Michele Hewitson interview: ex-All Black Andrew Mehrtens

By Michele Hewitson

Andrew Mehrtens with 3-year-old George, who has clearly learned a thing or two from his father about how to turn on the charm. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Andrew Mehrtens with 3-year-old George, who has clearly learned a thing or two from his father about how to turn on the charm. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Andrew Mehrtens is, usually, as one of my rugby-writing colleagues put it, "a good bastard". He is also supposed to be a "funny bastard".

But we already knew that because there he is on that TV3 Rugby World Cup promo running around Paris doing a funny bastard's impersonation of a Frenchman (beret, false moustache) making a fool of himself. You can't imagine Dan doing that now, can you?

Mehrts (he calls himself Mehrts and so does everyone, except his wife) has done a few things over the years that might come under the category of making a fool of oneself. I heard him on the radio being accused of puking in the loo in a bar. "Mehrts!" said the fellow who had witnessed this effort. "Messy!" said Mehrts, apparently. You can imagine him puking in a loo in a bar - some years ago, admittedly - and imagine that he might be admired for the economy of that response: "Messy!" Imagine the fuss if Dan did it.

Anyway, Mehrts (I called him Andrew, but it did sound a little formal) is on his best behaviour for reasons which should be obvious, but will take a bit of getting to.

His good bastard reputation is with rugby-writing blokes and I was far from sure of his current tolerance of the non-rugby media personnel.

He made a joke about the photographer having his work cut out for him, but really he isn't a bit vain, at least not about his looks. I tried to get a rift going over Dan Carter and how not only did he pinch his mentor's spot in the No10 jersey for Canterbury and the All Blacks, but about how he's the better-looking one.

He thinks it's all very amusing about how it's said that Carter was his protege, when that's just the way rugby works: You're the top dog until another dog comes in over the top and pinches your kennel (I'm not sure that is quite a rugby metaphor). And of course he thinks Dan is amazing and lovely and humble. I balked a bit at that - is there a rugby player in the country who is not humble? But he says Carter really is humble and so is Sonny Bill.

Is Mehrts? Not quite. He talks too much to be described as humble, and he's probably too clever. He admits he could be described as a fairly decent sort of talker which is a good thing in a rugby commentator, obviously, but says that he still gets self-conscious about talking in public. He does seem to talk in a nervy, quick-fire way. He might still be a bit nervy about his most recent attempt to make a fool of himself.

He had jokingly asked the waitress for whiskey in his coffee, for his nerves, and I shouted: "No! Don't give him whiskey!" Hell's bells. I didn't want to have to write that Mehrts was munted.

He got in a bit of a tizz about a "Was Mehrts Munted?" headline and sent me a very funny text, the gist of which was that he wasn't now sure about talking to me, although he had nothing against me personally. The funny bit is too amazingly rude to repeat. In case you missed the show (and the headline), he appeared on TV3 in the Rugby World Cup panel show, Cup Talk, in a condition which would later be termed jet-lagged.

He seems to be over his, er, jet lag and his little tizz because he said very sweetly that he was "sorry about all that stuff the week before. I wasn't trying to jerk you around."

He must have known I was going to ask about "all that stuff". And I honestly thought he'd be able to have a laugh about it, two weeks on. He is supposed to be a funny bastard. Had he watched the clip? "Oh! The ... ? Yeah, I saw that on YouTube. It's something I'm probably not really going to talk about. That's in the past."

He says he did have a laugh about it and got "a bit of ribbing from guys like Justin Marshall". He says he doesn't know if his wife has watched it (I would have if it'd been my husband, but perhaps not if I was his wife). So maybe the clip is now the equivalent of a "what goes on tour stays on tour" joke and so not for sheilas.

And here, right on a perfectly timed if accidental cue, his 3-year-old son, George, arrived (presumably dropped off at the cafe by his mother Jacq, who had just rescued her husband from further questions of the munted variety, with a fortuitously-timed phone call).

He is a tall - "yeah, I don't know where he gets that from!" - and handsome child (there is no doubt where that comes from - he also has an impossibly cute 2-year-old daughter, Ivy) and he said, "Hello Michele", before we had even been introduced, which was fairly incredible. He then clambered up on to his father's lap and put on for the camera the cheesiest smile you've ever seen in your life. I can't think where he could have got that from.

All of which was rather a relief for both of us. It was for me because I can't really work up much outrage about whether Mehrts was or wasn't munted on a TV show about rugby, although why he can't just say that he was, for whatever reasons, is beyond me. If anyone was going to be plastered on the TV, it would be Mehrts.

Isn't that why old ladies love him? They do. But don't take my word for it. He told me a very good story about this: In 1999 he got in trouble for giving a crowd in Pretoria the double bird: "It was like an aviary!" but he deserved his ticking off, he said. "I like to think it wasn't malicious; it was just exuberance ... But anyway, the main thing was that it obviously wasn't cool and, you know, you've got to think of the main fan base." In other words, he got away with it because of the main fan base. "The grandmothers! I would have got maybe 100 letters from people saying: 'My name is Beryl and I'm 92 years old, living in the Wairarapa, and what you did was absolutely fantastic."'

He is, in other words, a cheeky bugger. He told me, apropos of not being vain, that he'd never been good-looking like Dan and that he had a boy-next-door face: "sort of like I wouldn't be naughty ... I'd never be classed as cute." So he gets away with being naughty.

He says he likes to think he can hand out the cheek, and take it. He certainly makes a great play of his laziness and how he always hated training and about how fat he is. He says he had to move to France to play rugby because of the new sexy shirts. "They saw guys like me and they said, 'either you go or the shirts go and we're not going to get rid of the jersey!"'

At 38, he's just retired from playing for the French club Beziers, in Languedoc, to be the coach, so he had his last game at the end of the season - although he didn't realise it was his last professional game at the time he was playing it because he was yet to get the job. He's not sure whether he'd rather have known or not. He says he might have got emotional. (I wasn't about to suggest that getting emotional might have involved having a drink or two, but I think on balance it's probably a good thing he didn't know.)

The other best known thing about Mehrts, other than his popular appeal: He is supposed to be the bloke who choked and lost the All Blacks the Rugby World Cup in 1995. You'd think he'd be loathed for that missed kick, but somehow he isn't. He says, mildly, that "my goal kicking was pretty good that game".

He is widely held to be one of the most popular All Blacks of all time. This is hard to fathom because of the RWC thing and the other thing everyone knows about him - that he was tackle-shy. He's the first to admit it. Well, look at him. He's tiny for a rugby player, although he says that rugby players have got so much bigger that he would have been the second biggest player in the 1905 Originals All Black team.

When he went to play in France he came up with a trick to break up fights. He'd go for the biggest bloke and would pretend he was about to take a swing at him. Faced with a furious midget, the French player would generally fall about laughing and that would be the end of the spat. He has always said that he thinks people liked him because he wasn't a big rugby boofhead and so could relate to him. It didn't hurt that the Beryls of the Wairarapa, and, apparently, the French beasts, felt protective of him.

He's an odd mix of laid-back and prickly in the way that people who have lived for years in the public eye can be prickly. He says he thinks he developed his joker act as a way of disguising his self consciousness.

He is widely held to have a brain, a thing rugby players are generally cautious about displaying too publicly. He says he got away with it because he was a No10, and No10s are tacticians. He was often described as a tactical genius and he says that's because he wasn't much good at anything else and so his inclusion in the side had to be explained somehow.

Does he really believe that? Possibly. He has a fairly healthy attitude to having been an All Black, which is to say he's canny enough to make the most of making an after-rugby career out of his All Black profile, and smart enough to know that no longer being an All Black is not the end of the world.

He is supposed to have gone off the rails at some stage in the early 2000s, but he says he can't remember having done so because "I don't really have rails. I was never on them."

Yes, ha, ha. Perhaps I should have agreed that whiskey was called for. He was a decent bastard, I agree. He paid for the coffee, behind my back, for one thing, which is almost unheard of for a name of any variety, so he has lovely manners. But I couldn't help but think it was bad luck to have got him now that he's trying his hardest to be a good sort of good bastard.

- NZ Herald

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