Waratahs and I: from Manawatu to the Crusaders
July 29, 2014
The late Dave Brockhoff would have approved of Michael Cheika's Waratahs, Greg Growden says © Getty Images
Right from the start, covering New South Wales Waratahs has been a rollicking, unpredictable, wisecracking experience.
It was May 1981, the Sydney Morning Herald's rugby writer, Jim Webster, was on the other side of the country covering a golf tournament, and someone - anyone - was required to cover the NSW-Manawatu match. The only person who had not hidden himself away from the gaze of the Herald sports editor was the misfit in the drip-dry shirt completing the greyhound form guide; and so five minutes later I was off to T.G. Millner Field.
Two hours on, I was trying to comprehend what exactly I had witnessed. Manawatu were the supposed New Zealand provincial champions, but that didn't matter because NSW completely overwhelmed them: Mark Ella was on song; Mick Martin scored virtually every time he touched the ball; Glen Ella skipped through regularly; Simon Poidevin, Steve Williams and Mick Mathers pounced on everything that came their way; and voila, a 58-3 shellacking.
So to the dressing rooms. All the Manawatu coach Graham Hamer could utter was: 'Hellllllp." Next door, coach Jeff Sayle's legendary kookaburra laugh reverberated around and around the tiny space. Nearby a NSW team official wanting to be heard bellowed: "Well if that was Manawatu… wonder how we would have gone against the ManawaOnes?"
Thus begun a 30-year-plus relationship with the Waratahs, which has involved endless laughter, endless bewilderment, endless frustration, endless strange moments, and endless disbelief that only now are they in such a strong position to actually prove they are the most formidable province in the southern hemisphere by at last winning a Super Rugby trophy.
One would assume that as most of the country's rugby talent hailed from New South Wales, they would boast a truckload of titles. Instead covering the Waratahs on a day-by-day basis has often involved analysing inexplicable failure, and chronicling wasted opportunities. It has revolved around talented line-ups suffering from off-field incompetence, political intrigue, boardroom bungles, and enormous ego battles - sometimes involving player versus coach. And at least three former Waratahs Super Rugby coaches would readily testify that it is the province where the only lesson for survival is to always "watch your back". Where else would a head coach re-applying for his position be subjected to a job interview just minutes before a home game?
Super Rugby grand final for ages%]
No wonder that Waratahs head office for a long time was known as 'Fort Fumble' - a tag first used by an exasperated player agent, John Fordham, after he had been involved in prolonged negotiations with the organisation.
And no one is safe. The hierarchy has always preferred the press that covers them to be cheerleaders, and it can turn nasty when that doesn't happen. You really never forget the moments when high-ranking Waratahs officials lurch at you and scream at you outside dressing rooms, or when the wife of the head coach explains in the most direct manner that she actually wouldn't mind if you were run over by a bus. But you push on, realising that humour, light relief and an escape route is usually close at hand; you also just avoid going near any bus routes for several weeks.
You persevere because the Waratahs' spirit continued to amaze.
The other Australian provinces like to portray the Waratahs as a "bunch of Sydney spivs", but that has not always been the case.
They understand hardship, and have learned how to adapt. Back in the 1980s, the Waratahs did it pretty tough. Money was a bit tight, to the extent that sometimes they struggled to get the lights put on when they had night training sessions at Concord Oval. During Dick Laffan's time as head coach, the players even became accustomed to training underneath the main grandstand in near darkness. Several players had to park their cars at either end of the concourse and put on their headlights so they could see.
That was as haphazard as when Mat Rogers some years later found himself on the sidelined list after he fell down a field pothole left by a crew filming a Wiggles DVD.
On one South African trip, the players forgot to take footballs to a training session. Easy, grab someone's scrumcap, scrunch a hotel towel into it, and hey presto you have a ball that can be thrown during lineout practice.
That's maybe why the Waratahs are delighted about a hometown final - because scary things have so often happened to them when on the road: they have been attacked by opposition mascots; bikies on Harley-Davidsons have dangerously disrupted their pre-match warm-ups; even their luggage has been pilfered to the extent that on one tour of South Africa they arrived to find their printed game plan going round and round the luggage carousel. Then there was the time when the players thought they were going to be part of a remake of the movie Alive after their bus broke down near the top of the Andes during a South American trip. No wonder they looked longingly at the ample figures of then Waratahs coach Ewen McKenzie and his assistant, Tony D'Arcy.
Stephen Hoiles is one of the characters who have made the Waratahs a special beat for Greg Growden © Getty Images
The Waratahs have always provided a haven for special characters, including one who will run out on Saturday night, and who was involved in one of Australian rugby's greatest practical jokes.
During the 2005 season, Stephen Hoiles, with the help of Waratahs officials and players, persuaded Shaun Berne to be involved in a photo shoot, which the utility back was led to believe was for Men's Health magazine. It involved him in a series of ridiculous beefcake poses, including push-ups wearing only a vest and board shorts; modelling ties; and staring into the eyes of a teddy bear. Berne was initially skeptical, but his suspicions were allayed because back-up half-back Chris O'Young, who was in on the sting, had also agreed to pose.
Later, when the Waratahs were in Dunedin, McKenzie called a surprise meeting at which he abused the players for their attitude. Several Waratahs admitted later that they were genuinely scared, thinking the coach was about to physically attack them. McKenzie finished his tirade by demanding they watch a video that would show them the right way to behave. Suddenly, to the tune of Right Said Fred's I'm Too Sexy (For My Shirt), the video showed Berne going through his paces. When the video finished and the cheering subsided, Berne warned the "get-square will be big".
A short time later, Hoiles returned home to discover his lounge room had become an enormous aquarium. Berne had secured Hoiles' spare house keys, cleared all the furniture from the lounge room and installed an inflatable swimming pool, which fitted perfectly. The pool was full of water with an assortment of colourful goldfish swimming between lush and exotic plants. Hoiles thought he had just walked onto the set of a Jungle Jim movie.
For many years, it was a sheer delight to attend Waratahs training because invariably the off-beat and always effervescent Dave Brockhoff would be there, providing sanity and hilarity. Brock would always get a disillusioned soul back on track.
The former Wallabies Test back-rower and coach was their most committed follower, making certain he was at Sydney Airport every time to farewell the Waratahs and greet them on their return. He made a point of talking to every player.
Each week he was allowed to spend some time with the Waratahs forwards, using the moment to remind them that they had to "cause havoc at the breakdown like sharks in a school of mullet, every lineout is a dockyard brawl and when you're through the other side you're like crowbars through the Opera House window, you get in, loot the joint and get out".
The late, great Brock would have just loved to be part of the extravaganza on Saturday night. Hopefully he is remembered by the Waratahs on grand final night because for so long he was the real heart and soul of the organisation and because he would have reveled in how Michael Cheika has transformed the franchise.
The Waratahs over the years have quite often played dreadful football, which either turned away their most committed followers or forced them to boo the team off the field. But this season, Cheika has been true to his word: they are again entertainers and again aggressive; and they deserve support because they have avoided being negative.
Waratahs 26-8 Brumbies (Australia only)%]
But will they win?
I'd love to see it happen, because they would be worthy titleholders; victory against the Crusaders would be just reward for easily the best NSW line-up since their unbeaten 1991 team.
Still you must understand my reservations about actually tipping them; I was after all in the Christchurch press box that infamous night in 2002 and witnessed first hand a certain alarming score line - Waratahs 19. Crusaders 96.
Through such brutal experiences, you just get to know when the Crusaders are in that lethal mood. And the Crusaders are again in that mood.
As for the ManawaOnes? That's a different matter.
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