Who Is That Guy?
November 6 at the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff. The final whistle blows. Mercifully, the 1999 Rugby World Cup reaches a conclusion, Australia deserving winners over France.
Yet, it is hardly an inspiring contest. Far from a classic. Indeed, 72,500 fans and a world-wide television audience of millions are forced to endure a dour, chippy affair. Two late Wallaby tries, the second admittedly set up via a magical reverse pass from scrum half George Gregan, put undeserved gloss on a match dominated by defence and niggle. Not to mention a substantial number of penalty kicks.
Indeed, the tournament overall is something of a non-starter. For want of a better word, dull! Even if Jannie de Beer does manage an unheard of five drop goals in South Africa’s triumph over England, even if Samoa does again trip up Wales, and even though vaunted New Zealand does spectacularly, totally, and unexpectedly implode in its semi-final.
Without a shadow of doubt, change is needed.
And so, it is against this backdrop that the International Rugby Board (iRB) convenes its third Conference of the Game less than a month later. A veritable Who’s Who of leading international players, coaches, technical directors, and match officials gather in Sydney. Using submissions sent to the Laws committee as a guide, the group has a clear mandate to suggest various measures to improve the sport.
Video, analysis, and practical demonstrations all help. And, of course, there is discussion. No potential law change or creative idea is to be off the table or deemed too crazy. Which is folly of course, as plenty of new schemes are patently ridiculous. Nonetheless, all are dutifully scribbled down on a white board, for presentation at the ensuing plenary session.
In the end, given the clear need to make rugby faster and more fluid, as well as more interesting to play and watch, several law changes come to pass. Primary among them are recommendations to open “space” around the tackle, reduce endless and boring scrum resets, and assist in defending driving mauls. A handful of other changes are just cosmetic, including video playback when required for try scoring decisions, independent timekeepers and use of substitutes.
Attending as one of the referees, my contribution to proceedings is modest, revolving as it does around quick lineouts. At school back home in British Columbia, lineouts never actually are formed during touch rugby sessions and drills, as we allow the ball to be put back in play without delay. Whether the throw-in is straight or not is irrelevant, getting the game moving again is all important. I suggest a similar opportunity at the top level might produce some exciting results.
Alas, any additions to quick lineout throw options are deemed too radical. The proposed alterations are rejected in no uncertain terms.
The conference winds down. Nonetheless, for me, it is an intoxicating week, getting to rub shoulders and talk all things rugby with many of the titans of the sport. Little do I know that the final night will be even more memorable.
Dinner over, we mill around the taxi rank outside the hotel. A pub crawl of sorts, in and around famous Bondi beach, is planned.
A car pulls up. The two men immediately in front of me in the lineup need no introduction. They are Nick Mallett and Sean Fitzpatrick.
To my considerable surprise, they turn in my direction. Then chime “You’re with us. Jump in. Let’s go."
And so we do, as unlikely a threesome as one might imagine. One, Mallett, is a capped Springbok lock, then a South African coaching legend, whose national teams win a world record seventeen consecutive matches between August 1997 and December 1998. The second, Fitzpatrick, is one of the finest players to ever represent and captain the All Blacks, a World Cup champion in 1987, and the winner of 92 test caps before knee injuries scupper his career.
And then there is me, by comparison, it must be said, a random Canadian.
The evening is brilliant, even if something of a blur, events fuzzier with every establishment visited. The pair, who must have been implacable foes for several seasons, given the fierce rugby rivalry between their countries, quite literally, in the relaxed setting, let their hair down. For hours they buy rounds, swap stories and jokes. Roar with laughter, mix with the locals. Me hovering close by, telling the odd tale, enjoying the company, lapping up the atmosphere, still giddy I am somehow out on the town with the two of them.
Inevitably, patrons start to crowd around. They want pictures. After all, sporting celebrities are always in demand. And so the three of us front up, shoulder to shoulder, smiling broadly, me dwarfed in the middle.
I should have seen it coming. One of the cameras is a Polaroid, complete with self developing film. I lean across to sneak a peak, watch as our images emerge slowly into focus.
The guy with the camera proudly shows the photo to his buddy. Look at this, he brags, it is Mallett and Fitzpatrick!
The buddy nods, but then points a stubby forefinger at the remaining face.
Yea, but who is that guy? he asks.