Rugby: Capping salutes tradition

By Paul Lewis

Mac Herewini. Photo / Richard Robinson
Mac Herewini. Photo / Richard Robinson

If one or two of the older men needed a bit of help to get up on the stage, it didn't sully the memory of their deeds - it just acted as a reminder that the ravages of time come to us all.

The All Black capping dinner on Friday night was a welcome step back into the traditions of rugby; something which often seems forgotten in the unseemly rush of professional rugby and its hunger for money; the thirst for more test matches which somehow manages to lessen the currency of that which rugby is trying to sell.

But the All Blacks of the 1940s,'50s,'60s,'70s,'80s and '90s who filed up to receive their inaugural caps - not awarded between World War II and 1997 - don't have to worry about that. Their place in the history of the game is secure, as was the cap which was fixed on their heads by NZRU president John Sturgeon.

The caps are redolent of a bygone era and it was impossible not to reflect that, because of the effects of time, some of the former big men of New Zealand rugby were dwarfed by Sturgeon, the former All Black manager.

It was also a reminder of how big the modern players are in relation to their predecessors; it wasn't until Peter "Pole" Whiting and Andy Haden made the stage that Sturgeon lost his position as the tallest man on stage.Whiting, whose try-saving tackle on Springbok flanker Boland Coetzee in 1976 remains one of the best in All Black history, still looked capable of pushing a scrum around. Haden, perhaps one of the most outspoken rebels and thorns in the side of the NZRU, retains his sass, zest and analytical ability.

For those from further back in the All Black pantheon, the evening seemed enjoyable. Mac Herewini, the dancing Auckland first five-eighths of the '60s, is just as cheeky off the field as he was on it. His skill and nimbleness many years ago lit up the fact for one small boy at Eden Park that rugby was also for small people with agility and dexterity. Sadly, rugby these days is dangerously close to that no longer being true.

Kevin Skinner, now 81, still had the straight back of the fearsome prop and boxer brought back from retirement to (successfully) sort out the 1956 Springboks and 88-year-old Bob Scott still looked sprightly.

The NZRU are to be congratulated for the capping dinners. Altogether 440 All Blacks, some now deceased, missed out on their inaugural cap. The drive to honour them will continue through next year and World Cup year in 2011.

So this is a real labour of love for the NZRU and it is good to see them saluting the past when many, including this writer, have criticised their rush into a future which often does not seem as compelling.

Honouring the past also underlines the challenges of the present.

Those capped seemed to feel the honour too. Many kept their caps on. There was Sid Going, the brilliant, muscular All Black halfback of the 1960s, still muscular, wearing his. And "Snow" White, the Auckland prop who once coached that small boy on the terraces in club rugby; Jonah Lomu, looking immense and heading off to play rugby again.

None of us would have been surprised if former All Black prop and NZRU chairman Richie Guy was heading off to play at Waipu - he only gave up rugby at the age of 61.

The dinners aren't 'rugby dinners' as such - there are no clever speeches or jokes.

They are just the honouring of those who went before by those who are still trying to live up to the traditions.

- Herald on Sunday

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