IT WAS1986 and he came from nowhere. In the English village rugby I played, nobody was meant to hit that hard in the tackle.
Actually Dan Clemett came from Methven and had played openside flanker for Mid Canterbury Maori, winning the Ratana Cup. As the partner of my newspaper colleague, Rebecca, he’d got a game for the opposition. If, like most New Zealanders, Clemett was happy to buy me post-match balm in the form of beer, the hit bloody hurt. Still does. Now I’ve tracked him down, I’m sending him my chiropractor bills. Clemett played in England alongside Hugh Heenan, father of outstanding young Auckland prospect Jake Heenan.
Skip forward 26 years and Kiwis do not just hit hard in the lower reaches of the English game, taking out their frustrations after work as a shearer, or pulling pints. They now decorate the top tier of the professional game in Europe – real flesh and blood All Blacks in our midst.
We’ve got used to them now, but they have made a heck of an impact. Arguably the most successful – indisputably if he pilots Harlequins to its first Premiership title – has been Nick Evans.
Would the first five have traded it all for the chance to replace Dan Carter and a tilt at World Cup glory on home soil? Maybe. But his bank manager is happy about his stay in London and Harlequins even happier.
The fishing may not have been as wild as ‘Snapper’ is used to, but he has gained iconic status at Twickenham Stoop, not just for his sublime ability, but his attitude and team ethic.
“Nick has a lot of input at Quins and does plenty of work with his young understudy Rory Clegg. He can also walk the streets and not get asked about the game every five strides,” says Jamie Salmon, the former Harlequins centre.
Look through any professional or semi-professional rugby roster in the UK or Europe and you’re likely to come across at least one player with a background in New Zealand rugby.
Salmon enjoys a unique position in the history books having played test rugby for both the All Blacks and England and is well qualified to assess the influence of New Zealanders in Europe.
“You know what you are going to get – a will to win and they will never let you down. A passionate commitment to footy is in the New Zealand blood,” says Salmon, now in sports PR.
Salmon admits the money must help. If you are an All Black turning 30 having played in a World Cup, but pretty sure you won’t make the next one, the prospect of your umpteenth trip to South Africa or Australia is not half as appealing as a fat European contract, with the likes of Paris and Rome on your new doorstep.
Another conspicuous success has been Craig Newby, the former Highlander. The flanker was even handed the Leicester Tigers captaincy for a while. This club would not usually give you the armband if you’d shopped outside the city, let alone flown in from 12,000 miles away.
Scott Hamilton is another who has integrated well into this insular club and Newby and Hamilton have set up a website (www.allblacksoverseas.com) for Kiwi players overseas. Is Thomas Waldrom involved? “No, he’s English,” laughs Newby, back to full fitness after a knee operation.
“We Kiwis are full-on when it comes to rugby and the desire to win. But I think some of the English guys are surprised how laidback and switched off we can be away from the paddock.
“Whatever level a New Zealander plays at we play for keeps and perhaps our attacking philosophy has added something. The coaches are open to suggestions, but I would not try to tell Richard Cockerill (Leicester’s director of rugby) how to coach,” says Newby, now part of the English country sports set, even wearing tweed out shooting at the Duke of Rutland’s Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire.
Carl Hayman (now Toulon) and Craig Dowd added prop backbone at Newcastle and Wasps respectively and Jimmy Gopperth has been similarly influential at Newcastle, albeit in a struggling side staring at relegation. Bruce Reihana was revered as a Saint at Northampton, while in Castres, south-west France, Chris Masoe is right up there with rugby legends of the town such as Gerard Cholley. Cardiff has its Kiwi mafia of Xavier Rush, Paul Tito, Casey Laulala and Ben Blair, while Jerry Collins and Marty Holah also ripped up Welsh trees for the Ospreys.
Ali Williams may have been at Nottingham in English rugby’s second tier for a matter of weeks, but the land of Robin Hood claims the lock as Nottingham’s world champion.
“Ali fitted in straightaway as one of the lads, giving and taking banter. Perhaps in the presence of an All Black you are subconsciously raising your game to impress. The effect of him surviving that first game back from injury and therefore keeping his World Cup dream alive was electric,” says Nottingham fullback David Jackson.
Nottingham captain Craig Hammond, the former New Zealand U19 loose forward from Wellington, has cult status after 11 years at Nottingham.
Hammond was only meant to stay six months. Mark Bright, the Tasman Makos loose forward, was a fantastic talisman for Cornish rugby playing for Redruth in England’s south-west before his move to Championship side London Scottish. The list goes on, up and down the leagues from village farmhands to professional superstars.
Gloucester prop Nick Wood, knocking so hard on the England door it has to open soon, has much to thank Greg Somerville for after the All Black’s stint at the club.
“His attitude was fantastic and he was a brilliant role model in his attention to detail. Greg’s commitment and work-rate was awesome, but always with time to pass on advice. I still ask myself, ‘What would Greg do?’ A top bloke,” says Wood.
Rugby broadcaster James Gemmell, a former Auckland Grammar First XV captain and the son of All Black Bruce Gemmell, made the journey to England for media reasons, now covering the game for Sky Sports.
“Those who have played at the highest level in New Zealand bring a culture of winning that is unique to rugby in our country,” says Gemmell.
“There’s a lot of talk in Europe about winning your home games, with away fixtures less important. I’ve heard more than one Kiwi pro talk with disbelief about this mentality.”
Gemmell says New Zealanders over here have forged a reputation for being great clubmen, involved in the life of the community beyond the rugby field.
“Maybe it’s to do with our love of travelling and experiencing new cultures, but Kiwis tend to fi t in wherever they find themselves.”
Gemmell cites the example of Doug Howlett, the All Blacks test record tryscorer, who headed to Ireland after the crushing disappointment of the 2007 World Cup.
“Howlett has loved Munster as much as Munster has loved him and five years later, he is still going strong.”
By contrast Luke McAlister left New Zealand in his prime for England, but left his spark behind too and is now trying his luck at Toulouse, the club where Byron Kelleher made a mighty impression.
Got to go: Appointment with the chiropractor. I swear that Clemett tackle was late. If only we had the TMO in 1986.
New Zealand ‘Europe’ XV: Ben Blair (Cardiff), Doug Howlett (Munster), Casey Laulala (Cardiff), Sam Tuitupou (Sale), Scott Hamilton (Leicester), Nick Evans (Harlequins), Byron Kelleher (Stade Français), Xavier Rush (Cardiff), Craig Newby (Leicester), Chris Masoe (Castres), Paul Tito (Cardiff), Mark Sorenson (Northampton), Carl Hayman (Toulon), Joe Ward (Sale), Clarke Dermody (London Irish)
Reserves: Aled de Malmanche (Stade Français), John Afoa (Ulster), Craig Hammond (Nottingham), Jonathan Poff (Wasps), Kevin Senio (Clermont), Stephen Donald (Bath), Joe Rokocoko (Bayonne), Bruce Reihana (Bordeaux-Bègles)
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