Memories of an All Black
From rugby pitches to bowling greens, it’s a sporting life Kris Dando talks to 1960s All Black Bruce Watt about being a firstfive, Colin Meads and running 26 miles in the aisle of a bus.
Was rugby always your game?
I had one year where I played football in the morning, rugby in the afternoon while at school [Wanganui Technical], but I loved rugby too much. I played a bit of cricket, was an opening bat for Rangitikei in one Hawke Cup match. We played Waikato and I wanted to face Don Clarke, who was opening the bowling, but I made a duck in each innings at the other end.
You grew up on a dairy farm in Hunterville – why did you go into banking and not farming?
I didn’t want to be a farmer – asleep at 8.30 most nights because of the 5.30am starts to milk the cows. As soon as I was old enough I got a job in the BNZ in Hunterville.
How was your first taste of provincial rugby?
I made Wanganui as an 18-year-old. We had a Shield challenge against Wellington 1957, but got well-beaten, 34-5. I was playing against 30-year-olds and thought I was a bit out of place. It was great to play against Australia in 1958, too. They only beat us by two points. This was when you actually had tours and teams like Wanganui and South Canterbury were very competitive against the big boys.
Why did you move Canterbury?
I had a transfer through the BNZ. I didn’t want to, but my sister was at a school for the deaf in Sumner and it was good to be close to her. I didn’t think I’d have a show of getting into the Canterbury team, but managed to force my way in.
Playing for New Zealand Juniors against the British Lions at Athletic Park in 1959 must have been a highlight?
I was only 20, but it gave me an inkling I might be in the frame for the senior team selectors. Against the Lions, one of our players broke his leg and we had to play 70 minutes with 14 men. I probably played 20 games at Athletic Park, with All Black trials and other games.
You made the All Blacks in 1962.
It was unbelievable. You play your best, but you never expect it. The selectors read out the team under the stand at Athletic Park and my dad, who had played for Wanganui, was so happy he
to grabbed me by the hair and dropped me on my back.
It was an era of formidable first-fives – Neil Wolfe, Mac Herewini, Peter Murdoch, Tony Davies and, later, Earle Kirton.
Yes. Luckily we had a 36-game tour of Britain in 1963-64, so the selectors took three first-fives.
Is the role of the No 10 different today?
Not really. You’re the general. You call the moves and control the backs. We had a bit more freedom, but the role is still fundamentally the same. In my day, you could kick it out on the full from anywhere, so the way you look at the game has definitely changed.
On your test debut against Australia in 1962, you scored two tries. Nice start.
I didn’t score a lot of tries. It wasn’t my job. It shows that a good first-five should always be backing up, which my coach, Jack Griffith from Wanganui, used to tell me. I got the last pass on a couple of good moves.
What were the highlights of the big 1963/64 tour to Britain?
The test against Wales, where I dropped a goal. It was the All Blacks’ first win on Cardiff Arms Park, so it meant a lot to us. Against Scotland [0-0 draw] we played in mud up to our ankles. It’s not like the pristine surfaces now.
What was it like to play with Don Clarke, Wilson Whineray and Colin Meads?
I did feel like a mere mortal in their presence, but they were good buggers, just one of the team. They all played 80 minutes and seldom had a bad game. Against the Barbarians at the end of the tour [ 36- 3 win at Cardiff] Whineray, a prop, sidestepped the fullback and scored. He could do anything. My brother, Russell, played club rugby against Colin and Russell got caught at the bot- tom of a ruck. Next thing, he has this shadow looming over him and a voice says, ‘‘Young Watt, give me that ball’’. So Russell gave him the ball!
That was some tour of Britain.
It was hard being away so long. Val and I postponed our wedding for five months and I spent Christmas overseas. I played six games in three weeks at one point and every game was like a test.
The best players you played with?
Probably [ fullback] Fergie McCormick. He was a good mate as well. He gave his guts every game, a very hard man and superb footballer.
Earle Kirton became the favoured first-five later.
Right up to the 1967 All Black trials I thought I had a good shot. I really wanted to go on the Britain tour in 1967, but they took Kirton and Herewini. I retired from rugby in 1969. The idea of rugby coaching, and work and family were more important.
You stayed in the game coaching.
Rugby was always a huge part of my life. Work with the BNZ took us to Canterbury, Nelson, Balclutha and Wellington, so I fitted in coaching around that.
How long were you with the BNZ?
I retired at 50, after 34 years with them. Then I was manager of the RSA in Naenae for three years and postie here in Tawa for eight. It was a great way to stay fit.
And bowls became your sport?
In Tawa I joined the Tawa Services Bowling Club. They’ve all become my good mates and I was chuffed to be made a life member. I reckon I’ve been on the roller [rolling the greens] from Wellington to Auckland and back, twice. Do you watch much rugby? I never miss a test match. I’m a Canterbury fan first, Wellington and the Hurricanes second. I don’t get out to watch much live though. It’s a bit hard for me these days [with Parkinson’s disease].
Finally, what about the legend of you running marathons on the bus?
I was a keen runner. Every Queen’s Birthday, Canterbury would play Buller on the Saturday and West Coast on the Monday. After a few beers on the bus, I’d strip to my grundies, jog in the aisle and say to the driver, ‘‘Keep an eye on your speedo and let me know when you hit 26 miles’’. There aren’t just larrikins around today, you know!
Quiet life: 1960s All Black Bruce Watt has lived in Tawa since 1982.