haden: Mccaw a saint next to mcbride '99'
From far-away New Zealand comes a message, a friendly sharp tap on the shoulder for your columnist. Andy Haden, one of the most renowned of All Blacks, digested my story of last weekend regarding Willie John McBride, and offered a counter-argument.
As ever, Haden sought to make his point with reasoned logic, but with Andy these days you never quite know whether to expect to see his tongue emerging through a cheek.
The man's sense of humour is subtle.
McBride, readers may recall, made the point that the New Zealanders' approach was not necessarily his own. He mentioned Richie McCaw and averred that, in his view, the All Blacks captain was offside most of the time at the breakdown.
As for New Zealanders in general -- and Haden was, of course, his principal target for diving out of a lineout to try and win a crucial penalty (against Wales in Cardiff in 1978) -- McBride felt the intensity with which they approached the game was not always healthy.
"There are other things in life than rugby," he insisted.
Back home at his elegant house in Auckland, Haden pondered these words. His response arrived on my desk on match-day morning in Dublin.
He insisted on making one point crystal clear. "Life is just what it is sometimes... I want to make sure people are aware that I wasn't offering any excuses," he said. "We are what we are and who's to say one lot are right and another wrong?"
But Haden then developed his theme. And he raised some interesting points. "I enjoyed your Willie John interview and his views on us Kiwis being too desperate to win for his liking," he wrote.
"If you see him again please ask him to reflect upon McCaw's style of play and compare his 'Kiwi desperation' to the premeditated and desperate acts of violence that Willie John labelled as '99' calls (on the 1974 Lions tour of South Africa).
"If McCaw is penalised for pushing the boundaries, he will accept his penalty knowing that he hasn't participated in a blatant, premeditated and desperate breach of the rules, which is really the only way that the '99' calls can be classified.
"Equally, a thorough search of the rule book before, or amended versions since, my lineout incident have no clauses that classify what took place as being in breach of the rules.
"If Gareth Edwards ran from the base of the scrum pretending to carry a ball and not the one that he had left behind under the No 8's feet, and had the referee awarded a penalty against opposition loose-forwards caught off-side, many applaud. 'Spur-of-the-moment genius,' Welsh fans will say. 'Humbug,' Kiwi fans may say if it was an All Black that was penalised. Again, no clauses in the rule book prohibit Gareth's actions.
"Willie John's '99' call is different in so many ways as the law book specifically prohibits such behaviour with lots of references to striking an opponent, and the judiciary hands out substantial penalties to those who do transgress in this fashion.
"I have no doubt that, confronted with the above suggestions, Willie John will take a long draw on his pipe and agree 'that's just the way it was' and if referees don't find fault with Richie's style, who are we to stoop to label him a cheat? It's just the way it is!"
What you see with Andy Haden is what you get. He's a big, honest, straightforward man who likes to tell it like it is. Take, for instance, some of the more regrettable elements of this game's shift to professionalism, such as the proliferation of what we might term 'the PR police', those employed by clubs and unions to erect ridiculous walls of sanctity around the players and monitor their every utterance when they do occasionally re-enter the real world.
"Absolutely in your camp on the PR brigade who, along with many of the army of others, would have to fit into the 'superfluous hangers on' category," was Haden's verdict.
But he finished on a thoroughly up-beat note.
"There was a lot of good in times of old that could well be retrieved and used again... in the modern game. Players need to enjoy the experience that is international rugby and let the financial rewards take care of themselves.
"The game today is fast and furious and not for the faint hearted. I am a fan; such fine athletes and some fantastic skills. More thrills and more that amazes than ever before. I am sure that rugby is sustainable in close to its present form."