Michele Hewitson interview: Bryan Williams

By Michele Hewitson

Bryan Williams was a prolific try scorer for the All Blacks in the 1970s. Photo / Paul Estcourt
Bryan Williams was a prolific try scorer for the All Blacks in the 1970s. Photo / Paul Estcourt

A bloke I know has a brother who loves the former All Black Bryan Williams so much that he called his cat Beegee - that being the nickname of the great man. That isn't the really nutty part. The really nutty part is this: When that cat died, he got another and called that one Beegee too, and so on, down the cat generations.

When I told Beegee - who is also occasionally called Bryan George Williams - about this he grinned from ear to ear, looking just like a cat, the Cheshire one, himself. He was dead chuffed. He said, "oh! Really?" It's funny, isn't it? "Yeah! It is." It's also cute. "Yeah! It is cute."

But also a bit strange. "Oh, well. Ha, ha." If he did think this was strange, he would never say so. That would be bad manners and he has very good manners. He said he was on his best behaviour with me, but he's pretty much on his best behaviour most of the time.

He says he sometimes gets a bit grumpy on the sidelines of games and if "you were alongside me then you might not think I'm a very nice guy". The bar manager at the Ponsonby Rugby club said he could tell me a few stories, wink, wink, but I choose not to believe a word of it.

I was telling the great man about the cats by way of working up to a question about his fame. He was in the Herald's 20 All Black Greats magazine on Monday (at number 15 but, pah, what would they know? He says he's flattered not to have been forgotten.) And he is president of the New Zealand Rugby Union, and so is obviously a very big wig in World Cup year.

It is now often said about him that he was the Lomu of his time and he'll agree, to a point. He says they are both, obviously, Pacific Islanders, have both scored a pretty good try or two in their time, they were both very young (he was 19) when they became famous for scoring a pretty good try or two (he scored 14 tries in 13 games in 1970). But he had never had to cope with the level of fame that Lomu has had. "I guess I've been pretty thankful about the fact that I wasn't more famous."

Well, why isn't he? There were fewer cameras, for one thing, and the sports journalists were, he says, mates. If anything happened on tour, it stayed on tour. Even he may have drunk too much and "been a bit outspoken". What rubbish. He said, conspiratorially, "I can get a bit animated at times."

His is a very understated sort of animated then. He comes from that generation of All Blacks (he is 60) and New Zealanders who still use that terrific word "skiting", and who shudder when they use it. When he was an All Black (from 1970 until 1978) you didn't even smile after you scored a try - that would be skiting. So you don't go around "blowing your own trumpet".

But he thinks it's a grand thing for today's young men to be encouraged to be exuberant and, "it's all part of the entertainment. And, you know, you want your kids to have a bit of personality."

Still, what must he think of those Dan Carter undie ads, for example. "I wish it had been me, I guess! Nobody ever offered."

(He was, by the way, doing peculiar things with underwear long before an All Black appeared in his on enormous billboards. He had a superstition that if he was playing for the All Blacks he had to wear black underpants, and if for Auckland, blue. "Silly, eh!" He still pretty much wears only blue ones.)

He claims he still has a couple of fans : an old geezer and a granny, who occasionally recognise him. This is nonsense, of course, but in keeping with the non-skiting culture, and rather sweet. He said that it's lovely to still be recognised. I said, well, yes, it must be but that if he ever saw that cat man heading his way, he might want to think about making a run for it. "Oh, no," he said, "I'd give him a pat on the back! Anyone who names cats after me ... !"

But he really wanted to tell me a story about the house he was brought up in: 63 O'Neill Street, Ponsonby, where Michael J Savage had once lived. "And many, many years later, Albert Wendt, the author and professor got in touch with me and he said: 'Beegee, I just bought this house in O'Neill Street.' And I said: 'What number?' 'Number 63.' I said, 'I used to live there!' And he said, 'I know. When the real estate agent was trying to sell it to me she said, 'did you know that Michael Joseph Savage used to live here? And so did some old All Black.' Ha, ha, ha. Well, I am very proud about the fact that all three of us have lived in that house."

That was an admirably gentlemanly way of telling me that he wasn't very interested in talking about how famous he once was. Now, if I'd wanted to hear about Pinetree and Brian Lochore, I'd still be there. He was, and remains, the "awestruck" 10-year-old he once was when in their company.

And now look at him: He's president of the NZ Rugby Union. "I'm the president!" He is genuinely amazed at this, but why is he? "Well, I've never really considered myself in that sort of role." It is a ceremonial role which means what, exactly? "Well, it's ambassadorial and it's apolitical ... You're meant to present the face of rugby, I suppose, and present the trophies and give speeches and shake hands and kiss babies!"

It is also lots of schmoozing. Is he any good at schmoozing? "Not particularly!" Anyway, he's a terrific choice for the job not least because he couldn't be a stuffed shirt if he really tried and rugby has its share of those.

And he really is chuffed about being offered the role (possibly even more chuffed than he was about the Beegee cats, but it's hard to say.) He says it's "the icing on the cake" of his career, and you find yourself pleased about this because he says he doesn't feel he's been as recognised as a coach as, "you know, the results warranted".

He remains "just a bit disappointed" about this, (a lot disappointed, would be my guess) but he doesn't want to bang on about it. It's a bit hard to know then, what the disappointment amounts to, not being a rugby head, but a rugby head of my acquaintance says that I have to put in that he "coached Auckland with his friend Maurice Trapp in the late 80s and early 90s, to unbelievable success, but everyone thought all the fabulous World Cup winning All Blacks playing for Auckland at the time coached themselves and we never really gave the coaches credit". I'll take his word for it.

He also coached Manu Samoa, in the 1990s. He's possibly more proud of that than he is of his All Black career.

He had a bad time when he was coaching the Hurricanes from 2000 until 2002. He didn't like the culture and they didn't like him. Tana Umaga later wrote in his book that the coach didn't understand modern rugby. I said: "You know when Tana had that go at you in his book ..." He said, poker-faced: "Oh, did he? Gosh."

He must have been a decent lawyer which was his other job, until this year. He said: "I don't want to make that a big issue. What I'm proud about is the fact that he has gone on to become a truly great All Black captain and an ambassador for the game." Spoken like a true president. (He did, though, tell me he'd never read Umaga's book, which is always the best revenge.)

We met at the Ponsonby Rugby club which is, confusingly, in Western Springs. It is a low, unlovely, concrete block building, but he loves it. He has been coming to the club, where he is now the director of rugby, for 51 years, he thinks (it used to be in Ponsonby and moved here about a decade ago.)

"You see if you can pick me, Michele," he said, when I asked where his picture was, among the old and new rugby faces hanging from the beams. I didn't manage to find his mug shot and he looked ever so slightly crestfallen, but he is a forgiving sort of character.

He managed not to look utterly horrified when I had to reveal I hadn't watched the Australia versus Samoa game in which the Samoans, incredibly won, and in which his son Paul played. He said: "Oh. So you're not a rugby fan." He has very good manners, so he collected himself and said, consolingly, lest I felt he was judging me for not being a total rugby head, "That's all right."

I think he was really consoling himself. He, of course, is a total rugby head and doesn't quite understand why everyone else isn't a total rugby head. His other paid job is running the rugby academy at his old school, Mt Albert Grammar. "The fact is I really do love it." He talks about rugby all the time. He had to think about that for a moment and then he said: "Probably." Probably!

He was at the club until 9.50pm (he is very precise about these things) on Monday night and I know this because I asked. I asked because when I phoned him at home his wife, Leslie, said she didn't know where he was (this was presumably a joke; he's always at the club) but that he was due home at 6.30pm.

He claims there was some bother with the clubhouse alarm. I wouldn't be amazed to hear that he has been held up at the club, for a variety of reasons, on just the odd occasion before.

I asked if the club was his home away from home and he said, "Leslie says it's my first home and that I visit the other place when I have a mind to." She had put his tea in the oven on Monday night. I bet she's done that before. He said she wasn't cross. "She's pretty even."

They've been together for 43 years and he spent as much time talking about their marriage as we did talking about the rugby. He says he may have been put on a pedestal by the public, because of the rugby, but he puts her on an even higher pedestal (even above Meads and Lochore, so that tells you how much he loves his wife.) He said: "We're great mates and we have a lovely time and I tell her that every day."

What a very nice man he is - and anyone who says naming a succession of cats after him is nuts will have me to answer to.

- NZ Herald

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