By PETER CALDER
When Joe Karam was a 3-year-old, the eldest of six growing up in the Kaitieke district near Taumarunui, he had a kiddie-size set of rugby goalposts.
Even on the icy grass left by a cruel King Country frost he would be out there, barefoot, lining up those posts and pounding away at the kiddie-size oval ball, never caring if he missed, just knowing he had to have another go.
Barely old enough to know what an All Black was, he would have had no idea that he would one day be kicking for his country. Certainly he wouldn't have dreamed that the first of his 10 tests - at the tender age of 20 - would be in the cauldron of Cardiff Arms Park; that he would land five penalty goals to score 15 points to help the tourists to a three-point victory over the proud and dangerous Welsh.
Karam, now 48, smiles at the memory and at the pride with which his mother told the Herald the next day that "he used to plug those posts."
"I guess I've always been one for plugging away," he says, sitting in the modestly furnished lounge of his small Remuera townhouse.
"When I believe in something I'm very persistent."
As much as the kicking, his persistence and solid defence made him one of the All Blacks' great fullbacks. He also turned out to be one of the professional era's pioneers, sensationally quitting the code for league because he was disgusted at the "shamateurism" of the 15-man game.
The same doggedness, the same sceptical attitude towards authority, characterise the fight, which he says is far from over, to prove the innocence of convicted murderer David Bain.
It will be six years on Tuesday since Dunedin police were called to a house at 65 Every St in the Dunedin suburb of Andersons Bay to investigate the deaths of Bain's mother, father, brother and two sisters. Almost a year later, 23-year-old David was convicted of their killings and, a year after that, Karam - intrigued by the apparent absence of a motive for the killing - read the transcripts of evidence.
Thus began a campaign which has ruled his life for more than four years and made of the former footballer a best-selling author.
It's been a long and winding road, which took one of its more startling turns last Friday when a jury in the High Court at Auckland dismissed a defamation suit brought against him by Detective Sergeant Kevin Anderson and former Detective Sergeant Milton Weir.
The two had claimed that Karam defamed them in his 1998 book David and Goliath by wrongly implying that they planted evidence and lied under oath.
Karam's lawyer, Julian Miles, QC, argued that the case was about the right "to criticise the police or anyone else in authority, to expose wrongdoing" which was "a cornerstone of democracy as we understand it."
"All of us would feel more comfortable," he said, "if we were facing the nightmare that David Bain faced, knowing that there would be a Joe Karam there to expose the shortcomings of the Crown."
Karam, for his part, calls that the "bigger issue," less important than the holes he says the verdict rips in the conviction.
"What's important is that I got these guys on the stand and for the first time they were properly cross-examined. They were forced to admit that evidence [principally that regarding the position of a spectacle lens in the room of David's brother, Stephen] had been put before the court which was wrong.
"That's why I said [last Friday], that the win was for David. It wasn't for me at all."
Karam freely admits that he was naive when he started, thinking that police would be happy to answer his questions about the case.
"I'm not anti-police. I'm quite a redneck on matters of crime and punishment. I have absolutely no problem with cops in general. I didn't think David was innocent but I did think that his conviction was extraordinarily unsafe. And when I got the bum's rush from them on it, I thought something was up."
Karam's battle on behalf of David Bain has cost him heavily. A once-prosperous property investor and businessman - he sold a successful drink- and snack-vending machine business the year before the Every St killings - he has now sold everything and spent virtually all the proceeds.
"It would be hundreds and hundreds of thousands," he says, unblinking. "I was a reasonably well-off person: I had a nice boat and I took the kids on holidays and if I wanted to go to Sydney to watch a rugby test, I did.
"But it has extraordinarily enriched me as a person to have people who have got to know me acknowledge the commitment that I have made."
His three children - aged 17 to 23 - wept with joy at last week's decision, and you can see Karam's chest swell when he talks about it.
"They have just been astonishing," he says. "One of the great personal conflicts I go through is that I haven't been capable of being the father I might have been. But the respect and their pride, as much as they have been disadvantaged by it, has helped enormously."
For all last week's success, Karam's battle is near the end of the legal road. His last step is a petition to the Governor-General.
If that fails, he says, "I just haven't thought about what to do next."
It's tempting to wonder whether his devotion to the cause, at such personal cost, borders on the obsessive. But he says he has been logical and unemotional in his approach - and, amid the trees, he hasn't lost sight of the forest.
"If someone came along and demonstrated to me that I was wrong, I would say 'I was wrong. I blew it. I wasted my money. I did it with good intentions but I made a blue.' But that hasn't happened."
He is a battler, he will admit; his Irish and Lebanese ancestry see to that.
"But what keeps me going is a matter of principle," he says. "If I could put my finger on one thing that has gone wrong with New Zealand, it is that principles have gone out the door for the sake of expediency, for getting votes, for making money.
"The people who are fighting me are fighting me on grounds which are, in principle, wrong. They are doing it to save reputations, to protect the system and to validate previous behaviour."
David and Goliath sold more than 30,000 copies - a runaway bestseller in local terms - though the proceeds barely covered the airfares Karam paid. He has largely finished a sequel, Bain and Beyond, which documents what he calls "my experiences of the criminal justice system."
"Injustice occurs a lot more than we realise," he says. "But it's generally impossible for those who are victims of injustice to do anything.
"I've become quite deeply concerned at what I would call a malaise in the criminal justice system, so for better or worse I'm putting my penny-worth out in the public arena.
"What I most want is for a transparent and open and non-combative approach taken to it.
"I believe if I could sit down in a non-confrontational atmosphere, where it wasn't seen to be a case of win or lose, but [there was a desire to] have a look at the facts, within two or three days they would have the bloody key out and David would be down at the dairy."
The detectives' case against Joe Karam was not a retrial of David Bain. But Karam points out that it "by necessity traversed large amounts of the evidence and there are very significant corroborations of our allegations of false evidence and incompetence."
The cross-examination evidence will be closely analysed and incorporated into a refreshed petition, he says.
"We want to get it right. I'm sure the Justice Department wants to get it right too. It might take another year. But if it only takes a month or two, I'll be delighted."
By PETER CALDER