John Alan Drake, 1959-2008

Key Points:

'Drakey', as just about everyone knew former All Black prop John Drake, was a very different rugby player and a very different prop - intelligent, worldly, expressive and with a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

A member of the famous Auckland and All Black teams of the mid- and late-80s, Drake was a key fixture in both teams and, as former All Black coach John Hart (who was associated closely with Drake's rise in the game) put it: 'He was a prop and a man ahead of his time."

Although the nickname "Drakey" suggests an affable man known to all, the reality was that John Drake was known well by few. His keen intelligence meant he knew when to hold his counsel and often the only clue to the wheels clicking inside his head was his droll smile.

Drake was by no means as captured by his sport as many and maintained his individuality even as he embraced the team.

"He was a different guy, there's no question about it," said Hart. "He was a special character, a great personality and highly intelligent. He'd have been one of the most intelligent props ever and he was a great friend."

Drake was always thinking; always questioning and seemed likely to drift out of the game as his active mind turned to other things.

Hart said he had to talk him into remaining in the game and to return from France - the place where Drake learned much about the dark arts of propping and the singular technique needed to anchor a scrum. He was never a big prop, nor especially barrel-chested or muscled. He weighed only 99kg in his All Black days. These days there are bigger halfbacks.

"He was not an easy guy to read," said Hart. "You never knew what was going on inside; I didn't find him easy to understand at all - I never knew whether he was having me on or not."

One of Hart's persuasions was to get Drake back from France where he went for various off-seasons.

Hart wanted him back for Auckland (and All Black) reasons and summoned Drake from France to make his All Black debut in 1985 - because so many props had been injured in the tour to Argentina.

That was a trademark of Drake's selection. He was a member of a famous Auckland Grammar School First XV which included Gary and Alan Whetton and others - but was little known and he was never selected as a national age group player nor as a New Zealand Colt.

He was nearly 28 when first selected for the All Blacks - and he was still 28 when he played his last test.

He learned much about technique in France and maintained that straight back and simple, undeniable technique. But he was ahead of his time because of his ball skills.

Few props, in those days, could run with the ball and pass. Drake did. Those skills were seen to great effect in the All Blacks' World Cup win in the final against France and in that famous, arguably best-of-all-time Ranfurly Shield challenge of 1985 where Drake scored a try and was one of the standout players in a pulsating match.

"He would have loved the modern game," said Hart, "because he had the mobility and ball skills that modern props need and which the old props mostly didn't have."

For all his rugby achievements - a World Cup winner, a member of the record-breaking Auckland team of the 80s, 8 tests for the All Blacks, four other All Black games, one test try - many younger people will know Drake primarily as a commentator.

His New Zealand Herald column was a "must-read" for anyone interested in the game and his analytical comments on SKY TV gave natural counterweight to television's natural hyperbole.

"I was delighted how he moved into the media and did it well," said Hart. "He did well in business but he enjoyed working in the media and he brought balance and insight to the commentaries, I always felt.

A final, personal view of Drake. It came during an Auckland Shield defence during that incredible run in the 80s. After a bruising encounter, the Auckland forwards drifted into the after-match function, bearing impressive wounds.

The answer to how they were injured was the same: "Fitzy" (Sean Fitzpatrick, Auckland and All Black hooker renowned for his single-minded pursuit of the ball).

When the question was put to Drake, who had scrape marks running down his face, he paused, looked at the questioner drolly and said: "Fitzy. He decided I was the ball and nothing I said convinced him otherwise."