The last haka - goodbye Wynne Gray

By Dylan Cleaver

New Zealand Herald rugby writer Wynne Gray at his desk during his last week at the New Zealand Herald. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New Zealand Herald rugby writer Wynne Gray at his desk during his last week at the New Zealand Herald. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The greatest scoop of Wynne Gray's life was the one he never got to tell.

Nursing a crook guts, Gray wandered into the All Blacks' team room on the eve of the 1995 World Cup final, trying to find team doctor Mike Bowen, who might be able to dispense him some medicine. Instead what he found was a room resembling a field hospital. Several players had been struck down by food poisoning. Whether by accident or design didn't really matter - the All Blacks were in a bad way with a final against the hosts South Africa beckoning.

The 1995 World Cup final: the one that got away. Photo / AP
The 1995 World Cup final: the one that got away. Photo / AP

Gray had literally stumbled into what remains one of New Zealand sport's greatest mysteries.

One problem: he'd filed his copy for the Saturday edition of the Herald, deadline had passed and he had no platform to air his expose until Monday morning, by which time the final would have been played and the story would be overtaken by the result.

"You think about that for a minute," says Tim Murphy, one time editor-in-chief of the Herald. "Nothing demonstrates how rapidly the landscape has changed as that. If it happened today, the Herald would tweet out that a big story was about to drop, Wynne would have filed a story for online, he would have done a follow-up for the Herald on Sunday, he would have grabbed the videographer and filed video, he would have been on the NZME radio channels ... "

Instead he had to sit on his story.

Many journalists go to their graves cursing the big one that got away but Gray won't be one of them. As he left the Herald yesterday after 27 years of service, he had time to reflect on the ones he hooked.

There was Jonah Lomu's "secret" wedding to Tanya Rutter on the shores of the Manukau Harbour in 1996, there was the player-led coup to oust Blues coach Jed Rowlands in 1999. There was also the fast-evolving story of the World Rugby Corporation and rugby's turn towards professionalism in 1996.

"As a block of work, that's what I'm most proud of," he says. "That was an all-hours job because you had to ring South Africa and Australian sources and weave it all into one story. That was a massive story and I felt I led the way."

Then there was Tana.

You cannot write a story about Gray and not include the tale of Tana Umaga.

Gray told the world that the All Black captain would be hanging up his boots at the conclusion of the 2005 Grand Slam tour. What made the story part of sports journalism lore was the fact he got it sitting on a chair in a newsroom 18,000km from Edinburgh, the site of Umaga's final test. The story landed in the Weekend Herald, right about the time the travelling journos were tucking into Friday night pints.

"It ruined my night. It ruined everyone's night," says Jim Kayes, now part of Paul Henry's coterie but then the lead rugby writer for the Dominion Post. "It left those of us on tour embarrassed and scrambling."

Kayes' relationship with Gray extends back to the days when the former was playing senior club rugby in Auckland and would also cover the games as a "stringer" - the name given to casual contributors - who was desperate to break into sports journalism.

He would phone through his copy on a Sunday and it was often Gray who would take it.

"He'd moan to me on Monday that I had butchered his copy," Gray recalls.

Kayes now considers Gray a good mate, but says it took a long time to break through.

"It wasn't until the All Blacks played in Rustenburg, seven years after I became senior rugby writer at the Dom, where I think he respected me. That's okay. He'd seen a lot of fly-by-nighters come and go and probably a lot of people who thought they were better than they were.

"With Wynne, you had to earn your spurs."

Gray makes no bones about the fact that he treated his rugby journo counterparts as competitors first, mates second. On tour he tended to gravitate towards those he wasn't in direct competition with - radio and television guys like Graham Moody, Tony Johnson, Grant Nisbett and Gavin Service, and photographers Ross Land and Ross Setford.

"I always wanted to be leading the pack," he says. "I had 12 hours between writing and publication so I wasn't going to be freely sharing information. There was also the fact that if I got a story that the Dominion didn't have, I'd know it was another 24 hours before they could respond.

"I hope I wasn't aloof to other journos but yes, I treated it as a competition. I knew if I could consistently produce, others would have to follow me."

Follow they often did.

There is a book Gray carries around that has become industry legend. In a careworn exercise book, he has detailed every one of the 304 tests the All Blacks have played since he went to Lancaster Park in 1989 to cover the All Blacks beating France, his first test as Herald rugby correspondent.

Colour-coded to detail things like substitutions, unused subs, goalkicks, tries and blood-bins, it was Gray's way, in those pre-internet days, of avoiding having to lug almanacs around the world with him.

He has never broken the habit, detailing even those matches he was not at the ground to cover. It is a document of rare beauty, sports journalism's version of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a window to a different side of Gray. Behind the gruff exterior and sometimes cutting humour, there was a methodical approach to his job.

Gray's position as the Herald's lead rugby writer, the country's leading rugby writer, was unchallenged until the last few years.

In 2009, Gray noticed that his eye was playing up as he tried to tee off one morning. Two days later he was having surgery to re-attach the retina in his right eye and he would miss the All Blacks' end-of-year tour.

He regained only 30 per cent vision and night games became a particular chore, with whole games watched through binoculars.

Murphy, Gray's editor at the time, believes Gray, never one "to waste words or emotion in his writing", lost some confidence after that, leaning more on history and less on analysis.

"My eyesight made it more awkward. It made it harder," Gray concedes.

There were other factors that took some gloss off the job. In those pre-Twitter, pre-Instagram days, stories were sourced through contacts, often the players themselves, established through mutual trust built up over years of attending Tuesday and Thursday night trainings.

"A good contact book was like gold," Gray says.

As professionalism took root, communications staff and player managers became more influential. Player-movement stories became the new currency and often the articles would be heavy on speculation, light on facts.

Gray rarely indulged: "I always saw my role as telling the reader something they didn't know. I didn't like leaving them with more questions."

Johnson says the shift away from contact work to buddying up with communications staff never suited his mate.

"Even the 'leaks' are controlled now and Wynne was never interested in playing that game," says Johnson.

Allied to that, the media landscape was changing rapidly and Gray's isolationist work habits were not as easy to accommodate. It was no longer enough to work for a masthead, but you were expected to file for all company channels, all the time.

Gray adapted easily to video and radio, more easily than many in the online generation, but collaboration was something he was never as keen on. He made a career by avoiding following the pack and had little interest changing his methods in the winter of his career.

To him a double-byline was anathema, co-authorship a sign of weakness.

Although paternal care of proteges was never Gray's thing, he remained influential.

"Wynne categorically never tried to mentor me and he has no idea, really, how he did just that simply by operating without fear or favour," says Gregor Paul, a big wheel in NZME's multi-channel rugby coverage.

"I was always impressed by how he could have such effortless banter with players and coaches, then make honest, critical appraisals. He knew the difference between being friendly and being a friend.

"Columnists can rage away, safe in the knowledge they don't have to build relationships and rapport with the subject of their derision. But it's different when you are accountable, as Wynne was, for everything he wrote. The fact he did it for 27 years indicates he got that balance between praise and criticism right for a hell of a long time."

Gray was working for the once-mighty, fast-fading Truth when recommended to Herald bosses by columnist Chris Rattue.

"When he joined the Herald he was tall, handsome and had a thick mane of hair," Rattue jokes.

At the time, sports journalism doyen DJ Cameron, a fine, descriptive writer, wanted to be lead writer for both the big rounds, cricket and rugby.

The sports calendars had started to overlap to the point where that was impossible, but Cameron's seniority afforded him first dibs. He chose cricket, with the proviso he could do the 1989 All Black tour to Wales and Ireland, almost as a farewell to rugby.

Rattue remembers those days being fraught.

"He and DJ wouldn't communicate with each other but would end the day filing the same stories, which made life interesting for the sports editor."

Instead of covering the All Blacks tour, Gray was sent to Australia and was at the WACA for Mark Greatbatch's astonishing back-to-the-wall 146 not out. He even ferreted out the information that the Australians were so cocky they checked out of their Perth hotel a day early - unfortunately the sub-editor forgot to place the story and it never ran.

Another one that got away.

It is a measure of his ubiquity that everyone in this industry has a Wynne Gray story. Some have several.

Like commentator Tony Johnson.

Gray, a father to three adult children with wife Erin, is a "wonderful godfather" to Johnson's daughter Lily, but that honour was nearly revoked before it was offered.

"We were in Paris during the 2007 World Cup and he was laying into me about something. I had to say to him. 'If you'd just stop giving me grief for a second I have something quite important to ask you'."

The last time Gray was between jobs was in 1988, after the short-lived Auckland Sun - a bold tabloid rival to the Herald - foundered. Johnson was schooling Gray up on the finer points of radio.

He had to learn the art of "cutting up" phone interviews and decided his mock interview subject would be Sunday News sports editor Trevor McKewen (now NZME head of sport). After several of these calls, McKewen finally broke: "Would you get out of my flaming life," he bellowed down the phone.

"I was disappointed we couldn't find him a fulltime job at ZB," Johnson says, "because even then it was obvious he had a great nose for a story."

That nose had been honed first at the Auckland Star in its 1970s heyday - Gray started as a cadet in 1975 - then by a stint in Sydney where he worked on a royal inquiry into organised crime. His most memorable story, however, was the tale of a boat that capsized off the Queensland coast. There were two survivors, several died.

"A rumour was percolating that the two survivors had used their colleagues as shark bait," Gray recalls. "I had to ring one of them in hospital to inquire with as much subtlety as possible as to how the others 'slipped' off the wreckage."

Gray bought Sydney's ultra-competitive news sensibilities back to a New Zealand sports journalism scene that still revolved around lovingly compiled match reports.

"At his absolute best he was without peer as a news hunter," Johnson says. "He had great contacts but would never tell anybody where'd he got his story from. He was secretive and it could be maddening at times.

"You could have sold tickets for his set-tos with [former All Blacks coach] Laurie Mains. At the time Mains saw him as being part of some Auckland conspiracy, which was unfair because Wynne has always been very much his own man, but those two would go at each other.
"Wynne was feisty and a bit of a recalcitrant."

Former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains and Wynne Gray went head to head on numerous occasions.
Former All Blacks coach Laurie Mains and Wynne Gray went head to head on numerous occasions.

That recalcitrance extended into his dealings with editors. Gray had a "distinctive" way of dealing with requests from higher-ups says David Leggat, his one-time editor and long-time colleague, who often played the part of the messenger.

"You'd approach him and tell him what the bosses wanted. With a combination of body language and words he'd leave you in no doubt about what he thought of the idea.

"What I learned after a while was that you just parked the idea, didn't push it, and then, four hours later, he'd saunter over, tell you the slug [the name of the story], then saunter off." It was Gray's way of saying, "That was a stupid idea but you're paying me, so here it is."

When Gray started at the Herald 27 years ago, at 5.55pm the building manager would wander into the newsroom unlock a cabinet and turn on the company television. Staff would gather around the lo-def screen to watch the news. TV One of course.

It was for curiosity more than anything else; it was rare for the TV news gave them a story to follow.

Reporters would then walk back to their Imperial 66s and file their pieces for the first edition deadline.

For his part, Gray says modern journalism is no better or worse than when he started. "It's just different," he says. Who knows, maybe the inscrutable Gray even believes that.

When he left yesterday, he walked out of a newsroom with more than 40 big-screen TVs, where every sports reporter has a laptop and a smartphone and where the word "deadline" has only a little more relevance than "hot-metal".

He walks out with his reputation intact, to new challenges (though, typically, he's not saying what), with his legacy assured.

He walks out with the industry having changed irrevocably - whereas he has not changed much at all.

- NZ Herald

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