As a new generation of All Black heroes takes the field, Greg Bruce goes in search of an old one.
I can clearly remember the moment I fell in love with him. It was his first game for Auckland, against Canterbury, at the beginning of the 1993 NPC season. He played first five-eighth, opposite future All Black icon Andrew Mehrtens, who he outplayed and embarrassed with a perfectly judged selection from his extravagant buffet of skills. I sat alongside my dad, high in the north stand at Eden Park and watched, agog. I knew he would go on to greatness and I would go with him.
I cannot remember the moment I fell in love with him. I checked with the Auckland Rugby Union, which told me the team's only game against Canterbury that year was September, the end of the season, by which time he'd already played three tests for the All Blacks. He didn't even play first five-eighth that day.
Maybe I fell in love with him when he scored two tries for Manawatū against Ireland in 1992 or when he scored four tries for Auckland against Horowhenua in April 1993. It doesn't really matter - origin stories are usually self-serving fictions anyway. What I do know is that by mid-1993, when his debut performance for the All Blacks made him a national hero, he already belonged to me. His performance was my performance. I had never been so proud of myself.
I cut a poster from the Herald - a full-page picture of him running with the ball, in Auckland colours, under the headline "Stainless Steel". I blu-tacked it high on my bedroom wall, where it stayed, yellowing and faded, until I moved out of home three years later. I thought about him constantly, argued in favour of him regularly, had a friendship that was predicated on a shared love of him, watched him obsessively in televised games and scanned match reports just to see his name. In an inter-school debate, I convinced my team to ignore the moot and speak entirely about him. I still have the autograph I got from him at Eden Park.
When I called him a few weeks ago, to tell him about my pathological obsession with him and ask if he would be comfortable meeting with me in a well-lit public place, he was kind and generous and very, very suspicious. He specifically asked if it was a piss-take. He said other players had fans who would wait for them outside the ground or bail them up around town but he claimed that never happened to him. He couldn't believe he was anyone's boyhood hero - it was only later I told him I had been in my late teens.
July 3, 1993, 27 minutes into the third and deciding test against the British Lions at Eden Park and the All Blacks are behind, 10-0. The ball arrives in the hands of Michael Jones, the greatest flanker the world has ever seen. Outside him, Lee Stensness, 22, in his first match for the All Blacks, just months into his first season of first division rugby, yells two words to supreme athlete, future knight and national god Jones: "Give it."
It's hard to overstate what an important match this is for the All Blacks. Senior players will talk about it later as one of the most intense experiences of their career. Coach Laurie Mains reportedly told players before the game that All Black rugby was on the line. Certainly his job was. In that environment, with your side 10 points down, to yell "give it" to one of the greatest players in history and to therefore invite the weight of a nation's expectation on to one's barely adult shoulders is quite some call.
Jones gives it and Stensness catches, a split second from a probable smashing by giant Lions centre Scott Gibbs, but he is calm and unhurried - he has already seen the play. He drops the ball on to his left foot and lobs it over the rushing defensive line. He is right-footed but the kick is perfect. The ball bounces twice, 10 metres out from the Lions line, and is gathered by Frank Bunce, no Lions player anywhere near him. Unchallenged, he scores under the posts. Grant Fox converts. The crowd chants "Black, black, black" and four minutes later, the All Blacks score again. They never again look like losing.
After the game, Stensness is both feted and lauded. It is, on balance, the greatest All Blacks debut in history. He runs incisively, makes breaks, offloads, makes insightful kicks and big and important tackles on players much larger and more celebrated than himself. Before his arrival in Auckland earlier that year, he didn't even play second five-eighth, but on this day, with his obvious genius and sharp haircut, he is not just a star in the making, but a pre-packaged, highly marketable, All Black great. Later, All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick would say of his performance that day: "He totally changed the game."
He played two more tests that year, against Australia and Manu Samoa, and was then dropped by coach Laurie Mains, who would never pick him again. In 1997, John Hart selected him for five tests but dropped him from the 36 man squad for the end of year tour. He never again played for the All Blacks. At the end of 1998, age 27, having won two Super 12 titles, four NPC titles, and all of the eight tests in which he'd played, he signed for Toulouse, played three years in France, won a French championship and that was pretty much it.
Last month, I called both Mains and Hart and asked why they dropped him. Mains said players like Stensness, who aren't physically dominant, have to rely on a certain skill set, and at international level defences are good at closing you down. Hart said Stensness never dominated at test level the way he did at provincial level.
Maybe those are fair points but maybe these are fair points: Mains dropped All Black greats Michael Jones and Zinzan Brooke in their prime and believed, for a period, that Marc Ellis was the country's best first five-eighth. In the most important match of his coaching career, Hart picked the world's best fullback at centre and the future world's best centre at wing. As head coaches, both Mains and Hart failed to win the World Cup.
A player of great vision and creativity, able to kick off both feet, able to see things other players couldn't, deceptively fast and able to split the defensive line through exploitation of angles rather than power: these were my key qualities as a rugby player before I was bullied out of the game by my Macleans College team in 1990, my first year at high school. I was never able to physically impose myself either on the field or on my teammates and I spent a good part of that year crying in my bedroom.
Maybe it's a stretch to say I was obsessed with Stensness because I saw in him the manifestation of my own thwarted potential, but nevertheless I say it and I choose to believe it. If someone had told me as a teenager that I would one day be sitting in a Te Atatū bar opposite Lee Stensness, telling Lee Stensness about my obsession with Lee Stensness, I would have vomited on my shoes and passed out, then died.
In person, he was sweet, self-effacing and unusually open. When he walked into the bar, I felt his arrival as much as saw it. I knew it was him straight away, conditioned by years of identifying him from wide shots of Eden Park on a low-resolution 21-inch screen. I identified him in that bar as easily and excitedly as I identify my own children. When he said, "Hi, I'm Lee," the absurdity of it made me laugh out loud.
He drank a cocktail made from feijoa vodka, passionfruit, honey, apple and ginger ale. He told me the All Blacks would have won the third Lions test in 1993 no matter who was playing second-five - an unbelievably ignorant comment. He was as far from the stereotypical rugby player as it's possible to imagine. He acknowledged this fact - unprompted - and said he felt it might have hurt his chances with the All Blacks. "I'm not particularly macho or tough," he said. "I'm not a man's man ... I don't know if I helped myself by being a slightly sensitive sort of lad."
After 105 minutes or so of answering my questions, he said: "I feel like I'm just twatting on about myself."
I wasn't sure what to say to that. I would have happily spent more of that time telling him about my life, but we weren't on a date. Not exactly.
"When you're on your way up," he said, "it's all about what you can do. Once you get to that top level, it's all about what you can't do."
In the 1990s everyone had an opinion about Stensness, most of them wrong. Specifically, he acquired a reputation as a poor defender. Once acquired, such a reputation can never be lost, and his never was, even though most of his career was played in an era when rugby was a torrent of tries and tackling was largely optional. In a 1998 Super 12 match between the Blues and Hurricanes, which finished 45-34 and featured 11 tries, universally acknowledged defensive colossus Tana Umaga missed three tackles in the first half alone.
Sky TV's archivists have provided me footage of Blues and All Blacks games featuring Stensness from 1996-1998 and I have been through all of it. I have found missed tackles but not many. In one Super 12 game against the Hurricanes, he missed a tackle on Manu Samoa great George Leaupepe, one of the most devastating power runners of the 1990s, who hardly met a Blues player he didn't brush off that day. Stensness didn't miss him again.
"Not physical enough" was another stupid and ill-informed opinion. A rich and deep vein of academic research into team selection shows that coaches who pick players based on perceptions like "not physical enough" produce less successful teams than coaches who pick players based on objective measures. If "not physical enough" means "misses too many tackles", that's fine if you've got the evidence to prove it but, in Stensness's case, the term also seems to mean "doesn't break many tackles". Even if true, that claim presupposes breaking tackles to be an important measure of success for a second five-eighth when really it's just one way of moving the team towards the opposition goal line and scoring points. Other ways a player in that position might achieve those same goals: Elusive running, surprising acceleration, sweet passing and brilliant left-footed chip kicks for Frank Bunce. The idea that a successful midfielder needs to be "physical" is a failure of imagination.
We see this sort of thing all the time in New Zealand rugby. Jonah Lomu was criticised for not being fit enough, for being too slow to turn and chase kicks - and for other missing-the-point marginalia. Imagine looking at the raw, epochal, game-changing power of young Lomu and thinking, "Hmmm, could be fitter." But that's what happened in 1994, after his first two tests for a poor All Black side were deemed a failure and he was dropped by Mains. He only played in the 1995 All Blacks trial because Eric Rush pulled a hamstring. Were it not for Rush's injury, Lomu would never have scored five tries in that trial, would never have gone to that year's World Cup in South Africa, would never have trampled Mike Catt on his way to scoring four tries in the semifinal and forever changing rugby. This is not to denigrate Rush, who was a good player and was never, at least not as far as anyone can remember, slow to turn and chase a kick.
Dropped from the All Blacks at the end of 1997, then dropped from the Blues at the start of the following season, Stensness saw the writing on the wall and decided 1998 would be his last season in New Zealand. He expected to sit most of it out, but his replacement at the Blues, Craig Innes, got injured early in the year and Stensness returned to play some of the best rugby of his career as the Blues reached the Super 12 final.
Early that same year, I had graduated from journalism school and got a job as a sports reporter for a local newspaper, from which I wrangled a press credential allowing me to attend every Blues home game. I sat high in the press box at Eden Park, thrilled with the free booze but overawed and terrified by the grizzled hacks and their boundless cynicism. I would sit silently up the back, wishing someone would talk to me, terrified someone would talk to me. I wanted everyone to know I was the greatest rugby brain of my generation but worried I was the dumbest rugby brain of my generation.
No one sought my thoughts and I could never have summoned the courage to offer them anyway. I can't say for sure what happened inside me at halftime in that year's Super 12 final between the Blues and Crusaders but it must have been something bad, because that was the moment I made my first and only public speech to the press box and it was this: "Stensness is overrated, isn't he?"
There was a period of eternal silence, then, to my temporary relief, the editor of the Rugby News began to speak. In my memory, his ruthless smackdown went on for most of the second half, was sophisticated and articulate and consisted mostly of my own thoughts about Stensness: vision, creativity, eye for a gap, extravagant buffet of skills, etc. In my quest for approval, I had demonstrated myself ignorant; in selling out my hero for social approval, I had proven myself morally defunct. It was not the lowest point of my life, but it was definitely bottom quintile.
Last month, towards the end of my two hours and two drinks with Stensness, I told him the above story, I presume because I thought it would endear me to him. Almost as soon as I started talking, I realised it was a mistake. He didn't smile or laugh. I think I saw him wince. When I finished the story, which I meant to be a cautionary tale about loyalty and staying true to one's beliefs, he said: "I bet a lot of them were agreeing with you."
Lee Stensness left New Zealand rugby at the end of 1998. I left New Zealand sports journalism at the start of 1999. I was not missed.
The All Blacks play their first test of the season, against Australia, in Wellington tomorrow.