A rugby devotee reminisces on more than 30 years of following the All Blacks’ World Cup fortunes.

In the press centre at Ellis Park before the 1995 Rugby World Cup final I catch up with Dan Retief, who on the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand was a charming, living oxymoron, a liberal South African rugby reporter.

We swap stories. He's been living through much more fascinating times than I have. "I don't mind telling you, when Mandela was elected, I cried like a baby. He's our hope for the future."

Then he motions me closer. "Do you remember the plane at Eden Park in 81?" An anti-tour protester, Marx Jones, had flown a Cessna back and forth over Eden Park while his friend threw flour bombs onto the pitch during the final test of the apartheid era Springbok tour. I certainly remember the plane.

"I tell you Phil, something will happen today that will make Eden Park look like chickenfeed."

Advertisement

Dan is calling the game live, so he heads to his broadcast spot, next to the print media benches where I sit. We all wheel round when the capacity crowd starts roaring. In the official section Nelson Mandela appears, smiling and waving, while wearing South African captain Francois Pienaar's Springbok jersey.

Pretty impressive, but not quite as dramatic as Eden Park 81.

Then, out of the clear blue African sky comes a weird sound, almost pure white noise, getting louder and louder. Because the high veldt winter is so dry the stands at Ellis Park are virtually uncovered.

Officials and Springbok skipper Wynard Claassen watch as a small plane buzzes, then flourbombs Eden Park.
Officials and Springbok skipper Wynard Claassen watch as a small plane buzzes, then flourbombs Eden Park.

So when a South African Airways 747 jet bursts over the top of the stand opposite us, clearing the upper deck by just 60 metres, it feels as if the world is one giant wind tunnel. On the under carriage are the words "Good Luck Bokke".

When a jumbo jet flies that low over a rugby stadium (the pilot later says he had the plane close to stalling to get down to the altitude he wanted, which suggests with one windshear, 62,000 people could have fried in aviation fuel) the shadow it casts is so vast that for a second the whole ground goes dark. As our ringing ears start to clear I hear one voice cutting through the buzz. It's Dan. "I TOLD you it'd be bigger than Eden Park."

The World Cup has been a part of my working life every four years since the first tournament in May, 1987. In 87 I was part of the breakfast show at Radio Hauraki. The stock market crash was still five months away. Money was washing around the city, and if you caught Michael Fay's eye at the right time in Club Mirage you might find a bottle of Moet appearing at your table. But few were popping corks for the first World Cup.

At that opening game at Eden Park when the All Blacks demolished Italy 70-6, the stadium was less than half full, just 20,000 people.

The hype we expect now was almost non-existent. The profit from the 2015 World Cup was $90 million. A sponsorship deal for the 87 Cup of $7m, which just kept the tournament out of the red, was signed only a couple of months before kick-off. The budget for the opening ceremony was zero.

Lew Pryme, a former pop singer, whose trademark had been bleaching his carefully crafted hair a fluorescent shade of peroxide blond, was the executive director of the Auckland Rugby Union. He was given three weeks notice to make something from nothing to start the Cup.

A downhome mix was stitched together of brass bands, sky divers, and local primary school kids, who giggled and danced their way around the park, the lucky ones carrying signs naming the competing teams.

There was almost disaster at the last second. The national anthems were provided by holding a microphone next to a record player. The Italian anthem worked fine. Then the machine gave up the ghost. Pryme seized the microphone and sang God Defend New Zealand a capella.

Sadly Lew will not live to see the next World Cup. Gregarious, kind, and rugby mad, we'd been friends from the days when he was a show business manager. He always kept largely private his life as a gay man. A touching TVNZ documentary, Welcome To My World, told the tragic story of the death of Pryme and his partner from Aids in 1990.

The 87 All Blacks' place in rugby history was secured by victory. Less publicised is that they were the first, and I'd bet good money, the last, All Blacks to be billeted in private homes.

Their second game was in Wellington, where they beat Fiji, 74-13. Afterwards they trooped on to a bus, and were driven 90 minutes north to Pirinoa in the Wairarapa.

All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in action during the Rugby World Cup 2015. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Blacks captain Richie McCaw in action during the Rugby World Cup 2015. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Coach Brian Lochore didn't make his reasoning public. But privately he'd been horrified to see how some of his players chose to change out of All Black gear when they left the sanctuary of the Poenamo hotel on the North Shore. The wounds of 81 had been opened by the unsanctioned Cavaliers tour of South Africa in 1986.

"The players were afraid of being abused or accosted, which is what the All Blacks had suffered through the early 80s. People would come and stand right in front of you and abuse the hell out of you."

He decided it was time for his men to feel the love in the heartland. At the local Tuhirangi Rugby Club, they were paired off like kids on a school trip, and assigned farmers as hosts.

City boys like John Kirwan were nervous. A few weeks later, when we worked on a World Cup book, he joked, "You couldn't see a street light or a McDonalds for miles."

John Kirwan fends off the French attack in the final of the Rugby World Cup in 1987 at Eden Park. Photo / File
John Kirwan fends off the French attack in the final of the Rugby World Cup in 1987 at Eden Park. Photo / File

But the night away largely served Lochore's purpose. The players made their own decisions on how they'd use their time. Kirwan slept in until 11am. Bruce Deans hot-wired a tractor he and Joe Stanley found on an early morning jog, and Deans took a nervous Stanley on a diesel fumed joy-ride. AJ Whetton lost it in a farm bike race with Richard Loe, took a tumble, and landed in a pile of cow dung.

For their semifinal, against Wales, the All Blacks found themselves in sub-tropical Brisbane, at the old Ballymore ground. Wales were humiliated, 49-6. If you were Welsh that was bad enough. But 10 minutes from the end Welsh lock Huw Richards, apparently suffering from a dangerous case of frustration, started flinging unprovoked punches at his marker, Gary Whetton. Buck Shelford arrived like Jack Reacher in a rugby jersey. One punch and poor Richards was lying dazed on the ground. When referee Kerry Fitzgerald decided Richards was sufficiently compos mentis to understand, he told him he was being ordered off.

Everything changed for the final against France at Eden Park. The indifference before the opening game with Italy was a distant memory. Wide-eyed All Blacks were talking about offers of $1000 for a stand seat.

Eden Park sold out, and the All Blacks won 29-9, scoring three tries, which was more than a winning side would score in a Cup final until 2015, when the winning All Blacks also scored three.

The warm glow of success, and the emergence of clean cut stars like Kirwan and Michael Jones, made the All Blacks the universal heroes they had been before an apartheid era tour had divided the country.

Sir Michael Jones during the 1991 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Getty Images
Sir Michael Jones during the 1991 Rugby World Cup. Photo / Getty Images
I

n 1991 most Kiwis expected the All Blacks to waltz to victory when the Cup was held in Britain, Ireland, and France.

Radio Hauraki programme director Mike Regal was so enthused that my wife Jan and I found ourselves ensconced for seven weeks in a flat near Marble Arch. At the time it took just over NZ$3 to buy a British pound, so the rent was staggeringly expensive, for a dump so dirty we put newspapers down before sitting on the couch.

I knew from working on a book with Alex Wyllie that the All Black leadership was hopelessly divided. Wyllie and John Hart, in possibly the dumbest move ever made by the NZRU, had been made co-coaches. Having two alpha males sharing the job was bad enough, but genuine dislike was added to the mix as well.

Wyllie invited us to have a drink in the team's hotel after the All Blacks won their second game at the Cup, beating the United States in Gloucester 46-6. On one side of the room the players who support Hart. On the other, the Wyllie camp.

The saving grace was a two-week detour to Wales, where the Samoan team, led by a dear friend, Peter Fatialofa, exuded warmth, welcomed all supporters, and played so well they made the quarter-finals. In the early hours of the morning, at the party in the foyer of the team's hotel after Samoa beat Wales 19-16 in their opening game, Fats demonstrated many times how Welsh players staggered and fell twitching to the ground after being tackled by the Samoans.

On the Saturday morning before the Sunday semi-final with Australia Jan and I were in the usual throng of shoppers in Grafton St, Dublin. Over the rise appeared the full Australian team. Captain Nick Farr-Jones stopped briefly to talk. "What are you guys doing?" I asked. He grinned. "Just making sure the Irish fans are barracking for us tomorrow mate."

Vincent Hogan in the Irish Independent says it is "amazing to us all just how friendly and inviting the Wallabies were during their whole time in Dublin." But he doesn't think much of the All Blacks; "They carry themselves with the gaiety of gravediggers. They strut and scowl and generally imply a superior presence. It is as though, in their hostile silence, they are reminding you that God still wears a black shirt. A pity."

9 Oct 1999: Andrew Mehrtens puts up the kick against England during the Rugby World Cup. Photo / David Rogers / Allsport
9 Oct 1999: Andrew Mehrtens puts up the kick against England during the Rugby World Cup. Photo / David Rogers / Allsport

The All Blacks lost 16-6, and in Ireland, where they love the All Blacks, you couldn't find a shred of sympathy.

My last sight of the New Zealand players at the World Cup was on the day of the final at Twickenham, where Australia bat England 12-6.

Some of the All Blacks, resplendent in their black blazers, white shirts, and ties, and a handful of more scruffy media people like me, were invited by Steinlager's Richard Fry to have a few drinks in a marquee before Buck Shelford (dropped as captain the previous year) was speaking at a sponsor's lunch. Fry apologised he couldn't extend our invitation to include the lunch, but we had a few glasses of wine before it was time for the All Blacks and journalists to leave.

One of the All Blacks went to the bar, and brusquely asked the barman, a young student earning some weekend money, for a bottle of wine to take to the grandstand. The barman apologised and said wine could be served only in the marquee. I watched the All Black reach over the bar, grab two bottles, stuff them in his duffel bag, and stride away towards his seat in the stand.

I almost missed the 1995 Cup. By now working at 91ZM in Christchurch, it was decided after the amazing 45-29 thrashing of England in the semifinal that I could go to the final.

Three days before that match between the All Blacks and South Africa, I was in the lobby of the All Blacks' Johannesburg hotel.

In the midst of the five star cool was a group of girls from a nearby private school, who could barely contain their excitement. One of their parents had enough pull to get them through the guarded entranceway.

As an All Black team meeting on the ground floor broke up, players started to saunter out, then a huge Polynesian, with an "11" shaved into his left eyebrow, emerged — Jonah Lomu.

One tiny girl, faster than her classmates, exploded across the foyer, launched herself into the air, and locked her legs around Lomu's midriff. Lomu hardly blinked, but, like a skilled hostage negotiator, quietly talked her down. With great dignity, he carefully prised her limbs away. A series of quick photographs and then, as much as is possible for a giant man amongst a throng of small girls, he gently slipped away to a lift.

All Black Jonah Lomu in action during the cup final at the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Photo / File
All Black Jonah Lomu in action during the cup final at the Rugby World Cup in 1995. Photo / File

The day after the final, lost 15-12 in extra time, I broadcast to ZM in Christchurch from All Black Mike Brewer's room. Lochore, campaign manager in 95, has told me 10 of the All Black side who started the final had been ill with a stomach bug before the game. It explained some of the weird sights during the match, like Jeff Wilson on his hands and knees violently throwing up.

In 1999 the World Cup moved to Britain and France. Two days before the semi-final between the All Blacks and a French team that has been easily the most mediocre of the four teams left in the tournament, a special edition of a TVNZ show, The Tight Five, was being taped at the Thames television studios in Teddington, London. I was one of the guests, and former All Black Simon Mannix, now playing for the Gloucester club in England, another.

Mannix told a group of us off air that Philippe Saint-Andre, the former French captain, now with Mannix at Gloucester, said the French players had delivered an ultimatum to the coaching staff. The coaches could stay at the hotel, travel on the bus, and go to the training runs. But they must offer no advice. Control of the side was now 100 per cent in the hands of the players. I shrugged the story off. Silly me. At Twickenham the French team played like the fearless rebels they apparently were. The All Blacks were beaten 43-31.

Phil Gifford's World Cup passes testify to a life following the All Blacks.
Phil Gifford's World Cup passes testify to a life following the All Blacks.

Jan gave her seat for the semi to a close English friend, John, and headed off with his wife, Linda, to the British Museum. Late in the afternoon they saw a sign "Live Rugby TV here" outside a pub. They walked in, basically to check how much the All Blacks have won by. Jan's was wearing a black tour jacket. "You may need a brandy love," said an avuncular Englishman at the bar. Jan turned to the TV set behind her, and "there were French players hugging and kissing each other".

Anxiety ran rife among Kiwis over the All Blacks' chances in the World Cup in Australia in 2003.

In Melbourne for Radio Sport, I bumped into Grant Fox, then commentating for TVNZ. Before the quarter-final with South Africa, he told me, he'd headed out for a 30-minute morning walk by the Yarra River. The walk took 90 minutes, because so many New Zealanders had sought him out for reassurance.

Back home at the TAB, 68 per cent of the bets were on the Springboks to win. In reality the game at the Telstra Dome was almost embarrassingly one sided. South Africa was beaten 29-9. The All Blacks, and we camp followers, moved to Sydney for the semifinal with Australia.

All Black replacement centre Ma'a Nonu in action against Italy during their Rugby World Cup pool match in 2003. Photo / Brett Phibbs
All Black replacement centre Ma'a Nonu in action against Italy during their Rugby World Cup pool match in 2003. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There was an unusual moment the day before the semi. Tana Umaga, by 2003 a critical part of the All Black backline at centre, had, after suffering a cruciate ligament knee injury in the opening game against Italy, been passed fit to play by team doctor, John Mayhew. Not fit enough for coach John Mitchell however, who had been increasingly snippy during the week about the fact he hadn't picked Umaga.

In a Sydney toy shop, Jan and I saw Tana and his wife, Rochelle. We said hello, and, purely as a greeting, not as a real question, I said, "How are you?" He smiled broadly and replied, "I'm absolutely fine."

The next day Australia never really looked like losing, winning 22-10. They would play (and lose 20-17 to) England in the final.

There was not much fun left to be had for an All Black supporter.

All seemed to be going so well for the All Blacks at the 2007 World Cup, in France and Britain. Two days before the quarter-final against France in Cardiff they held a press conference at Hensol Park Hotel, a spa and golf resort 19km out of the city.

In a large pagoda in the grounds, the All Blacks answered questions from a massive group of journalists. The players seemed completely at ease. Wandering out from his session, Jerry Collins saw Jan sitting on a bench, joined her and for 10 minutes chatted about home, family, and life lived in hotels. The fiercest tackler in world rugby, who tragically was to die in a car accident in France in 2015, won a fan forever.

In the press box at the quarter-final, when the All Blacks lost to France 20-18, was the only time in my life I have believed I was possibly having a stroke. No matter how long the second half dragged on, with referee Wayne Barnes giving no penalties, and the All Blacks behind, I still believed it was impossible for an All Black side to be beaten in a quarter-final. Then Tony Smith, the Christchurch journalist I was sitting next to, leaned in and whispers "We're going to lose." My arms went numb. I tried to lift them to my laptop, but nothing happened.

All Black Jerry Collins against France in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup at Millennium Stadium in 2007. Photo / File
All Black Jerry Collins against France in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup at Millennium Stadium in 2007. Photo / File

After the final whistle I managed a tiny laugh when an official addressed the room. "Okay ladies and gentlemen," he said, in a lilting Welsh accent. "In about 30 minutes we'll go down to the press conference. If you need a toilet, they're the second and third doors to the left outside the press box. All New Zealand media using the toilet please hand me their ties and shoe laces before they go."

I'd thought I was over the loss, and my panic attack, but trying to drive back to our hotel in Swansea, guided by the Tinkerbell-like voice from the GPS in the rental car, Tink had to gently tell me, not once, but twice, to stop circling the roundabout outside Cardiff and get on to the M4 and head to Swansea.

When the Cup came back to New Zealand in 2011 almost everything — with the exception of the All Blacks again being favourites — had changed from the first tournament in 1987.

The international rugby officials, who were highly sceptical before the first tournament paid its way, were living high on what had become a multimillion-dollar hog. Usually a press bench peasant, I got a glimpse in 2011 of how the hierarchy live.

Having spoken for no fee at a promotion for the Crusaders at the start of the tournament, Crusaders' CEO Hamish Riach generously offers a double VIP pass for the quarter-final at Eden Park between the All Blacks and Argentina.

We were whisked by bus from the Sky Grand hotel to Eden Park, driven in under the south stand, with only a couple of metres to walk to a lift to the huge suite on the upper level.

How flash was it there? After several champagnes I decide I needed to visit the toilet. I waited for a break in play in the quarter-final between Australia and South Africa in Wellington, being shown on numerous flat screen televisions dotting the walls.

Phil Gifford and Graham Henry in 2012. Photo / Photosport
Phil Gifford and Graham Henry in 2012. Photo / Photosport

I could hardly wait to report back to Jan. "I didn't need to worry," I whispered. "They've got TVs above the urinals!"

There were some curled lips about the catchphrase "A stadium of four million" before the tournament, but from the time the Tongan community jammed all lanes on George Bolt Drive to welcome their team at Auckland airport, the cynics were proved wrong. Then, to make it all perfect for a Kiwi fan, as Sir Graham Henry can now laugh and say, the All Blacks "thrashed the French by one point in the final".

I'd been a Steve Hansen fan for a long time before the 2015 World Cup in England and Wales. When I first met him, in 1996 in Christchurch, he was the assistant coach of the High School Old Boys' club team. His career expanded, but his head didn't. Hansen is definitely high on the list of All Black coaches you'd enjoy sharing an off the record drink with.

Before the stunning 62-13 win against France in the quarter-final in Cardiff the All Blacks held a press conference at the Swansea Rugby Club.

Hansen got a little Zen on it all. He knew people back home were worried, but that's because they're weren't here, seeing how their boys were training. "Worry is a wasted emotion." For a brief moment after the conference we found ourselves face to face behind the stage. We shook hands and I said, because it was true, "It's been a lot of fun." Hansen smiled and said: "Not much point if it's not is it?"

The final against Australia at Twickenham was played in amazingly warm, dry weather for England on the last Saturday in October. After the game players were marshalled by media minders to chat with pods of journalists. It was almost the perfect touch for an All Black side that was as amicable as the original Cup heroes were in 87, that when Nehe Milner-Skudder joins a media group, his first instinct is to stick out his hand and say, "Hi, how are you", to each of us.

My favourite Cup story was one Wallaby icon John Eales told of the 1991 final won by the Wallabies, 12-3, over England at Twickenham.

The president of the Australian union was Joe French from Queensland, a lovely, funny, chain-smoking, Kermit the Frog lookalike. The Wallabies discovered he was going to be sitting in the Royal Box, next to Princess Diana.

With the game over, French, desperately sucking on a cigarette (the Royal enclosure was smoke-free), was bailed up in the changing shed by eager Diana fans in the Wallaby team.

"What's she like?" they asked. French sucked in another lungful of smoke, and rasped, "Well I can tell ya one thing. She knows f*** all about rugby."