I still remember the day the Wellington rugby team stopped at Ruakaka Primary School. It was 1987, and they were on their way to Whangarei to play North Auckland.
I don't know who organised their visit, but I was given the solemn responsibility to welcome them to the school and, in return, soon-to-be World Cup winning fullback John Gallagher gave me a Wellington pin, which to this day I still have. And, to this day, he is still my favourite All Black.
I was thinking about that visit this week, while following the wonderfully sentimental story of a 7-year old kid named Kade Lawrie and another World Cup winning fullback, Ben Smith. In short, a few days ago Lawrie, a Wanaka boy, delivered a hand-written note to his holidaying neighbour asking if he would like to help out with an impromptu training run.
Smith, as amiable a southerner as you're likely to find and as preternaturally brilliant with kids as he is with a rugby ball, could have just popped over the fence later that day and all would have been well with young master Lawrie. However, that's not what happened. Instead, Smith seized the opportunity to transform one fan's request into a day hundreds of kids will never forget.
Smith, you see, accepted the request by posting a picture of the note and a short message on the community's Facebook page. He says he was "too lazy" to walk down the road to accept personally, but that's absolute baloney, if you ask me. What Ben Smith was doing was making a conscious decision to make an impact on the lives of as many local kids as he could. And how cool is that?
Cooler still was the response from the Wanaka community. Local club stalwarts laid out cones and found balls, games of touch materialised among the throngs, the sun beat down on the Upper Clutha fields and, in the middle, bouncing about through the laughs and the noise and the chaotic joy of it all, Smith signed shirts and gave tips and, most importantly, gave a little bit of himself to make a big difference.
Smith has come of age in a time when rugby is a job; an increasingly corporatised spectacle that straddles the inimical pursuits of global revenues and community engagement. Moreover, he is a superstar of the sport, an athlete who, in the hands of other codes, or other countries, might well be cosseted in some plush suburb replete with security phalanx and price tag attached to any public appearance. Thank goodness he's here, ours, and him. And thank goodness we still value these acts of kindness.
Compare this story with another this week, namely the moaning of Mourad Boudjellal, the brattish overlord of French club Toulon. Boudjellal, who has collected players and titles in the way spoiled children collect supermarket toys - namely, to boast to other kids that they have the complete set before tiring of the trinkets and moving on to the next thing - is apparently unhappy with the form of, among others, Ma'a Nonu. Spare me.
The problem with men like Boudjellal is they are incapable of valuing anything that does not sparkle on demand. Worse, there is no glory unless it is reflecting squarely on them.
I doubt Boudjellal would care much for Ben Smith's actions this week. I doubt he would realise that this foreign legion of players he so boastfully amasses would be much more comfortable in the community, sharing their time with the local kids, as Nonu did so often in Wellington, without demanding a thing in return. That's what the game is about. That's what makes it special. That's what he will never understand.
Fortunately, 30 years from now, Boudjellal will be a footnote in the history of French rugby. But I suspect - no, I know - that 30 years from now, at least one of those kids who yesterday scurried about on a summer's day in Wanaka with their mates and with Ben Smith will see another story like Kade Lawrie's and smile fondly at the memory of that time their (still) favourite All Black pitched at the Upper Clutha Rugby Club, a hero. For more than one day.