John Leslie isn't sure what beckoned Hawke's Bay rugby talent to Otago just before the turn of the century but no one was losing sleep over it in the south.

If anything, the Bay boys became instrumental in fuelling the advent of broken play that kept many former National Provincial Championship oppositions and fans awake all night.

"It's just the perfect way it was. As amateurs in rugby and as students we had our rents paid for and had a few beers on Saturday nights so we were stoked," says the grinning 47-year-old from Dunedin who was here late last month to offer 50 free training sessions for volunteer coaches and parents, in conjunction with commercial cleaning firm CrestClean, through his business, LeslieRugby.

The University of Otago was the common denominator in the halcyon days.

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"We had this crazy kind of a backline, which I was stoked to be a part of, and I just pretty much passed the ball to the good guys inside of me," he says with laugh.

Bay's exported talent included Josh Kronfeld, Taine Randell, John Timu, Stu Forster, Paul
Cooke and Andre Bell — who went on to become All Blacks or Maori All Blacks.

With the late Gordon Hunter at the helm as coach in 1994, the David Latta-captained Otago side had had a shadow All Black look and feel about them although Auckland had kept them in check.

A typical Otago backline looked something like this — Timu (fullback), Jeff Wilson (right wing), Marc Ellis (centre), Leslie (second five-eighths), Stephen Bachop (first five-eighth) and Forster (halfback).

No 8 Arran Pene, Jamie Joseph (flanker), Kronfeld (flanker), Andrew Rush (lock), Justin Cullen (lock), Nick Moore (prop), Latta (hooker) and ex-Wallaby Rob Lawton (prop). The then young Bay-born Randell, now of Napier, went on to become an All Blacks captain, was on the bench.

"We also really had killer loose forwards as well so we had to spread the ball wide usually and play off John Timu and Jeff Wilson.

"We would race the opposition to the rucks with our loose forwards, such as Josh Kronfeld, to play a unstructured game," he says.

Hunter used to train them well with a lot of linking and combination play that made them dangerous in open play.

"It was back in the day when teams were different and that time has become quite weird now."

With the professional era, Leslie says it seems all teams are replicating the same brand of footy.

In his heyday, the Otago tight five weren't a big unit when juxtaposed with Waikato who steamrolled everyone on their path.

"So you had teams with very different game plans and that was very much a hangover from amateur days."

Josh Kronfeld (left) and John Leslie went on to coach the University colts rugby team.
Josh Kronfeld (left) and John Leslie went on to coach the University colts rugby team.

In Leslie's era, the onus was with players to adapt to the team mould which made it incredibly enjoyable. The now defunct Carisbrook (The House of Pain at the foot of The Glen, a steep valley) got behind the Southern Men.

"A lot of games went our way and I was fortunate through Otago to win two championships and a few other big games as well.

"We also had a bit of heartbreak but that's always part of the romance and part of the fun," says the bloke who captained Otago to NPC glory in 1998.

Although it may have appeared as if Otago were flirting with Super Rugby, Leslie says they tried hard to be professional.

"I can safely say the New Zealand environment was way ahead of the rest of the world. The All Blacks were amazingly the top of the pyramid so you can't but help but get so much flow on from the next level of competition."

He says that was prevalent even at NPC level where the likes of ex-ABs Walter Little and Frank Bunce turned out for North Harbour.

"They were stacked with Auckland players so we were just lucky to be stacked with Hawke's Bay players as well," he says with a laugh.

Leslie has no regrets, having served five years in the amateur arena and nine in the professional one.

His father, Andy Leslie, a former All Blacks captain, supported the Hurricanes and mother Lesley Leslie (nee Pettet) backed the Highlanders.

Younger brother Martin Leslie, a former Wellington and Canes flanker, also played for Scotland and now lives in the capital city.

Neither he nor Martin went on to emulate the feat of their father as an AB but many in the country felt they were deserving and could have long been in the company of the Barrett and Whitelock brothers of this generation.

"It was disappointing I didn't make it. I got my trials but, hey, New Zealand rugby is so strong and there are so many very good players who don't make the All Blacks.

"Yes, I was disappointed and it always was my dream but it didn't happen so another door opened for me and I ended up playing international rugby for Scotland," says the former Scotland captain who was part of the Five Nations champion side in 1999.

Leslie loves Dunedin where he lives with wife Carmel, reportedly a former stunt double for Xena: Warrior Princess (Kiwi actress Lucy Lawless), and their son, Jack, 17, and daughter Amaya, 15.

Jack is a member of the Otago Boys' High School Second XV while Amaya is into gymnastics and basketball.