Campbell Burnes catches up with a man well known to older readers and those who follow the game in Otago.
People occasionally ask me: “Whatever happened to Bob Howitt?”
They must live north of the Waitaki River.
Because Bob Howitt is still very much alive and kicking, and still on the rugby beat, after 60 years, covering the Central Otago club scene for the Otago Daily Times.
For those in the dark, Howitt was the founding editor of this august publication, and in fact spent 25 years at the magazine, helping churn out rock and roll rugby fine art on a weekly basis. Rugby fans bought the mag in huge numbers, the circulation regularly over 30,000 (!) in the 1970s. I would be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time someone said to me: “I always read the mag back in the day when Bob Howitt was editor.”
The tale of its sudden birth in 1970 was told by Howitt in an article for our 50th birthday issue last year. It highlighted a different time. How they pulled it together so effectively every week without email was extraordinary.
Howitt was one of the most prolific rugby writers in the country, and he had some competition from the likes of TP McLean, Ron Palenski, Lindsay Knight and Alex Veysey. He has penned some 21 books on rugby, including three volumes of Rugby Greats and two bios with Sir Graham Henry, and he edited the iconic, late and much lamented Rugby Annual from 1973-93. In latter years, he wrote a Wilson Whineray biography and the Pakuranga Rugby Club 50th jubilee booklet. His was a fluent style, but he dealt in ‘facts not flowers’, as his old Evening Post sport editor boss Fred Boshier hammered home to him.
Born and raised in Wellington, Howitt then headed to Auckland in the 1960s. There he stayed until he and wife Jenny decided to retire to Arrowtown in 2016. She wanted to be closer to her ailing father Ray Harper, the 1980 All Blacks manager and the 2012 recipient of the Steinlager Salver. He died in 2019.
That year Howitt took a call from then ODT sports editor Steve Hepburn.
“He told me that the fella who had been covering Central Otago club rugby for them had moved out of town and they didn’t have anyone to cover it. Was I interested? Having done it for the last thousand years, I said ‘Why not?’
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, because it was a good excuse to go to places I would otherwise have just driven through. There are eight premier teams here and it’s important I don’t just focus on the top two or three,” he says.
So his work involves a preview of the weekend’s action for the Friday paper and coverage of the matches for the Monday edition.
You might find him in Alexandra or Ranfurly or Queenstown or Cromwell, the Goats having won the title in 2021. Snow has rarely been a factor and, of course, it rains far less than in Auckland.
One story springs to mind: “I went down to watch Arrowtown and Wakatipu in a local derby in 2019. I was a wee bit delayed, so arrived as the kickoff happened. There was a really good crowd for the White Horse Cup. Near halftime, the No 13 scored a try for Wakatipu. There were no programmes and I had the team list from the week before. Fortunately, being the inquisitive sort, I asked at halftime for confirmation of the No 13 who scored the try. Was it ‘So and so’? No, it was Michael Collins. I said ‘Oh, really?’ He then set up the winning try, effectively winning the White Horse Cup. I went to see him after the game, interviewed him and got a front-page story in the ODT. I thought ‘If only the people reading this knew that the fella who wrote it didn’t even know until halftime who the hell the No 13 was!’”
It pays to be inquisitive, especially if you turn up late to cover a match.
While Howitt covers Central Otago, former Old Golds five-eighth Terry O’Neill still covers the North Otago scene, as he did for the weekly Rugby News for many years.
“I hugely admire the coverage the ODT gives to, especially rugby, but all local sport,” says Howitt. That paper knows its market. Don’t get him started on some of the larger papers, which have downgraded local sports coverage.
There are several basics to sports journalism, though you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a free-for-all with the variable quality of copy that you read online these days.
“You’ve got to get your reader in the first paragraph. I never allowed any story to appear in Rugby News starting with the word ‘I’. Assistant editor Heather Kidd always used to chuckle at that, but all that’s telling you is that the writer is the most important person here.
“When I read a match report, I want to know if a side has won, but I also want to know how they won. I accept that many of those sent out to cover a game don’t understand how they won. But give me a reason why Team A beat Team B. I don’t need a run of play account,” says Howitt.
He looks back fondly at the halcyon days of Rugby News. Rugby was not a 12-month cycle back then, so the biggest decision was when to bring out the first issue. Too early in March and there was no rugby on. Summer was for editing the Cricket Annual and perhaps writing a rugby book, all after travelling with the famous Rugby News Youth teams.
“If you had the energy and manpower now, you could produce Rugby News 52 weeks of the year.”
Mondays was print day, Tuesday was “for deep breathing exercises” and then straight back into it. For many years, Rugby Press Ltd, which owned Rugby News, also produced the Auckland Rugby Union programmes with a club rugby supplement. This was, bear in mind, the glory days of Auckland rugby. Fans soaked up all the info like sponges.
Howitt also collaborated on three books with the late great Di Haworth, who was the magazine’s schools editor from 1985-2007. Their Rugby Nomads book, published in 2002, was a real hit.
“I loved working with Di, except that she was a morning person and I’m a night person. She used to ring me at 6.30am when my brain had not even come to for the day. She was a very special person and so enthusiastic.”
I (sorry, Bob) can vouch for that.
Bios on Bryan ‘Beegee’ Williams and ‘Super Sid’ Going sold well, as did his books with Henry.
“I always reasoned that every player had a story to tell. Some didn’t know how to tell those stories, and some of them were amazing,” he says.
The 1971 Lions and their legacy are topical, given it is just over 50 years since they left these shores, and they are hailed as one of the great touring teams here.
“They left us quite a few legacies. They brought to us ‘around the corner’ kicking, they brought counter-attacking rugby. They had some backs of stunning quality and deserved to win the series. New Zealand was going through a lean period of top quality backs, other than Beegee and Sid,” Howitt says.
He did four tours of South Africa, the last of which nearly saw him come a cropper after he was robbed at gunpoint in Johannesburg during Rugby World Cup 1995. Perhaps that’s why the ACC premiums for journos are so high…
Howitt has only one regret about his long and colourful career as a scribe.
In 1998-99 he was heavily critical, though far from alone in this stance, of John Hart’s coaching when the All Blacks were stumbling after two superb seasons in 1996-97.
“If I have one regret it was that I was so anti-John Hart at that stage. I got into him. He had a terrible season in 1998. Some of my friends in the All Blacks were telling me that he was just boring them to tears with his endless monologues and that he was no longer the inspiration they needed. I regret that now because, throughout my life as a journo, I always tried to take the positive side and stayed away from the negatives.
“John and I ultimately shook hands. He probably doesn’t regard me as his favourite journo, but he’s gone on to achieve and I’ve had dealings with him in the NZ Open golf down here. What he achieved with Auckland was fantastic but I think he just got a bit carried away at All Blacks level.”
Funnily enough, Graham Henry had the same issue with players not responding to his long speeches but, after a word from his captain Tana Umaga, he adapted and became a better coach.
Howitt still loves the game and follows it avidly, as he does most sports. But there are frustrations.
“Probably the lineout-driven tries. There was a Ranfurly Shield game between Hawke’s Bay and North Otago this year. The Magpies were always going to win by 50 or 60. I’ve always been a fan of Hawke’s Bay, but they kept kicking the ball into the corner. By the time they drove over for their fifth try, I switched over. It’s not doing anything to win supporters to the game. It needs to be looked at for rugby’s future. Teams cannot legally pull down a driving maul. How are you supposed to stop it?”
That’s a question that has been on the lips of discerning rugby scribes for years.
The likes of Don Cameron, Phil Gifford and Roy Williams have penned their memoirs from long careers in sports journalism. Howitt has a folder entitled ‘Memoirs.’ But he’s not sure he will get around to it, even though he can draw on over 200 All Blacks Tests that he covered and all those press calls, plus putting together those books, programmes, annuals and myriad magazines.
Howitt remains a keen lawn bowler, and a very good, competitive one too. He enjoys golf, having written for The Cut magazine for several years. He is a regular at the gym down the road and allows himself a glass of two of the
November will be a milestone month. He hits 80 and will become a great-grandfather for the first time, while his eldest grand-daughter is getting married in Auckland.
As for which team he now supports in rugby, other than the All Blacks…
“Whenever the Highlanders play the Blues, I keep my mouth firmly shut. You cannot live in Auckland for 40 years and not be a Blues fan (ed: though some do), so I still cheer for them. When they are not involved, I am more than happy to cheer for the Highlanders or Southland, as that’s where my wife is from,” he says.
As for the 2022 Central Otago season, ODT readers can expect more clean, crisp, copy from this vastly experienced rugby scribe, a former NZ sports journalist of the year and the founder of the very mag you now read.