By Dylan Cleaver

A few days before the nation stopped on April 25 to remember and celebrate our brave, an All Black died by his own hand.

They'll never commission a statue of Sandy McNicol for any future New Zealand rugby hall of fame. In the continuum of All Black props, his is a small, easily forgotten entry.

McNicol, at 107kg a full 30kg lighter than Charlie Faumuina, played just five matches in the famous black jersey and the circumstances around that were fortuitous.

He was the sixth prop called up to the 1972-73 tour of Great Britain and France, after original tourists Keith Murdoch (sent home after punching a security guard) and Jeff Matheson (ribs) left the squad. He played five midweek fixtures, including a 12-3 win over a South West selection in the Pyrenean city of Tarbes.

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He must have liked the climate and the people. He'd soon return to play a long stint for the local club, who were French champions in 1973.

It was what happened between the tour and his French connection that would mark him out as a man of honour and conviction.

In 1973, the Springboks were due to tour New Zealand.

Police warned of an eruption of violence (which was subsequently seen in 1981) if the tour went ahead and there were also grave fears the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games would be targeted for boycotts and demonstration.

Prime Minister Norman Kirk had promised, while campaigning as Opposition leader, not to interfere but was eventually persuaded to write to a typically unyielding NZRFU, saying he saw "no alternative, pending selection on a genuine merit basis, to a postponement of the tour".

McNicol needed no cajoling. He had made his position very clear. Despite his performances at the end of the northern tour suggesting he would be a good chance of being selected, he had already informed the union that he would not play against South Africa on moral grounds.

Don't underestimate the magnitude of that decision. McNicol was a rugby man, had a military background and played for a province, Wanganui, whose mainly rural citizenry would have been overwhelmingly pro-tour.

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McNicol was also an educator, a teacher with the sort of moral fibre he liked to impart on his students.

A Facebook tribute this week from Cath Handley, a former student who later became a friend and "relative-in-law" summed up his gift: "He was one of those rare teachers who didn't just feed one's thirst for knowledge but fed one's thirst for life - witty, irreverent, adventurous and compassionate."

For having the courage of his conviction, and few would argue now that he was on the wrong side of history, McNicol was rejected by the rugby "fraternity".

He received death threats against himself and threats of violence against his young family.

If I had the chance to talk to him I would have liked to have asked him if Tarbes was a chance to escape, but the one time I rang him where he was living in Queensland it was not possible to speak to him.

My story on him ran thanks to the encouragement of his wife Sarah but part of me will always regret not getting the chance to talk.

Last year, the Herald examined in a series of articles a potential link between concussion and a number of former rugby players who were suffering from, or had died with, dementia.

McNicol had dementia. During McNicol's rugby career he was frequently and often badly concussed. Those two things may or may not be related.

What is certain is he was fading. The man who his friends say had such a zest for life could no longer take any enjoyment from it. He was slipping away and made the decision to go on his own terms, Sarah says, before he and those around him suffered any more of his painful decline.
Alasdair "Sandy" McNicol was 72.

He will be remembered.

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