Israel Dagg or John Timu ... who was the best?

There's no better bloke to judge the exploits of these former All Blacks than their former Lindisfarne College 1st XV rugby coach Grant Gilbert. Memories of their feats and those of others he coached flooded back to Gilbert last week after he was awarded life membership of the Hurricanes Youth Rugby Council.

"It has to be Timu. He was one of the best three or four players I saw come out of the New Zealand Secondary Schools system," Gilbert said of the Dannevirke-raised outside back who played 50 matches, including 26 tests for the All Blacks before switching to rugby league and making nine appearances for the Kiwis.

"Timu was fantastic. People would come just to watch him play. He scored 52 tries in 19 games during his last year at school in 1987 and the try he scored in a loss to Te Aute College that year is still one of the best I've seen," Gilbert explained.

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One of eight life members of the council and the second from the Bay, Gilbert, said Dagg, who played 66 tests for the All Blacks, was "a special young man".

"He rose above his circumstances and has never changed to this day."

Israel Dagg in action for the Lindisfarne College first XV in 2004. Photo/File
Israel Dagg in action for the Lindisfarne College first XV in 2004. Photo/File

Now a Sky Sport rugby commentator, Dagg, has made no secret of the fact Gilbert was one of the major influences who helped him excel at rugby.

Gilbert, who was president of the council for six years, taught at Lindisfarne College from 1985 to 2015 and coached the first XV for 20 of those years.

"We were lucky as we often had outstanding players we were able to build a team around. We developed a game plan which suited them and other players lifted to reach that standard. Anyone who played us knew they had a tough game ... win or lose," Gilbert recalled.

He pointed out Dagg also excelled as a Central Districts age group cricket representative.

"His reputation was responsible for 10 per cent of his wickets. He wasn't dangerous ... just quick."

Another Lindisfarne College old boy who Gilbert classed as "pretty special" was former All Black captain Taine Randell.

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"Taine combined his ice-cold passion with his red-hot frame of mind. I remember telling him about that famous Rudyard Kipling quote: Keep your head when others around you are losing theirs," Gilbert recalled.

Former Magpies prop Campbell Johnstone was the most focused and determined of Lindisfarne College's future All Blacks who Gilbert coached. He didn't coach current All Black winger George Bridge but was his hostel manager and Bridge was also in the 2012 Lindisfarne College team which Gilbert managed on a tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Ashburton-born and an old boy of St Andrew's College in Christchurch, Gilbert reached first XV level at school.

"I was a first five threatening to become a prop," Gilbert quipped.

"I was never a great player. After having a few injuries I decided coaching was the way to go and I first coached at Teachers College in Christchurch in 1969."

Gilbert was elected to the Hurricanes Youth Rugby Council in 2006 and had the ideal background for the role having been involved with the Hawke's Bay Secondary Schools committee and Central Region Junior Rugby Council. He had plenty to do with the council's other Hawke's Bay life member Evan Crawford, who is now Auckland-based and working for New Zealand Rugby.

Crawford coached St John's College teams which played against Gilbert's Lindisfarne College sides. When Crawford ran Massey-based coaching courses Gilbert would work as one of his tutors.

While at Lindisfarne College, Gilbert taught almost every subject.

"I started as a physical education teacher and then my body got away on me," he joked.

Gilbert coached or managed the first XV on numerous overseas tours. There was one to Canada during the 1987-88 summer, a five-week one in Argentina in 1990, a six-week one of the United Kingdom in 1993, a 1997 tour of the UK, a 2000 one of the United States and Canada and 2003, '06, '09 and '12 tours of the UK.

Although Gilbert agreed the Hurricanes region continues to provide a good pathway for players hoping to gain All Black status, he has concerns about the shrinking player base in the region.

"Elite players attend just a few schools. The strong are getting stronger and the weak weaker. The grassroots are withering," Gilbert said.

He heaped kudos on the work being done by council chairman Gordon Noble-Campbell of Wellington.

"As long as he is chairman the Hurricanes region will flourish."

While Gilbert described Hawke's Bay as a "shining beacon among an array of dimming lights" on the provincial rugby scene, he admitted he had concerns about the code at national level.

"I'm concerned the increasing number of staff at New Zealand Rugby's headquarters doesn't correlate with the lack of playing numbers. Headquarters has lost touch with the reality of rugby with its processes. Rugby is not a corporate. It's about passion and heart and those factors do not fit KPI criteria."

A Hawke's Bay Rugby Union director since 1999 and the board's current secretary, Gilbert pointed out the union has a corporate model which is tailored to its consumers - clubs and schools.

"The professional and amateur games are run in tandem and as close as possible. The CEO [Jay Campbell] is superb because he keeps in touch with the grassroots while managing the corporate model in a professional manner. We've got a pragmatic and sensible chairman [Brendan Mahony] and an experienced and proactive group of directors."

A former New Zealand under-20s, New Zealand Secondary Schools and New Zealand under-16 team selector who has coached and selected Central Region Secondary School teams, Gilbert believed there were three major obstacles to the meaningful progress of rugby in New Zealand.

One was World Rugby Inc, the second was the Rugby Union Players Association, which has a big influence on when players can and can't play, and the third is the offside rule.

"The offside rule is so easily fixed. If we don't fix it the game will become unsustainable. I believe once the referee yells ruck or maul players should have two options ... they either join the ruck or maul or retreat five metres. It's that simple."

During his retirement from teaching, Gilbert has managed to secure a 15 handicap at the Karamu Golf Club. Needless to say he will get plenty of advice on where rugby should and should not be heading during his chats with fellow golfers at the 19th.