Phil Gifford recalls two men who were far too good for most First XV defences.
We’ll all have our own pick when it comes to the greatest First XV player we’ve ever seen.
Here’s mine. I was a schoolkid myself in 1963, on the sidelines at Rugby Park in Hamilton when a grey, damp, miserable, day was lit up by a midfielder in the Auckland Grammar First XV, playing a curtainraiser against Hamilton Boys’ High.
In the programme he was listed as G.S. Thorne, and as the years went by Grahame Thorne would be an All Black, and, almost as famously, a rugby commentator who stunned the country by appearing on TVNZ with his usually Brylcreemed hair ballooning into a huge perm.
As a schoolboy rugby star, he was just as staggering. For someone so strongly built, he was blisteringly fast. He had a massive range of skills, and his balance and eye to hand co-ordination were so good that when he left Grammar he spent two years concentrating on cricket, a sport at which he and his mentors at school felt he had the best chance of representing New Zealand.
But then, in 1967, after playing no age grade rugby at all, he went straight into centre in a very good University club team. In front of what would now be a crazily big club game crowd of 20,000 people at Eden Park, he and All Black Ron Rangi, playing for Ponsonby, knocked chunks off each other for 80 minutes.
Before he’d played a single game for Auckland, All Blacks coach Fred Allen, a brilliant talent spotter, whisked Thorne into an All Blacks trial. Thorne played the way I’d seen him in Hamilton, standing up All Blacks fullback Mick Williment on the way to a great try. In the blink of an eye, Thorne was an All Black. Never short of confidence, he famously told writer Terry McLean that the first thing he thought when his name was called for the ’67 tour to Britain and France was that, “Gee, now I can be a double All Black.”
He didn’t achieve that, and while he was a very good All Black, he wasn’t an all-time great one. But as a schoolboy? I’ve never seen a better player.
School rugby is now fraught at times with too many stories emerging about rich schools poaching at the expense of less fortunate ones.
But rugby in schools can also be a godsend in the life of a young man, and a perfect example is provided by the story of a teenaged Jonah Lomu.
In May 1988, just a few days before Jonah’s 13th birthday, the whole country was shocked by an horrific murder in the Otara shopping centre. In broad daylight a 21-year-old Tongan man, David Fuko, was hacked to death by a group of Samoans. His head and his arms were chopped off. David Fuko was Jonah’s uncle.
Jonah’s mother Hepi moved heaven and earth to get her son out of an environment she feared he may not survive. She was able to get him enrolled at Wesley College, a Methodist boarding school, set in rolling fields in the countryside at Paerata, not far north of Pukekohe.
He struggled with the discipline, but a saving grace came in the shape of deputy principal Chris Grinter, who’d just finished as a highly successful coach of the New Zealand Schools team.
Grinter steered him towards rugby. Until high school, Jonah had only played league. At 14 he was locking the Wesley College First XV scrum. At 16 he made the New Zealand Under 17s. At 18 he was in the Counties senior provincial sevens team, and at 19, moving from the forwards to the wing, he was an All Black. The rest is history.