Peter White recalls with fondness the brilliant allround sporting career of Jeff Wilson, who represented his country in two sports before he left his teens, and his personal experience of ‘Goldie’s’ post-playing days.
My first awareness of the All Blacks as a young, passionate kid was the groundbreaking British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand in 1971.
I have not missed an All Blacks series since, with Rugby World Cup victories in 1987, 2011 and 2015 near the top of my personal highlights list.
But the 1996 series win over the Springboks in South Africa is my favourite memory of all.
This was the opportunity to make history for the men in black after the abject disappointment of losing the World Cup final to the same opponents a year earlier in Johannesburg.
Never before had the All Blacks won a series against our most formidable opponents on their dusty, sun-baked fields, but this was to be our time to shine.
Zinzan Brooke, Christian Cullen and Jeff Wilson were among the individual stars.
The series was clinched with victory in the second of three Tests played in South Africa with Wilson’s two brilliant individual tries the telling factor.
His try that broke the Pretoria Test open was a stunning chip and chase from near halfway to score between the posts and silence the 51,000-strong crowd. Few players of any generation could have pulled off such a risky play at pace, under intense pressure, and made it look so simple.
Wilson became the player I wanted to watch from that supreme performance in Pretoria to the end of his illustrious rugby career in 2002.
Some of his exploits for Otago in the old NPC were ridiculous. The way he could produce something from nothing, a withering burst of speed to score in the corner or save a certain try, made him a superstar of our game.
But rugby is just half the story.
Wilson had made an earlier impact as a cricketer in 1993 with the gifted allrounder almost single-handedly winning a one-day international for New Zealand against Australia at Hamilton’s Seddon Park. He bludgeoned 44 not out from 28 balls in just his third outing for the Black Caps.
I found out about Wilson’s match-winning knock from Paul McCartney, of all people, who told us we had won the cricket during his sold-out show at Western Springs Stadium that same evening.
Later in 1993, Wilson became the last ‘double All Black’, at the age of 19, when he was selected for the All Blacks’ end-of-year northern tour. It was after his sensational debut against Scotland that a few older players in the team came up with his nickname ‘Goldie’, that has stuck ever since.
When Wilson decided it was time to finish playing rugby in New Zealand, aged just 28, he did not take the easy money available in Japan or elsewhere.
He renewed his cricket career to the delight of so many of us who yearned for the days when rugby and cricket had distinct, separate seasons and talent like Wilson could play both codes to first-class level.
Going from a muscle-bound, rugby body to a slimmer version to be able to bowl 10-over spells took some adjusting. It was a Herculean task but probably only Wilson could force his way back into Black Caps reckoning so soon after taking up the game again.
And so he did.
In February 2005 he again took on Australia in his first ODI for nearly 12 years, a world record for the longest gap between playing ODIs.
Things did not go as well as Wilson hoped but nothing can diminish the magnitude of playing international cricket again after so long away playing rugby.
It was the next stage of Wilson’s rugby life when it got personal for me.
He was assistant coach of North Harbour alongside former All Blacks teammates Craig Dowd and Liam Barry between 2009 and 2012. For three of those years I had the pleasure of working with the coaches and players as the media liaison/website editor for the union.
Wilson has the ability to make people feel at ease in his company. Despite being a big name in our biggest game he is still that same polite, unassuming boy who grew up in Southland.
I loved working with him. His positivity was a joy to behold during a tough time for Harbour when wins were rare and public support at an all-time low. He exuded an attitude of ‘we can do this, boys’, and the players clearly loved learning from him.
His weakness as a coach working with players below international standard was that he saw the game from a different perspective to mere mortals. His video analysis and game reviews were intricate and detailed but some players struggled to keep up.
Wilson reads a game of rugby in the same incisive way he played the game.
He could see scoring opportunities and the right plays well ahead of his young charges. If he had been wired up directly to his first five, then Harbour’s success rate would have improved dramatically. He just saw things quicker than others as a player and a coach.
It was fascinating to listen to his comments during Harbour’s home matches. The coaches’ boxes have no sound-proofing and are located behind the media seats at North Harbour Stadium. Some of the language from the coaches could be particularly blue at times but that was never Wilson’s style. He was classy on the field and classy off it at all times.
Sometimes at training he would run moves at pace to show the lines he wanted his players to run. It made everyone take notice.
A favoured memory from my Harbour days showcased his freakish skills.
After training, the goalkickers used to practise on the main field, trying to get used to the tricky wind that has kept the best kickers honest in Albany over the years.
One day the Harbour kickers were trying to land shots from the grandstand touchline without much success. Wilson was challenged by one of them to see if he could do it.
No problem. Without a warm-up shot and with a bulky tracksuit on, Wilson calmly slotted the kick, smiled to the stunned players and walked off down the tunnel to the dressing room. Genius.
Coaching may not have worked out as planned for Wilson but his new career as a SKY Sport rugby presenter is his latest success. He admitted to me he was nervous and less than impressive when he first took on the role but now he fronts the best rugby analysis programmes on the planet. All done live and with his trademark humour and smile.
Thanks, Goldie, for all the brilliant tryscoring highlights and counter-attacking runs throughout your career. Thanks too for being such a great guy to work with and for not forgetting it is a game to be enjoyed at all levels.
A true champion.
Teams: New Zealand, NZ XV, NZ Colts, NZ Development XV, NZ Divisional XV, South Island, Highlanders, Southland, Otago, NZ Under 17s, NZ Schools, Harbour (club), Cargill HS (First XV)
All Blacks number: 935
All Blacks 1993-2001: 71 games/50 tries/299 points; 60 Tests/44 tries/234 points
Highlanders 1996-2002: 72 games/35 tries/222 points
Otago 1993-2001: 64 games/37 tries/422 points
First-class 1992-2002: 233 games/151 tries (8th on all-time NZ list)/1123 points
Honours: 1997 Kel Tremain Memorial Trophy winner, 1998 NPC champion (Otago)