Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Melbourne love Lions, but they'd go to World Tiddlywinks

John Clarke.
John Clarke.

Many Australians trace the nation's obsessive interest in sport to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 when the arrival of broadcast television coincided with the festival.

The isolated country eased the door open to the world and an international audience saw the confluence between first-class sport and the community.

Melbourne embraced the occasion and has never let go.

Satirist John Clarke, once known as Fred Dagg in his time on New Zealand television, has watched and given his spin on these sorts of issues in the Big Brown Land after living in Melbourne for 30 years.

"Melburnians have got an attitude that if it's shit-hot we'd better be there," he said. "That's how it was with the footy midweek and will be for the Lions test."

Clarke presented three episodes of a Sporting Nation last year in which he interviewed politicians and famous sports stars to chart the links which connected them to Australia.

He loved that interaction and the sorts of stories Mark Ella told him about his days with Randwick, playing at Coogee Oval in its tight suburban location.

"A house one back in a nearby street had a sign on it, The Mark Ella Stand, and that had been there since Mark and his brothers played for the club. Two or three years ago he got a phone call from the people saying they were redecorating and would he come and officially reopen the Mark Ella Stand. He did and they had a few beers together and a great afternoon."

Melbourne is an AFL stronghold and while the Rebels are based there for Super 15 they are up against it for repeat weekend support. "Super 15 has also shifted to Pay TV and I would pay for less not more," he chuckled. "It should be free to air and that is one great mistake.

"Then we have the Eastern Thrust against the Mountain Men or teams like that. Where are the old Manawatu, Otago, Wellington and Bay of Plenty sides? I don't like it because it has become so Disneyised or overpackaged.

"The AFL is the same, it is full of Cats and Dogs - it is childish."

Clarke follows his footy without the manic devotion of many who live in Melbourne and hopes to get back from filming for tonight's second test between the Wallabies and Lions.

"This mob down here would go to the World Tiddlywinks. Administ-rators just have to think if they want to host a world-class event they should stage it here," he said.

He's sure there will be lots of spectators at tonight's test with the Silver Fern on their shirts or inside their hearts when they attend.

The Lions had a special place in rugby history and folklore and Clarke thought it a shame they had not added New Zealand to this itinerary.

He still recalls the moral conundrum New Zealand faced after DB Clarke booted the All Blacks to an all penalty goal 18-17 win against the tourists in 1959.

"He kicked them to death and as a nation we wanted that win but we loved the Lions' quick, brilliant sparkling backs," he mused.

His old mate Bob Burgess, who duelled with Barry John and the 1971 Lions, was told at one stage he would never be picked for the All Blacks because of his opposition towards touring South Africa. That did not ruffle Burgess who later played in France, studied at the Sorbonne and became a botanist in pastoral research.

Clarke loved how another Palmerston North five-eighths Aaron Cruden weaved his magic for the Chiefs and All Blacks, there was a little bit of the Ella sort of panache about the bloke.

Israel Folau was another interesting character because like Sonny Bill Williams, he had spread his talents across so many sports at such a young age. Perhaps he'd play golf next.

"I loved the way he sized up those Lions and then flummoxed them. It is great when you see that sort of rugby chess and we got that from George North too. He is the full package."

Clarke felt for Kurtley Beale, he understood his pain like the times he had slipped in the middle of a golf swing. "Bloody hopeless, very frustrating," he said.

His Anzac spirit wanted the Wallabies to win tonight and a decider in Sydney would be a ripper. What did he want to happen in the Bledisloe then?

"I'm a Wallaby supporter against anyone but the All Blacks," said Clarke."

"I have no moral complication there. I look at the quality of the rugby but I would think the All Blacks would get home at the moment because the Wallabies are struggling for players."

- NZ Herald

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