Ru­a­to­ria fi­nal the best game ever

Central Leader - - SPORT - By JU­LIAN RAETHEL

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.’’

Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Sound check: Tony John­son says his most en­joy­able match was a third di­vi­sion fi­nal in Ru­a­to­ria.

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