Dr Johnson still achieving in rugby at 74

By Doug Laing


There are mixed blessings for former top rugby player and administrator Tom Johnson as word spreads around Hawke's Bay of his latest success - graduating from Massey University with a PhD in management, at the age of 74.

Singled out for special mention because of a doctoral thesis which examined the success of the All Blacks back 60 years - almost to the day he first heard of the national rugby team - it's clear he's not comfortable with being an illustrious alumni.

Simply, when he graduated in November, so did thousands of others, and they've all spent years at it.

Not that he hasn't, having entered this arena 14 years ago when he began extramural studies for an MBA.

"Actually, it's a wee bit embarrassing," he said at his Taradale home, shaking his healthy signature swish of silver hair in about as much disbelief as he did the other day when mail arrived addressed to "Dr T W Johnson." They must have had the wrong bloke.

The good news is that some people think they have got the right bloke, and may put to good use the qualification which adds more letters after his name, to a list which includes MNZM - Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, New Year Honours 2011, for services to rugby.

Dr Johnson, who enjoyed a post-rugby administration stint as chief executive of Hawke's Bay Racing, said: "One thing to come of this bit of publicity is that I have been approached by a number of people connected with national and regional sporting organisations to see if I could assist them, in undefined areas. I'm happy to do that," he said.

It seems they find something appealing about his thesis on the Winning Ethos and Organisational Culture of the All Blacks (1950-2010), perhaps not so much because of another perspective on six decades of coaches and captains he interviewed along the way as the changing cultures they endured in rugby's transformation from amateur sport to multi-million dollar business, and the All Blacks from team to brand.

Most businesses have not handled "organisational change" well, he said, using a changing-word description of how many workers have been treated in the process.

He was able to separate it into three 20-year eras of All Black rugby, but highlighted the leadership shift which came with the Henry-Hansen-Smith triumvirate of 2004-2011, compared with the previous one leader-one way approach.

Interestingly, it hadn't quite dawned on Dr Johnson as to how his own experiences with change, both as a rugby player and as an administrator, might have prompted this academic foray.

His 84 games for Hawke's Bay traversed two of the 129-year-old union's extremes, a record walloping from the 1959 British Lions and the winning of the Ranfurly Shield in 1966.

Similarly, having been Hawke's Bay rugby union chairman when the second half of the 1972 fixture between Hawke's Bay and the touring Wallabies became the first live televised first class rugby match in New Zealand, his New Zealand Rugby Union council career bounced from the cancellation of two All Blacks tours of South Africa and the troubled 1981 Springboks' tour to the elation of convinced others around the table it was time there was a Rugby World Cup.

Having seen the arrival of professional rugby - and players at some levels paid way "too much" - rugby still has change ahead, he believes.

"Sevens at the 2016 Olympics will promote rugby like it's never been promoted before," he said.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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