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Always a perfect gentleman

Submitted by on Saturday, 16 May 2009No Comment
Always a perfect gentleman

Former Wallaby captain Nick Farr-Jones is pleased he played in the amateur era, when fierce games were followed by friendly dinners

You came from nowhere, so to speak, in rugby. Yet you became captain of Australia?

Well I didn’t play for the first fifteen at school, same as Kearnsy (Phil Kearns); we went to the same school and both only made the second team. But I then went to Sydney University; which is the ‘factory of Wallabies’ and I grew a bit, and things changed. Actually I only saw my first rugby test, a year before I played one. So it was a bit of a meteoric rise I suppose (laughs).

You played your first four tests with Mark Ella, often considered as one of Australia’s all-time greats. What was that like?

I was very privileged to play with him. He retired very young. You get fly-halves who want the ball out in front of them or on their hip; some want it behind them; some want it high and some want it low. I asked him where he would prefer it and he said, ‘Nick you do the chucking, I’ll do the catching…’

In the first Rugby World Cup in 1987, Australia were favourites but lost to France. How did you feel going into the 1991 World Cup?

The pressure on me was immense – I knew it would be my last throw of the dice. We played very poorly in 1987 after getting to the top of the tree in 1986; having beaten New Zealand on their soil in a three test series. I don’t know what happened – we probably got too complacent. So I knew 1991 would be tough.

In that dramatic quarter-final against Ireland, where they scored a try and took the lead with 4 minutes to go – you were actually sitting in the stand injured. Tell me about that.

Well about twenty minutes into that game I injured my knee and had to come off. It was terrible to be sitting there and having no impact on the game. I think I decided then and there that I didn’t ever want to be a coach. But we had a great escape and the rest is history.

You beat England in the final. How much of it do you remember?

I think the fact that we won it is going to be chiselled on my tombstone. It was slightly disappointing we didn’t win, playing the way we would have like to. We only got about 40% possession and we won defending our line. But in the end no-one remembers how you won; just that you won.

When you got home after winning the World Cup, what was your reception like?

I remember our semi-final against France in 1987; the lead changed five times in the second half and it was a magnificent game. Yet it really didn’t capture the imagination of the public. Only about 18,000 people pitched up to watch. So when we got back in 91 and they announced they were going to put on a ticker tape parade, I tried to get it called off. I couldn’t stand the thought of having only two or three-hundred people lining the route. But in fact a hundred and thirty thousand people turned up; which was astonishing.

I remember a friend of mine saying to me at the time, ‘Nick you’ll never achieve anything as great in the rest of your life.’ I said I hoped that wasn’t true. But in terms of scale, I think he was probably right.

You actually started out as a soccer player. Why did you change to rugby?

Yes, I played soccer until I went to a school that didn’t play soccer. So I changed to rugby and stuck to it. But I loved my soccer when I was young. My mum always used to wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to watch the FA Cup. I also met Pele and Bobby Charlton at a soccer camp which is something I’ll always remember and inspired me.

Did you follow any particular team?

No, not really. In the seventies we never got proper TV coverage. The thing I loved about the FA Cup was that underdogs could bubble to the surface. Some of those great victories by underdogs captured my imagination.

By all accounts you were a disciplined player and spent a lot of time training on your own, over and above team training. What motivated that?

When I was young I was a swimmer and a middle distance runner. I knew what punishing my body on my own, was all about. So I suppose I developed my training habits then. I also didn’t want to die wondering how good I could have been. And I am thankful when it comes to rugby, I did work hard – I think I squeezed the lemon and got all the drops out.

What sport do you do now?

Not a lot. I chase my kids around. With a full time job, four kids and lots of travelling I don’t have much time for sport. But I’m quite lucky I haven’t put on any weight – my body shape hasn’t changed at all.

I read that when you were 17 you became a Christian. What initiated that?

I had a fantastic upbringing. We were a very close family, but we weren’t religious. Out of meeting a couple of pretty girls one night, I turned up at church on Sunday and I heard the gospel. I had never ever really heard it before that. God moves in mysterious ways.

Have you kept it up?

Yes. Look, like many Christians I have a bit of a roller coaster ride. There’s sometimes months and even years where I am not proud of my Christian walk. But there are other times when I think I have been a blessing to some people.

The Wallaby coach Alan Jones apparently saw your Christianity as a weakness, that you needed a crutch; what was that all about?

When I was made captain of New South Wales in 1987, Jones called the coach of NSW in and said, ‘Don’t you realise he is a Christian?’ He felt that if you had that sort of faith and belief, there had to be some weakness in you. That under pressure you couldn’t be relied on.

In every article I’ve read about you, they describe you as a gentleman, on and off the field. How did you manage to remain one in such an incredibly rough game played by some very rough people?

I think when you respect people and you obviously have to respect your opposition, it comes naturally. I loved meeting and making mates with the opposing teams. One of the things I loved about amateur rugby, the French call it, ‘The third half’, where you would go and have drinks and dinner with the opposition. They don’t do it now, because generally speaking they are playing night games. When you meet people in those circumstances, it’s easy to behave properly with them. I also loved the fact I played in the amateur era – motivations were different.

Things have changed because of professionalism – Australia now has a Kiwi coach.

(Laughs) yeah – Robbie Deans is a lovely person. My only regret is when we win the World Cup in 2011, ninety percent of the rugby world is going to say it’s only because we have a Kiwi coach.

Coincidentally, like other ex-captains Sean Fitzpatrick and Francois Pienaar, you also ended up in banking.

I didn’t make a particular choice to be a banker – I’m actually a lawyer – but the opportunity to live in France was very appealing. I’m not a natural banker, I haven’t got any economics training, but I surrounded myself with people who have the skills I don’t, and it’s been fascinating. It’s a bit like when I became a lawyer. I asked one of the partners what sort of law I should do and he said, ‘don’t worry about the sort of law you want to do – worry about the sort of person you want to become. There are finders, minders, binders and grinders – decide what you are.’ I think I’m a finder and a minder. I’m now with a funds management company and we invest in mining companies. I’m also on the board of Central Rand Gold which is bringing the Wits basin back into production, which we are doing as we speak; and I love the mining industry. We can make a huge difference by employing literally thousands of people, which is very satisfying.

Are you investing at the moment?

I think it’s a great time to be investing in commodities. Looking at the equity prices in mining there are some great opportunities.

You lived in France for a number of years; what’s your French like?

Pretty good after a bottle of red wine (laughs). It’s one of my personal regrets and frustrations that I didn’t put in the time to learn the language properly. My wife was better than me at it.

In 1992 you came out to South Africa and beat us in Cape Town.

Yes, we came out with the consent of the ANC. It was a wonderful time with the country on the road to becoming a democracy. Interestingly there was huge pressure on us. People used to come up to us and say, even though we had won the World Cup, it was nothing without beating the Springboks. In fact I decided I would retire after that game, such was the emotion that I felt.

To digress, you once had a go at politics?

I was in local government, if you call that politics. I dipped my toe in the water and found it too hot. But I think there are many other ways in this world to make a difference without going the political route. Maybe in this country one could make a difference. But in Australia most of the parties have chosen the middle ground and most parties have similar policies. I don’t think there is a lot to be achieved in a political career at home.

You occasionally do motivational speeches. How do you motivate yourself when you get down?

(Laughs) I just tell myself to practise what I preach…

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