Key Points:

Patrick Timothy Walsh

Born

May 6, 1936, Kaitaia

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Died

November 23, 2007, aged 71

One of the legendary characters of New Zealand rugby - and certainly among the mightiest totaras of the Maori game - Pat Walsh died on Friday evening after a long battle against cancer. He was 71.

From his days at Sacred Heart College and then at Ardmore teachers training college, Walsh was a natural. He had speed, skill and superb balance anywhere in the backline and spiced these assets with the mischief (and sometimes the mystery) that only Maori seemed to possess in those days of uninhibited rugby.

At 18, he was playing for the Auckland 2nd XV. At 19, he was finding his All Black feet in the warfare of the series against the 1956 Springboks.

Two years later, his captaincy of the New Zealand Maori side in Australia began the stirring Walsh legend.

That was a tough tour - Bill Gray nearly lost a leg after injury, Dave Matheson broke a leg, the Maori were battered and bruised - but Walsh so inspired his men that against all odds they shared a three-test series with Australia.

The players idolised their young captain and the ultimate tribute came when Albert Pryor's wife Frances had a boy while the tour was taking place.

Pryor solemnly christened the lad Patrick Timothy Walsh Pryor - Frances agreed and the team chipped in with a complete baby outfit.

Walsh became the No 1 target for any union promoting pre-season festival games and brought all manner of mischief - forcing the ball on his foot rather than the in-goal turf and racing away from the hoodwinked defence was one of his favourites.

Gradually his speed and attacking genius lost some of their vibrancy but not Walsh's rugby heart. He was placed at second five-eighths and vice-captain as a senior pro in Wilson Whineray's magical team touring Europe in 1963-64 but early in the tour suffered a leg injury of such severity that English specialists said he might never walk on the leg, let alone play rugby again.

For 40 days, Walsh was a passenger on the tour. His rigorous exercise included Walsh putting a 15lb weight on his ankle, lifting the leg, taking the strain, then lowering it. Every hour, on the hour. During this long ordeal, Walsh was told his father had died. Walsh kept this sad news to himself as he jollied the reserves into a support group for the game against Cardiff which the All Blacks maintained they must win and did 6-5.

Walsh was back on the playing field for the match against Western Counties - and Gordon Rowley, an orthopaedic surgeon of extraordinary ability, raised his eyes to heaven and said: "After this, I believe in Father Christmas."

After rugby, Walsh turned his skills in many directions, finally settling into the entrepreneurial life of a hotel publican. And philanthropist. If Walsh heard a sad tale, or a worthy cause, he was quick in support. He became a champion event organiser, fund-raiser, and was at his very best as a master of ceremonies when his tongue and wit were as quick and sharp as his rugby feet used to be.

Walsh probably had a few ups and downs but he always had a quip or a chirp when things were going awry.

When it became apparent that Don Clarke's time on this planet was running out as cancer took hold, Walsh decided to get his old mate back from South Africa for a farewell visit to New Zealand.

"When I told him this, Camel [DB Clarke's old nickname] said he could not come, he was too tired," said Walsh at the time.

"I just said 'Camel, the tickets are on the way, I'll meet you and Patsy at Auckland airport. That's that'."

DB Clarke came home. When Walsh introduced him at a splendid lunch at Eden Park, there was not a dry eye in the house - and Clarke took that last tribute to his grave.

And now Patrick Timothy Walsh has also gone - and New Zealand rugby in its commercial confusion is not likely to see a man of his stature, his lustre, again.