The longest goodbye: Best of mates bonded by sad decline

By Dylan Cleaver

A Herald investigation has revealed that five men from the 1964 Ranfurly Shield-winning Taranaki rugby team have been diagnosed with dementia. Their families say their illness stems from concussions suffered during their playing days. Dylan Cleaver reports
Ian Uttley  is capped by NZRU President John Sturgeon in 2009 in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images
Ian Uttley is capped by NZRU President John Sturgeon in 2009 in Wellington. Photo / Getty Images


They were bound by university flatting, rugby and a lifelong friendship. They were separated only by a shared illness and tragedy.

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The lives of Neil Wolfe and Ian Uttley were inextricably linked. When Wolfe left New Plymouth Boys' High to study accountancy at Victoria in 1960, he joined local boy Uttley at the University club.


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When Ian Uttley made his All Black debut as a silky, running centre against England at Eden Park in 1963, Wolfe was there alongside him at the relatively unfamiliar position of second five-eighth.

When Uttley married Christine, known to all as Tink, Wolfe was there beside him, suited and booted as a groomsman. When Wolfe married Raewyn a year or so later, Uttley repaid the favour.

As business interests - Wolfe ran a soft drink and bottling firm in New Plymouth, Uttley was an oil executive for Shell - and family replaced rugby, the Wolfes and Uttleys holidayed at Kuratau, on the shores of Lake Taupo, where they both kept homes.

An early picture of Tink and Ian Uttley. Photo / Supplied
An early picture of Tink and Ian Uttley. Photo / Supplied

As they entered their twilight years, they would walk instead: the Milford Track, Abel Tasman National Park, Banks Peninsula.

And in death, even, they were tragically linked. Ian and Tink died in September last year when their car collided with a logging truck on State Highway 5, near Te Pohue. For some time, Uttley had been in the grip of Alzheimer's, the disease that Wolfe is still coming to terms with.

Wolfe would have been the perfect man to deliver the eulogy, as he had with his Taranaki and All Black teammate Ross Brown who also died a long, Alzheimer's-ridden death, in 2014, but the grief and confusion would have made it unfair.

A mutual friend, David "Polly" Olliver, who played for University as well as 14 first-class games, said the pair were great mates and he was along for the ride too.

"I flatted with Wolfey for three years and was great mates with Ian, too. It was a tremendously exciting time at the club. We had Wolfey, Ian and Mick Williment who all made the All Blacks."

The rugby was tough, especially for little blokes, and neither Wolfe nor Uttley ever had the opportunity to talk down to many people.

"There was no replacements so if you went off injured that was that," Olliver recalled. "There was no incentive to remove yourself, [rather] if it looked like you weren't pulling your weight there'd be hell to pay."


Uttley was a central figure in the law change that allowed injury replacements. Playing a brutal encounter for New Zealand Universities against South Africa in 1965, Uttley, Williment and a young halfback named Chris Laidlaw were all forced from the field in the first half, Uttley with concussion, leaving the students to play a large chunk of the match with just 12 players. It would have been a farcical situation against a modest team, let alone the mighty Boks.

Olliver describes Uttley as a brave player whose tackling belied his slight frame, but it is what he says next that resonates - and not in a comforting way.


"He played with concussion on and off for five years by my reckoning," Olliver says. "He had a huge amount of courage. He would go low on players to tackle and always seemed to be getting a knee or a hip to his head.

"Wolfey didn't tackle to the same extent, but he got hurt a few times as well.

"Ian would get hurt on a Saturday and turn up to training pretty groggy the next week. The coach would say, 'Are you all right to play this week?' He'd just say, 'Yeah, yeah'.

"It was really tragic how both of them changed [in the last few years]."

Ian Uttley was a ferocious tackler. Photo / Supplied
Ian Uttley was a ferocious tackler. Photo / Supplied

The Uttley's eldest child, Caroline, said her dad's decline was exacerbated by a fall on Mt Hikurangi. After reaching the peak easily, Uttley slipped on a scree slope, falling some 20 or 30m before being stopped by a rock.

After that, he withdrew, although he could still be seen sweeping his driveway every day, chatting with those who walked by.

The Uttleys didn't seek sympathy or expect help. There might have been times when Mrs Uttley's husband's repetitive behaviours and inability to process new information wore her down, but she rarely, if ever, let on.

"Ian was still very engaged, always the consummate gentleman and happiest among family," says Caroline. "But for mum it was the toughest."

Ian Uttley and his wife Christine 'Tink' Uttley died in a car accident in September. Photo / Supplied
Ian Uttley and his wife Christine 'Tink' Uttley died in a car accident in September. Photo / Supplied

If Mrs Uttley ever had the feeling it was like Groundhog Day, it would have been the rare time despair crept in. Instead she threw her energies into preserving a quality of life for her husband.

She would play games and puzzles with him to keep the brain active and exercise to keep the body fit. The trips to the lake were still an important part of their lives as they changed the routine.

While there is little comfort in tragedy, especially one so sudden and violent, the Uttley children at least know their parents were together until the end and, perhaps, there is even a small mercy in not having to watch their father diminish further.

- NZ Herald

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