to Australia since 1986. But the team were coming to the end of a long and glorious run that had begun with the Rugby World Cup win in 1987, and their best days were perhaps behind them. It was into an environment of seasoned veterans perhaps grown too complacent and comfortable that I was thrust. No wonder, then, that things didn’t start out so well for me.
I knew as soon as I stepped into the dressing room that my career wasn’t going to be an easy one. The coach Grizz Wylie looked me up and down and said “hey kid, who the fuck are you?”
Grizz had a reputation in rugby circles of being a hard bastard, so I thought at first he must be joking. But he maintained a menacing stare as I explained that I was here to play the first test. It did me no good, and I was told to piss off, and then a bunch of burly security guys came and threw me out of the stadium.
For a young kid like me that was a pretty traumatic experience. But I loved my rugby and was absolutely determined to break into the team, so I returned to the fray, trained hard and worked on my game. It took a couple of years of trying, but I finally got another chance in 1994. There was a new coach, Laurie Mains, and a Rugby World Cup only a year away. If I performed well I knew there was a chance of a trip to South Africa the following year.
But when I reported for duty in the test match against the French Mains said to me “you shouldn’t be in here. If you want an autograph you’ll have to wait till after the game.”
So that was that. Another rejection, and another insult.
You probably remember what happened next. They trialled a young guy called Jonah Lomu in the position I should have been playing, and the French exposed him mercilessly. We lost the series 2-0, but to add insult to injury Lomu went on to become a rugby superstar.
It should have been me.
I tried again the following year, but this time I couldn’t even get as far as the changing rooms. So I was left out of the World Cup squad and had to watch our agonising loss to South Africa in the final on the TV, knowing that if I had been there the result might have been very different.
By this time I was at a pretty low ebb, and considered packing it in. In the end I decided I’d give it one more season, and if that didn’t do the job I’d quit rugby and find something more meaningful to occupy my time. So I began to work hard on my fitness, sometimes going to the gym more than once a week. I’d never felt fitter and stronger, and it paid off.
I got my chance to shine against the Wallabies. I was only a reserve, but that was better than nothing. My opportunity came just after halftime, when Lomu went down hurt. I ran on, expecting at least some polite applause, but all I got were jeers. I was dragged off, literally, by two big Polynesian guys, and ended up spending a night in the police cells. Some way to celebrate your first test cap, isn’t it?
I can only surmise that officials took exception to my lack of a regulation kit when I went onto the field, but how can I be blamed for that? I couldn’t get into the changing rooms and the team officials had such a dripping contempt for me that when I tried to tell them who I was they just told me to piss off.
The thing that hurt me most about that one test cap was the reaction to my performance. It haunts me to this day. I found out later what they said about me on the TV when I came on. Sky TV commentator Grant Nisbett said “hello, who’s this idiot running onto the field?” and one of the other commentators accused me of disrupting the game. But how could I disrupt the game if they wouldn’t even let me go near the ball?
The next day I was the talk of the town, on the airwaves and in the papers. On talkback radio they complained about the lack of security at our grounds and the fact that (I’m quoting word for word) “any moron can just jump over the fence and ruin the game”. But the final straw was a column by a well-respected rugby writer in a national newspaper (I won’t name you, but you know who you are) who labelled my efforts “disrespectful and an insult to the game”.
After than I hung my boots up for good. But there’s scarcely a day when I don’t think about those hurtful people and the way they treated me. I wish I could say that these experiences made me tougher, but the truth is they didn’t. Every blow struck against me still hurts.
The crowning insult came when I went back to look at my official rugby record a couple of days ago, just after I read the Philpott story. They may have treated me with cruelty, but they couldn’t take my test cap away, could they? Well guess what? My name doesn’t appear in any record book. I didn’t put a foot wrong during my sole appearance for the All Blacks, but still they wouldn’t even give me a minor appearance in the history books. Bastards! It’s as if all evidence of my career has been expunged.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last few days. Like Philpott I wondered if I should just flog off all my rugby memorabilia and be done with it. Reading Philpott’s story, though, made me realise there must be other guys out there with similar stories to my own. Guys whose careers went nowhere—because of misfortune, or the capricious whims of officials.
So guess what? I’m on a comeback. I have come to realise that I have a lot of unfinished business with rugby, and I would dearly love to stick it to those officials, coaches and media know-it-alls who so royally stuffed me and left me a shuddering wreck of a man for years on end.
I’m getting on in years, though I’m still on the right side of forty, and my health and fitness are pretty good still. Just yesterday I managed a two kilometre run in under twenty minutes. And there’s always a place for the older guys. Tana Umaga’s playing for the Chiefs, and Reuben Thorne is about to return for the Crusaders. So as from this week I’m back in training, determined to win back my place.
I plan to make my comeback at the Rugby World Cup. What better time to make an impact, when the eyes of the rugby world are turned upon New Zealand?
Wouldn’t it be something else to run out onto Eden Park during the final?