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Australia’s famous son

Submitted by on Saturday, 14 March 2009No Comment
Australia’s famous son

Former Wallaby hooker Phil Kearns chats about cutting his All Black rival down to size, winning the World Cup twice, and tough SA tours.

For a couple of years, you and All Black hooker Sean Fitzpatrick had a running feud on the field – what was that about?

I think it was the old bull/ young bull thing. I was the new kid on the block and I think he just wanted to show who was boss. So for three years we had a go at each other – after that it was fine. He was an incredibly strong guy – mind you, there are not too many hookers you come up against who aren’t strong. But he was the best. There is no doubt about it – easy my toughest opponent. He used to call me ‘Lightning,’ because he said when I threw the ball into the line-out, I never hit the same place twice. In fact which spurned the comment that I was the best line-out thrower the All Blacks ever had…

You scored a try by running over him and you turned and gave him a two finger sign. On the TV replay you are clearly shown speaking to him; what did you say?

If I told you Dave, I’d have to kill you… but it wasn’t very gentlemanly.

How did he respond?

When someone scores a try over you, there is no response that is adequate, so he didn’t have a response. But after I had scored that try, he stopped telling me to, ‘Go home to mummy’. I think I finally got his respect.

He now works for a Russian bank; how did you end up working for Investec, a South African bank?

The guy who dreamt up World Rugby Corporation was the deputy chairman of Investec bank in Australia. At the end of 1995 he approached me about the World Rugby Corporation and I thought it was a good idea. Geoff Levy was the guy. When I told him I needed more experience of finance, he suggested I get that experience on the job with Investec, which I’ve done. Although I’m now doing a diploma in Applied Finance, which at 41 with 4 kids is really difficult.

How do you fit your TV rugby commentary, in with your banking job?

The rugby stuff doesn’t take any time out of my working day. Like ‘The Rugby Club’ programme we do on Thursday nights is out of working hours. Sometimes I do have to leave a bit earlier on a Friday to get to a match if it is out of town; but it doesn’t take much out of my normal week.

Rugby is one of the few, if not only games where the ref coaches the players; what’s your view on that?

The problem is that rugby is so complex; particularly at the moment, where we are playing different sets of rules around the world. It’s crazy; although the complexity is also one of the beauties of the game. In Australia we have a tough situation because we have three different codes (Rugby League/ Aussie rules/ Soccer), we are competing with; and all of them are very, very simple; which in turn, is the beauty of them.

How did you get into rugby union and not the other codes?

Easy; I lived next to a park where they played union – so that was it. But the travel also appealed to me. In rugby league you might go to the North of England and that would be it; and with Aussie Rules you wouldn’t go anywhere. So long term, rugby union seemed a better place to be.

Do you follow Aussie Rules?

I do. It’s a fabulous game – especially live. Watching it on TV you lose a bit of perspective; so I would encourage anyone if they get a chance, to go watch a game live.

You played in three Rugby World Cups (1991/ 95/ 99), of which Australia won two; and you are one of only six players to be twice involved in a winning side. In the 1999 RWC you were injured and didn’t make the final. What happened?

Yeah, that was shattering. I snapped a ligament in my foot so I had to go just before the quarterfinals. But I was going to retire after that anyway. Also my second son had just been born, so I got to go home and spend some time with him. You just have to be very philosophical about those things. I mean in 1995 I had a knee injury and I tore my Achilles, and the doctors told me I would never play again. So in 1997 when I did start playing again, the next couple of years were simply a bonus.

Did you actually snap your Achilles tendon?

No. I tore it four times – the doctors said it would have been better if I had snapped it, because then it would have healed much better; although it doesn’t give me any trouble now.

You’re in pretty good shape; how do you keep fit?

Swim and gym. I can’t run because there’s no cartilage in my knees, so they’re not in great form; but I hate running anyway. So I go to gym regularly and I do a fair amount of swimming. I manage about 4 kilometres a session.

Australia is a very ordered, controlled and generally well behaved society. How do you feel when you come out here and by comparison, it’s like the Wild West?

It is a bit like the Wild West here – isn’t it? You’re right. We are heavily over-regulated in Australia. It’s bizarre, there are even a whole lot of laws they don’t enforce; it’s like they are there just in case. Actually, Australians are quite rebellious. We come from convict stock so it’s in our nature to be unruly. But I’ve never seen any violence here. Even in the early days. I think the worst I remember, was we once played in Potchefstroom and we had some special services guys with guns looking after the tour party. During the game some guy ran onto the field and stole our mascot, a little stuffed Wallaby. Funny, it didn’t take the special services guys more than a few minutes and they had it back. We never saw the guy who took it again, but I believe he wasn’t well…

What was touring here like?

Tough. As an example, at that same game in Potchefstroom, as we got off the team bus there were people spitting at us; banging on the side of the bus; giving the finger and verbally abusing us. We thought, ‘Gee isn’t it lovely to be in this place…’ And we couldn’t believe that people injected naarties with vodka, sucked the juice out and threw them at us. Nowhere else in the world did they do that! So yeah, it was tough; the size of your guys and their physicality; the hardness of your fields and the altitude made it very tough. But all tours are tough for different reasons. In France, every game we played in, the same five guys were against us. The reason was that they were the dirtiest players in France, and they followed us around trying to kill us or soften us, leading up to the test matches. And In New Zealand in some of the provincial games you would come against farmers, who were all big Maoris and they were as passionate about their rugby as people are here.

What about the rivalry between Australia and New Zealand?

You have to remember there’s never been a bad All Black team. Some have been better than others, but never a bad team. For a hundred and however many years, they have been the benchmark in rugby. Also given that we are so close geographically; they are for us, the ultimate test. When I grew up, because South Africa was not involved in international sport for all those years; I never really knew until much later, who the Springboks were.

Are you involved in coaching?

No, but now that Investec are sponsoring the South African version of the new Zealand International Rugby Academy, I will get more involved. However I am chairman of The Career Training Scheme, which is about ensuring that players are well educated and have careers after the game. We have just built into player’s contracts that if they are not in full time employment or in full time meaningful study, they don’t play. It’s been proved that players do better when they have outside interests. Australia has a history of rugby players generally being better educated people. But there has been a general dumbing down of the people in the game, not only in Australia, but globally. You can hear it in the monosyllabic post match interviews, where week after week players say the same things.

Unfortunately, apart from your rugby success, you are also famous for running over your daughter. What happened?

Yeah – one morning I was coming back from swimming in a 4×4, and I didn’t see her in the driveway and I just ran straight over the top of her. She was only seventeen months at the time. I picked her up and she sort of looked ok. But then she went grey, and then blue. It took seven minutes for the ambulance to get to our house. They said if it had been nine minutes, she would have been dead. I was in the police car following the ambulance; they wouldn’t let me drive; and I just said to the policeman, ‘I can’t believe I’ve killed my daughter…’ it was devastating. But she survived and she’s in great shape.

Has she got any recall of the incident?

No, she was too young. But she knows about it. The other day she said to me, ‘Daddy, you’re naughty, you ran me over…’

Was your wife, Julie angry with you?

Not in the slightest. She saw it as a total accident. But you don’t know how it would have been between us if Andie had died. The stats are that with the death of a child in a family, there’s about an eighty percent chance of a split. We were incredibly lucky.

Partly because of this incident, you got involved in a couple of charities – tell me about them.

I support two charities. I am on the board of the Children’s Cancer Institute of Australia. Have you ever seen a kid with cancer? It’s one of the most uncomfortable sights you’ll see; and they suffer enormously. Kids shouldn’t suffer like that. So we try to cure children with cancer. In the last thirty years the survival rate of kids with cancer has gone from 2% to 70%. Incidentally, I feel that in our lifetime we will be able to cure cancer and get that figure to 100%. My other charity is the Humpty Dumpty Foundation that buys equipment for children’s hospitals. Which is actually a horrible thing to have to do, because you’d like to think the government would buy them equipment…?

In every article about you in the Australian media, they talk about you being one of Australia’s most famous and respected sons. How have you managed to keep your feet on the ground?

I think Australians are pretty good at letting people not get a big head on their shoulders; at bringing people down to earth. I have never had people falling over me or wanting to be around me. I suppose at the end of the day, professional sportsmen are just out there doing something they love, but they happen to be good at it. Which is no reason to get a big head. I also think the fact that rugby is a ‘team’ sport, is a factor in keeping one’s feet on the ground.

You once said on TV that Waltzing Matilda, as sung by the Brisbane crowd, was just as intimidating as the All Black’s Haka – I presume that was tongue in cheek?

Yeah. That was a joke; Waltzing Matilda is not the most frightening song around…

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