Maori talk about whakapapa - unbreakable bonds - and the best example I know of whakapapa is the global rugby family.
In 1987 a prodigious young talent burst onto the rugby scene, from Canada of all places. Gareth Rees became the best player ever to come out of the nation and led Canada in three World Cups. He was a great captain, a shrewd rugby brain and an inspirational leader. In John Daniel’s words, Gareth had the body of a seventeen stone shot putter who demanded seconds of everything. His boss at Wasps and our USA Rugby CEO, Nigel Melville, agreed and told me Gareth was the only guy who trained by eating and drinking. To give you an idea of Gareth’s physical makeup, a UK rugby commentator was once heard on TV to say, “A large gap opened up and Gareth Rees romped through it to score. Well, it had to be a large gap, of course”.
I met Gareth in 1991 when he brought his brave Canadians down to Eden Park in Auckland to play the All Blacks. At the time, I was heading up Lion Nathan and our flagship beer, Steinlager, was the All Black sponsor. Gareth was very gracious in thanking Steinlager profusely for their contribution to the game; an early indication of his commercial sensibilities.
I caught up with Gareth last week in Vancouver and had a fantastic dinner with him and his partner, Denise. We kicked off at 9:00pm and were still enjoying ourselves at 1:00am at the 5 Sails Restaurant at the Pan Pacific.
Next day I rocked up to the sailing center to watch Gareth’s Vancouver Academy youth-side play Kinross, a touring Scottish school. The ground was voted by Rugby World as one of the 10 most beautiful in the world and it was a night of pure grassroots rugby. Gareth had the teams line up and sing their national anthems, which was moving for the handful of spectators and parents at the game. The Canadians, fresh from a New Zealand tour, thumped the Scots but both teams played enterprising, attacking, inventive rugby. You had to be impressed. Here was Canada’s best ever player with his tracksuit on, coaching a bunch of 17-year-olds.
Then it was back to the clubhouse where parents had all chipped in for the barbecue, complete with burgers, beans and a couple of beers. It was interesting to watch the Canadian team standing back to make sure the Scots got their food first before they dug into the feast. All part of a well coached team, or a sign of whakapapa; both I would guess. I left after a couple of hours with all 30 boys heading back to one of the Canadian lad’s house for a party.
Next day I flew to Victoria Island to catch up with Robin Dyke, an adjunct professor with the University of Victoria MBA program. I hadn’t seen Robin since 1988 when he and I played rugby together in what was my swan song year. At the time Robin was working for Lever Bros. and I was at Pepsi. We had a lot in common on the marketing front but what created unbreakable bonds was rugby. As Robin reminded me, as soon as I joined the club I took charge of training, strategy and tactics while the more polite Canadians stood back and enjoyed (perhaps) the spectacle.
Anyway, Robin and his wife, Marlene, were wonderful hosts in Victoria and a great day was had by all. I spoke to the MBA’s, met with the Dean, and the Faculty and did my best to persuade these very bright talents to make the most of their education and to follow their destiny hopefully into an ideas-driven creative environment. I’ve attached the message as covered by the local paper.
It felt like only yesterday since I’d seen both Gareth and Robin and it was a great feeling to see that all three of us are still passionate about this great game of rugby. And also to find that we are all three contributing to the game’s development in our own ways. In this increasingly cynical and self-centered world, I’d urge all of you to get your kids involved in rugby. It’s a great game and one which will provide Whakapapa for life.