Campbell Burnes catches up with a medicine man who has lived the fullest life in rugby.
Frank Bunce: ‘Doc, I can hear my knee when I walk; what should I do?
John Mayhew: ‘Buy earmuffs.’
True story, apparently. New Zealand’s most famous rugby doctor knows his rugby, know his onions and, clearly, has a decent sense of humour.
The 66-year-old Mayhew has a huge fund of stories from over 50 years in the game. Some of them are off the record, not because they are X-rated, but because they would boggle your mind.
That said, some of the injuries he has seen should be X-rated. Michael Jones’ 1989 knee explosion is one of the worst. No matter how many times you see it, you still wince. But then Mayhew’s son Michael had an acute compartment syndrome issue with his leg from an innocent-looking ‘charlie’ in English club rugby. Sounded innocuous, but Mayhew senior showed me a photo that made me a touch queasy. Michael had to reach for the morphine. The leg was black, looking like something out of a war zone. Both men made full recoveries. They invariably do if Doc Mayhew has anything to do with it.
Born in the UK, Mayhew was a Kiwi by the age of four, Rosmini College-schooled and then a stalwart of the Northcote club, racking up over 200 premier games as a “journeyman” lock, the last three seasons in the North Harbour competition after the inception of the union in 1985. Often he was in behind Ron Williams in the scrums. He was a qualified doctor by then and was often on hand to help out the Salvation Army zambuks during matches.
“On the next field in Kumeu one day, someone had a major injury and they stopped that game and came to the next field and asked me to have a look. I was playing but the ref allowed a temporary replacement. I sorted the injury out and went back on the field 15 minutes later,” he says.
His life membership of Northcote would be jointly for his longevity as a player and his medical service.
In his early days as the All Blacks doctor, Mayhew would help hold up the scrum at training and do the warm-ups and drills with the team. He had 15 seasons with the All Blacks, missing just the 1995 season due to “philosophical differences’ with Laurie Mains. He was in the thick of the ‘Grizz’ Wyllie, Mains, John Hart, Wayne Smith and John Mitchell coaching eras. Mayhew rates Smith as the finest coach of that group.
Of course, Mayhew is most famous for his long association as Jonah Lomu’s physician, and had to keep details of his kidney issues under wraps, at least initially in 1995-96. It was hard to see Lomu cop criticism for his form when no one, except the doctor, knew why he was off colour.
“Some might argue I got too close to Jonah. He became a friend, part of the family, my kids grew up with him. Jonah would never use it as an excuse, though. He could have looked after himself better, especially when he rejected the second kidney. Perhaps he wasn’t as conscientious as he could have been when taking the medication, but Jonah never blamed anyone or felt sorry for himself,” says Mayhew.
After the All Blacks he and Rugby News’ third editor Matt McIlraith penned a book – Doc Mayhew – Rugby’s Medicine Man – which sold very well for a non-All Blacks subject.
Then came 15 years with the Warriors in the NRL, which he enjoyed, especially during the period when Hart, with whom Mayhew is still close, and Ivan Cleary were in tandem.
“Ivan is like the Wayne Smith of league. He was harshly dealt with by the Warriors.”
Mayhew has been, other than his Warriors hiatus, the North Harbour doctor since the first days of 1985. He has often acted as match-day doctor at North Harbour Stadium through his Warriors time. No surprises that he is one of 12 life members of the union.
And while he has no active role with any particular team other than North Harbour now, he still looks after many former All Blacks and their old injuries or pushes them in the right direction with ACC. Frano Botica, for instance, has just had knee replacements.
These days Mayhew is the chief medical officer for AIA, based not far from his Northcote home. But he also does sports medicine consultancy for about 10 hours a week at the Millennium Institute in Mairangi Park.
But he’s not going to run a marathon or play Golden Oldies rugby anytime soon.
“In 2016 I was nearly the shortest life member for North Harbour. Six days after that I had a cardiac arrest. I had a viral infection of the heart and three days later woke up in intensive care.”
Luckily another doctor was on hand to administer CPR. Mayhew was back at work two weeks later.
Mayhew had few injuries in his long career, but did cop a handful of concussions, one of them a full KO. The injuries have changed since then too.
“You didn’t get the blown-out knees you get now. In trying to make the game safer by getting rid of rucking, we may paradoxically have made it more dangerous from a medical point of view. It wasn’t much fun playing Otahuhu or Waitemata when you went down on the football, but you didn’t hold onto it for long because you couldn’t. Perhaps I’m just a dinosaur thinking about that. But that jackal position now is incredibly dangerous.”
That said, rugby and league, he feels, have made great strides in how they treat concussion and make the game safer.
“A lot of journalists are saying there’s an epidemic of brain-damaged rugby players. We actually haven’t got the science to back that up. Any time we have a famous former rugby player with a brain injury, we say it’s because he was a rugby player. It may not be. Now some kids aren’t playing rugby because their parents are convinced if you play you could be demented later in life.”
At the moment there is a lot of emotion in the debate, when there should be more science. It does not help to have alarmist media reporting on this subject, even as some elite players, such as James Parsons and Kane Hames, are forced to retire due to being unable to shake concussion symptoms.
Mayhew himself passed his third-year med school studies with an aegrotat after being KOd by a punch against Ponsonby two days before an exam.
Sports medicine, of course, has changed out of sight in the last 40 years.
“When I first started, it was GPs with an interest in sports medicine. Now you have people who have done sports medicine all their professional lives. You get surgeons like Stew Walsh who understand sportsmen. Sports doctors are now far better trained. What you can’t lose sight of is that sportsmen are normal people as well, so you have to be able to treat asthma, diabetes and epilepsy,” says Mayhew.
“I’ve had diabetic All Blacks like Jason O’Halloran and Dylan Mika, I’ve had an epileptic All Black who didn’t want to be named, obviously there was Jonah, Zinzan Brooke had atrial fibrillation. So they had other significant medical problems. It wasn’t just joints.”
He feels lucky to have had a career that straddled both the amateur and professional times. Nowadays it’s more demanding and time-consuming. The All Blacks no longer just rock up to the Po on Wednesday at lunchtime to prepare for a Saturday Test at Eden Park. Mayhew could work at his practice right up until Wednesday morning.
Mayhew still watches rugby through his doctor’s lens, keeping an eye out for injuries, but he has enjoyed watching his three boys – Michael, Richard and Nic – play first-class footy for a variety of teams. Richard has designs on joining his Dad in the 100-club at Northcote.
And hundreds of old players will still run into him and call him ‘Doc.’ He might reply by telling them to look after themselves more and lose some weight. But he’ll do it with a smile.