Former All Black banned from rugby for 38 years

By Chris Rattue

It is a very neat street in one of those modern suburbs which come straight out of the packet, and befitting the dapper character who lives at No 11.

If this was the setting for a spy novel, this place in Mt Maunganui would be perfect for an apparently model citizen with an intriguing past, a double life.

There is actually nothing secretive about Peter Henderson's history. It's there in the rugby history books. But it was a double life of sorts, where sporting success was marked with a hurtful stain unfairly left by others. This sporting life was not always in such a neat street.

He was an All Black who had done no wrong, by any normal standards, yet was ostracised by the hierarchy, or as Henderson sees it, by one influential man at the top.

"Thirty-eight-and-a-half years," says the 80-year-old Henderson, when asked for the date that he was officially re-admitted to amateur rugby, having been outcast for the sin of playing professional league.

Tellingly, the length of the draining sentence is measured down to the last half whereas the year of release is referred to without the hint of a celebratory drink.

"It started in 1950, so you work it out from there. The whole time, I held a guilty conscience, that I had done the wrong thing."

As Australian league centre Mark Gasnier haggles between the codes in a blaze of publicity, and Henry Paul code hops at will, it is fascinating to visit Peter "Sammy" Henderson and re-visit his case for a contrast in times.

The leading rugby historian and writer Lindsay Knight, in Henderson's profile, suggests his long battle for reinstatement gives him a special rugby niche overshadowing the wing's ability, courage and the legendary pace which enabled Henderson to also be an Empire Games sprinter.

Henderson, who was playing for Wanganui, had returned from the 1949 All Black tour of South Africa - where he played in every test - to find his job as a dental technician had gone. Touring had cost him £400 and he had lost a similar amount in wages.

Henderson switched codes after playing against the 1950 Lions, using competing interest from three English clubs to secure a deal that would score him £5500 in fees over seven years for Huddersfield. In addition, he could earn about £1500 a year in bonuses.

As an indication of this worth, Henderson and his wife Leonie were able to buy a two storey, three-bedroom house in England for just £1500.

His league career included 250 games, over 200 tries, and a Challenge Cup final in front of a 92,000 crowd at Wembley.

On the other side of the world, in his homeland, he was classified a rugby outcast, even though no letter ever arrived from the New Zealand Rugby Union to state this, or declare what he could or couldn't do.

"It seemed farcical, even at the time," says Henderson. "They were cutting their own throats. People like myself and [other 1950s league converts] Jack McLean and Tommy Lynch had something to give back to rugby but they didn't want us. None of my mates snubbed me. It was the hierarchy, Ces Blazey mostly."

Blazey, the veteran sports administrator and New Zealand union chairman from 1977 to 1986, had headed the Amateur Athletic Association for a quarter of a century.

Henderson had already locked horns with the three-As in 1950, when they sent a please-explain letter after learning he had taken a first prize of seven shillings and sixpence in a 100 yard dash at Otaki. Henderson denied all knowledge.

It may be unfair to heap the entire blame on Blazey, but Henderson stoutly believes he was the man who blocked his re-entry to rugby, and poisoned other opinions.

Henderson's black mark meant he could not coach rugby, as he wished to do at the little country club of Ngaruawahia where he farmed, or get test tickets through the rugby union. But it was the stigma that really hurt.

His initial attempt at reinstatement involved having to organise a bizarre chain-letter of support which started with Ngaruawahia. It was sent in error by Waikato to Hawkes Bay, the venue for his last rugby match, instead of Wanganui, his last union. It missed the intended New Zealand union meeting, and his case went on the back-burner.

At times, Henderson would be persuaded by friends into official functions following internationals, but never felt at home. At one, Henderson was horrified to see Blazey handing out the whiskies and avoided a meeting. At another, he tried to chase down the chairman Tom Morrison who would melt away into the crowd every time he got close.

The Auckland administrator Tom Pearce once welcomed a post-test gathering, but added "those not re-instated shouldn't be here". When confronted by Henderson, Pearce apologised, explaining he had just helped re-instate another player that morning. Oh the power of it all - the witch-hunts and pardons - you can feel all these years later.

The irony is that this administrative behaviour was at serious odds with the camaraderie which existed among players, opponents included, in Henderson's playing days.

Over the years, Henderson enjoyed a firm friendship with the great Welsh wing and athlete Ken Jones, via sporadic get-togethers.

Jones, who died last month at the age of 84, marked Henderson in the 1950 Lions series and the final test in Auckland contained a number of famous moments involving the two.

Henderson's nickname of Sammy was given to him by a 1949 All Black teammate because of his penchant for diving to score tries. American Sammy Lee was a famous springboard diver at the time. Henderson produced his famous dive for a crucial try, after keeping Jones at bay, at Eden Park only to be chastised by fullback Bob Scott for not having run towards the posts.

"When you've got an Olympic sprinter on your hammer, you don't bugger about," Henderson recalled, as he lifted down relevant photos from his hallway.

It also says something of the spirit of the times that Henderson regards Jones' try in that test as his, Henderson's, greatest moment in rugby. The try, started by Lewis Jones from under his posts, and completed after a massive sidestep and 50m run by the other Jones, a 1948 Olympic Games sprint silver medallist, is a classic.

"It is my favourite rugby memory - the best try I have ever seen in my life. I was only 10 or 15 yards away from it," says Henderson.

"I hadn't seen Ken for the best part of eight years but I was shocked to read he had died. He'd been very ill for many years after a stroke and required 24-hour care, but I was under the impression he was improving because they were taking him to the odd game at Cardiff Arms Park."

Like Jones, Henderson is not a fan of the defence-oriented modern game. Professionalism, the word that led others to put a hurtful stone in Henderson's boot, has twisted the shape of the game.

He is horrified at players being allowed to take out opponents without the ball near rucks. His major bugbear is the mass replacement rule which means it's hard to work out who is on the field late in games. "They're actually training people to be replacements. If you can't play 80 minutes, there's something wrong. They put people on for the last two minutes, which is ridiculous."

The old photos are returned to the wall.

Leonie Henderson is battling leukaemia, and Peter - despite an appearance of fine health - says a spinal nerve problem has caused much pain for nine months.

For 16 years, he has organised a bowls tournament for former rugby players, referees and administrators at Mt Maunganui, which attracts 44 teams from Dunedin to Whangarei.

There are strict rugby representative qualification rules for what has become a treasured re-union, a rugby place that Henderson helped create.

Rugby was a mountain to climb, for many years. Now, the mountain comes to him once a year with - although not in any letter - official blessing.

In 1989, at another post-test function, the former All Black captain and New Zealand union councillor Bob Stuart, a Henderson supporter, approached.

"My [All Black] mate Keith Gudsell and I had got into the holy of holies after a test and Bob came over," says Henderson.

"He said: 'By the way Peter, your reinstatement went through today'. I looked at him and said: 'Do you realise I've been waiting thirty-eight-and-a-half years for someone to say that'. He just casually came out with it.

"The boot is on the other foot, with rugby chasing top rugby league players these days. I don't know what Ces Blazey would make of it all. He'd probably turn in his grave - and that wouldn't upset me a bit either."

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