Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Seat reserved for the best

Warren Gatland was perhaps the most famous All Black reserve, playing just 17 games and exactly zero tests behind the redoubtable Sean Fitzpatrick. Andrew Alderson looks at the lot of players for whom the old saying could have been written: 'They also serve who only stand and wait'.

Paul Henderson captained the All Blacks against Japan in 1995. Photo / Getty Images
Paul Henderson captained the All Blacks against Japan in 1995. Photo / Getty Images

Becoming familiar with a tackle bag and being pummelled as live opposition at training sessions is a rite of passage for most new All Blacks.

Few graduate to the first XV ranks without having served time as a reserve or outside the playing-day squad, those the All Blacks used to call the "dirty dirties" or DDs for short.

Political correctness means these days those not in the game-day squad have forsaken the term DDs to become "standard-setters". Despite being assigned menial tasks and occupying a low spot in the All Black strata, standard-setters are essential to maintaining the ethos of the team.

Examples like Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden can expect to do years in the shadow of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter without graduating to the first XV or even XXIII.

When the standard-setters do get their chance, modern rugby means many spend less than 20 minutes in action, often coming on as substitutes. Cane has started just two of his four tests and Barrett has started one of his five, despite both being with the team for the majority of the 13-test 2012 season.

Cruden has started six tests in 19 over three seasons.

Standard-setters seldom command a place but are revered for their commitment to the overall cause. Paul Henderson was an example. He played seven tests and 18 other matches from 1989-95, when Michael Jones and later Josh Kronfeld dominated the No 7 jersey. His service was honoured by coach Laurie Mains with captaincy for the 145-17 trouncing of Japan at the 1995 World Cup.

"You've got to have a real driven desire to be an equal in the tour party," says Henderson, who has just finished three years coaching rugby in Chile. "There can be nothing worse than getting an opportunity and coming up short as a one-match All Black. You've got to show you deserve to stay.

"Everything the tour party does is about 'the team'. There's no place for the selfish bastard. Every time I worked against Josh or Michael, I was working to beat them. That way, you help your competitor. Josh couldn't believe it when we were fighting for that 1995 World Cup starting spot. I went out of my way the whole tournament to help him be a better player.

"It stemmed from a function at the Grand Hotel in Invercargill after the Otago-Southland match in 1994. Josh sat down and I took him aside to offer some advice. I said 'you might put me out of the All Blacks but it'll be worth it' and, in the end, he did. You've got to do that.

"That's why Ali Williams is on the northern tour. Even if he just passes on a handful of things to the three younger locks, it's worth gold. It would be shortsighted to ignore his 10 years of All Blacks' experience. The old dogs have to give something to the new dogs."


Norm Hewitt served as hooking back-up to captain Sean Fitzpatrick from 1993 to 1997 before Anton Oliver assumed the No 2 mantle in 1998. With Fitzpatrick largely indestructible, Hewitt played just 23 matches, including nine tests. He went through the entire six-test 1994 season as an uncapped reserve. Hewitt followed Warren Gatland who never played a test despite making 17 All Black appearances.

Hewitt says being a back-up player had its frustrations but still offered incredible life experience.

"I'd rather have been in the All Blacks than sitting at home. It was motivating just being in the environment, doing extra training to try to get you through. You met people and went places you normally wouldn't. My favourites included meeting Nelson Mandela, going to Buckingham Palace to visit the Queen, chatting to Princess Di and taking a tour of the Ferrari factory."

Hewitt prefers today's inclusive All Blacks environment.

"For instance, I said nothing to Sean (Fitzpatrick) in the first couple of years. It was only really 1995 he started talking to me. It wasn't a collaborative approach. Some senior players were on their own but I remember Michael Jones and John Kirwan were awesome. When I first made the team, JK was the first to walk across and say 'welcome to the family'.

"I like the way it is today. There seems to be a whole new level of respect for each other whether you're playing your 100th test, your first test or are yet to play for one of the best sporting brands in the world. It's obvious from the leadership down. You look at what Richie McCaw is doing and you can tell the culture of the team."


Former lock Albert Anderson recalls fond days as a "DD" at the 1987 World Cup, where he made one appearance, against Fiji.

"They (the coaches) had pretty much settled on one team. A couple of reserves got games but it was pretty much the 1st XV, six reserves and five dirty-dirties who went on the piss and had fun - but we trained pretty hard all the same."

Anderson represented New Zealand in 25 matches but just six tests between 1983 and 1988. He also captained the team in four midweek matches on the Australian tour in 1988. He now crops 250 acres near Southbridge, 50km southwest of Christchurch. Anderson says players need to accept being a reserve as a vital part of the team culture, rather than despair.

"The team is only as good as its reserves to keep the best players on their toes. I loved being in the All Blacks but there's more of a role for a reserve these days. The game is faster and there is less downtime with less scrums and lineouts.

"Some rugby players bitch and moan if the coach doesn't put them on but it's always the team first as far as I'm concerned. No one is bigger than that. It's all good competition - although I'm still getting over being dropped in 1989," Anderson chuckles.

"It comes down to motivation at training. If you look in the mirror and know you're a slack arse because you've drunk too much beer, you probably shouldn't be there. There are no 'what ifs' in the All Blacks."

- Herald on Sunday

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