Ruatoria final the best game ever
The year was 1999.
The All Blacks were gearing up for the World Cup and the Crusaders had won another Super Rugby title.
But it was a third division final held in the Waiapu Valley town of Ruatoria that holds the fondest memory for Tony Johnson.
The Sky Sport rugby commentator was calling the first ever televised game there — East Coast defeated Poverty Bay to lift the title.
‘‘It wasn’t just mate against mate, it was family against family,’’ Johnson says.
‘‘There was this beautiful spirit about the whole thing. Cars and trucks all parked up around the ground, the grandstand was full at 10am and the game didn’t start until 2pm.’’
Since then Johnson witnessed first-hand some of the most memorable moments in world rugby.
Growing up in Marlborough, Johnson attended Queen Charlotte College in Picton.
He played rugby as a lock or in the loose forwards for his first XV and senior reserves but a neurological disorder affected his legs at 19.
Johnson was a natural allrounder, involved in premier cricket, basketball and rowing.
But he had to sacrifice his weekends in pursuit of his dream.
‘‘When I was a kid there wasn’t that much sport on TV.
‘‘It was waking up in the middle of the night to hear the All Blacks playing in South Africa or Wales.
‘‘That sort of crackly sound coming through in the dark of the night. I think I became quite captivated by it.
‘‘I didn’t necessarily start out wanting to be a sports broadcaster. I just wanted to be in radio.’’
He learned as much as he could from others.
‘‘John Hawkesby taught me a very valuable thing when I was working with him at TV3 – if you had any doubt about something you shouldn’t say it.
‘‘That’s not to say you should hold back, you’ve got to express an opinion.
‘‘But you need to be really sure of the laws of the game.’’
For an All Black supporter it’s always a fine line getting the balance right. No matter what happens someone’s going to accuse you of being biased, Johnson says.
‘‘Put it this way, I go to South Africa and their rugby fans are always telling us that our commentators are the least biased of the lot.’’
As for Kiwi fans, we are certainly a unique bunch.
‘‘[New Zealand] is a bit of a discerning crowd, who probably tend to sit there and analyse the game a bit more than anyone else.
‘‘We tend to react more to what’s going on where the crowds overseas tend to be proactive.’’
The World Cup is just around the corner and Johnson says this will be the closest ever tournament.
‘‘Tournaments are different ... all it takes is one bad day and you’re out of there, or one team to play above itself,’’ he says.
‘‘Yes the All Blacks are in pole position but this time instead of four or five teams who could win it we’ve got six or seven.’’
After another long season, Johnson is now home for the summer.
He lives in Northcote with his wife and young daughter and likes to make the most of his time off. That includes being the handyman around the house.
The jet lag doesn’t get any easier but coming home certainly helps.
‘‘That’s the great thing though, is you come out of the northern winter back into the start of the New Zealand summer.
‘‘It’s a beautiful thing.’’
Sound check: Tony Johnson says his most enjoyable match was a third division final in Ruatoria.