Top bloke with a killer grip

By Michele Hewitson

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He's a top bloke, a real gentleman, everyone said that about Sir Brian Lochore.

They had obviously never shaken his hand. Lochore - everyone calls him BJ, never Sir "unless they're trying to be a smart arse" - has strong, weathered farmer's hands. He has a blackened thumb nail and various scrapes and bumps, and a grip which could shatter bones. He shakes my hand and I say: "I'll just go and get my hand put in plaster."

"What for," says Lochore, "you don't want a wet-fish handshake, do you?" Then he whacks me on the back in what might be an affectionate gesture - if applied to a prize ewe.

Now he is back selecting All Blacks for the first time since 1987, this approach could be useful. If he didn't like a player's form all he'd have to do would be to shake his hand and that would be him out of the side for the next six weeks or so.

This is unlikely, because other than that killer handshake, everyone's right: Lochore is really quite the gentleman.

Oh, except for the little incident where he put on his best selector's steely stare and told me that if I wrote rude things about him, that would be it. He'd never forget and he wouldn't speak to me again.

On Wednesday morning, after the team was announced, it is possible a few All Black hopefuls went away thinking he was not a top bloke.

He knows what waiting for the call is like. In his day the players waited under the stands, then, "the All Blacks went that way, and the other guys went that way and got in their cars and went home".

He took on the job because coach Graham Henry asked him to, and because he thought he might have some fun doing it. He hates the bit where you have to tell some of the guys they haven't made it.

But he loves being involved again: "If I didn't think I was going to enjoy it, I wouldn't be here. I don't need it."

He never imagined that he'd be asked. He gleans enormous amusement from telling a story about how after he retired "just about every coach" approached him in social situations and said: "Oh, I must come and have a yarn with you about the All Black situation." And he always said, enjoying every minute: "That's great. Do that." But none ever came.

Henry said he would. And he did. He turned up at Lochore's off-the-beaten-track farm north of Masterton at eight o'clock one morning and "we did a little bit of small talk for about 10 minutes and then he whacked this on me". Lochore was "gobsmacked, I can tell you".

He says this is the first job he's ever had that came with a job description. That is: "Jack of all trades, master of none. I think that's the best way to explain it."

He wasn't sure about taking the job - and he was gobsmacked all over again once he realised he got paid. He wanted to gauge how rugby people, and the general public, would greet the announcement.

"You know, I don't like to make a fool of myself at this time of life, and I had to be sure that I wasn't going to do that."

This means he didn't want people asking themselves things like, "what on earth is All Black management doing bringing back that old codger?"

Now that he's taken the job he claims to have no idea how the news was received: "That's not something that I can judge really" and "Once I've made up my mind those sorts of things don't concern me any more".

Still, he is anxious not to come across as old-fashioned and he is horrified (or he pretends to be) when I feel I must point out that he has just used the phrase "the youth of today".

As in "the youth of today don't have the same stickability, they don't have the same commitment that was necessary in our day ... " He's talking about how the "flowery stuff" is just fine as long as it's combined with the "hard yakker".

Stop him to give him a bit of stick about what he's just said and, "Oh God," he groans, "Did I say that? Oh God, don't put that in. I really don't want people to think of me as a bloody old fuddy duddy."

At 63 he's hardly that, but he does have an irrepressible liking for the "old sayings". Such as: "You can't run before you walk". And "You can't pull a plough with show horses" is a particular favourite.

LOCHORE is often lauded as a World Cup-coach and All Black captain who had no visible signs of ego. Which may be an old fuddy duddy sort of concept but it is an attractive one.

Attractive, if maddening. Ask him anything about his illustrious career and you're met, at every turn, with more of his variations on being gobsmacked.

When he was made All Black captain, for example, he was incredulous - and he appears to remain so - "Like most New Zealanders, I got a shock".

He talks about rugby having been good to him. Suggest that he might have been good to rugby and he'll say, "No, I can't judge that"; that he had "a few lucky breaks".

For heaven's sake, he's the bloke whose name is often preceded by "icon". He shudders at that: "Oh, no, I don't see myself as one of those," as though accused of some horrendous crime.

Perhaps he could be accused of being overly modest. "Well, that's for you to decide, not me."

All right. I will. I have decided that he is old-fashioned in that old sporting hero sort of way, with a horror of skiting and a distaste for anything that might be perceived as flashy.

He still gets embarrassed remembering the trial in 1963 when he was a 22-year-old from a small country province attempting to impress the selectors.

It took him a year to find out the name of the man from Masterton who spent the trial shouting, "Come on, Lochore." Nobody knew who Lochore was. By the end of the game they did: he was the red-faced player, who made the team.

He thinks that his appointment is not about nostalgia for a time when the game was played by modest men like himself, but an indication of "a need" for some "back to basics" skills.

"You know, it's strange, isn't it, how life moves on and changes, or the game moves on and changes, but it's the same. The basics of the game have never changed."

After 60 minutes with the icon, I am inclined to agree that he is a top bloke, a gentleman. My advice, should you meet him, is to simply curtsy and call him Sir.

- NZ Herald

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