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Built to be one of the greatest

Submitted by on Saturday, 29 November 2008No Comment
Built to be one of the greatest

Sean Fitzpatrick, the most capped All Black, talks about drinking beer with the enemy after having his ear bitten, and whether the Kiwis were really poisoned in the ’95 World Cup.

You are currently living in the UK and working for a Russian Bank, how did that come about?

Yeah, I’m actually a builder – I’ve been thinking of writing a book called, ‘From Builder to Banker,’ (laughs). I was working for the British Chamber of Commerce and I was at a dinner in Russia. The bloke I was sitting next to was a Kiwi who had been there since the 90′s; he turned to me and said he wanted to turn Renaissance, the bank he was working for, into the ‘All Blacks of the banking world,’ and he asked me if I would help him.

What did he want you to do for them?

He wanted me to mentor his senior management team – talk to them about leadership. He also wanted me to do some marketing with the clients. Take them to games – watch the All Blacks and tell the customers what it’s all about; so I have been to a lot of games for work purposes (laughs).

You are also involved with the Laureus World Sports Awards.

Yes – It was almost a blessing in disguise. I retired in 1998 and I got a letter through the IRB (International Rugby Board) saying some South African would like me to be part of The Laureus Sports Awards. At first, because it was a South African thing, and as you know I wasn’t the most loved person there (smiles), I wasn’t really interested. But then I got a call from Johann Rupert, who I didn’t know, telling me that I ‘must’ join. The next thing he sent me two tickets to stay in the Hotel Paris in Monaco. So I went and at our first meeting I’m sitting next to Hugo Porta on one side and Morné Du Plessis on the other, which was quite impressive. Then in walked Johann, who ignored me. He announced to the room, ‘This is the greatest night of my life to be in the same room as some of the greatest sportsmen in the world. I’ve hand-picked you all to be part of this great sport’s group. The greatest tennis players in the world, Martina Navratilova, Boris Bekker: The greatest 400m runner Edwin Moses: The greatest cricketers Viv Richards and Ian Botham: The greatest boxer, Sugar Ray Leonard,’ and he went round the room. Then when he got to me he said, ‘And to show I was totally impartial, I have the man that all South Africans love to hate, Sean Fitzpatrick!’ (laughs).

That was the first time he acknowledged you?

Yeah – and everybody in the room was going, ‘Who’s he?’ (laughs) But that was ten years ago and I feel very lucky to be involved in it. We now have sixty-six-odd charities around the world that we support. There are 44 members, membership is capped at 50, and we meet twice a year.

You and Murray Mexted are part of a very small group of father-son All Blacks. How did it influence you having a father who was an All Black?

Funny, but he never really spoke about it. Obviously we knew he was one. I remember as kids we were in the backyard playing with a rugby ball and my brother, because he was older, wore the All Black jersey and I had to wear the Australian one. Anyway my dad was mowing the lawn and he came over and he said, ‘Listen boys you don’t have to play rugby union. I just would like you to play a team sport and make sure you bloody enjoy it – that’s all.’ So he never pushed me. However I was in all the age grade teams – but I was a fat little bugger and never really took it seriously. Enjoyed myself and played a team sport as he suggested I did.

You overtook his test record quite quickly?

Well he only played three tests (laughs). Played three – won one, lost two; one of which was to the Welsh. My brother and I used to rag him for losing to them. Funny when you ask an All Black which game he remembers most, it’s usually one he lost. The game I remember most is 1993 when we lost to the British Lions at Wellington. It’s the game I remember more than any other game and it was a game I lost.

Why that one?

That was the worst game I played for the All Blacks. We have a saying, ‘Enjoy success but remember the games you lose’. Too many people just remember their success – in the UK they still remember 1966 when they won the bloody football World Cup. Enjoy success but then park it. Remember your losses because you never want to go back there. My dad always spoke about 1953 when he lost to Wales. Every year his opposite number, Cliff Morgan would ring my dad and invite him to the 53 team reunion and my dad would never go – he would just say to us, ‘There’s 13 of us alive and only ten of them…’ (laughs).

You obviously remember the test against Ireland, where Steve Smith punched you in the mouth and broke your two front teeth?

Of course – I was just getting up from a ruck and I was holding down their lock, (laughs) when out of the corner of my eye I saw Steve Smith run past me. He obviously thought, ‘Here’s a chance’, so he punched me in the mouth. Well it broke my two front teeth in half and I felt them in my mouth guard. I took it off and the two bits were lying there so I asked the physio, who came on to put the bits in a cup of milk, so I could get them put back at the end of the game. At the same time I could see Steve Smith just watching me disbelievingly – I suppose he thought I would go off. We had a beer afterwards and his hand was all cut and swollen. Anyway, a week ago I was in Newry in Ireland and they said, ‘Ah you got to tell us about the Steve Smith story. He was here a couple of years ago and he told us how he went back to the changing room after smacking you, took his bandages off and there were your two teeth stuck in his hand’. It’s not the way it happened (smiles).

How strong were you as compared to all your opponents?

I had natural strength. But as I said I was a builder, so I would go for a run about six thirty in the morning; seven thirty get to work on the building site – mix a couple of metres of concrete by hand – until five thirty; and then go to training in the evening. I never went to gym and also in my early years I was a prop, which made me quite strong.

As the man South African’s love to hate, tell me about your ‘chirping’ and controlling/ manipulating the ref.

I couldn’t really fight my way out of a paper bag, I suppose; but I’m hugely competitive. South Africans always say to me, ‘You’re a bloody annoying bastard’, but I’m no different to your guys. We are very similar – winning is the most important thing and talking to the referee is no different to what players do now. But I was probably just a bit smarter in the way I did it; or at least I used to treat them like human beings. It’s human nature, if you like someone you’re going to think differently about whether you are going to penalise them or not. Also I was a bit older, which helped. I can remember playing for Auckland and the opposition hooker would be throwing in the ball and I would say, ‘For chrissake ref that’s bloody crooked!’ As we ran across the field Dave Bishop, one of our great referees said, ‘Fitzy – as long as you keep telling me it’s crooked. It’s going to be straight.’ And I shut up. Later I would say, ‘Can I help you in any way? With the scrums..? (laughs).’

How did this ‘banter’ extend to your opposite front rows?

Oh I had a lot of fun against your John Allen; we always had a good battle and Uli Schmidt. You always like a guy who is going to be competitive. And you get the guy you know you can wind up, like I always used to make Foley, the Aussie hooker lose his rag (laughs).

In one of the tests you wound Johan Le Roux up so much, he bit your ear?

He was fair game – he’d given away about 12 points in penalties the first test. We would pull on his jersey, hold him down, bump him; he was an easy target so we went for him and he just obviously snapped. I was a bit surprised when he bit my ear, but I had a beer with him afterwards. You know what you take on the field, is what you give. If you give a bit you’re going to get it back. I remember playing against Uli in 1992 in a World XV game in Wellington. Well later that same year we toured South Africa and ten minutes into a game I got smacked on the mouth by the lock Geldenhuys. When I went to the lineout I had blood everywhere, and I said, ‘What the hell was that for?’ He said, ‘That was from Uli.’ Well after the game, I had ten stitches put in and I was having a beer with Uli, was still dripping spots of blood onto my white collar, and I said to him, ‘Mate what was that for?’ He said, ‘That was for the game in Wellington.’ I asked him what happened in Wellington and he said I punched him. I said, ‘Uli – I did not punch you in Wellington.’ ‘Oh,’ he says, ‘sorry!’ (laughs).

You obviously enjoyed playing against the South Africans?

South Africa was the greatest place to tour; on and off the field. It was the biggest challenge – especially in the 1996 tour, when we played you four times in a row. But I have always said if I wasn’t an All Black I would want to be a Springbok. In fact if you asked 99% of the All Blacks if they weren’t playing for the All Blacks, who would they play for and it would be your team.

I suppose the question is inevitable – but do you think the All Blacks were poisoned before the World Cup final in 1995?

There was definitely food poisoning – whether it was on purpose or not, we will never know. I can remember Louis Luyt, who had always been very good to us saying, ‘Sean, all I want is for South Africa to play the All Blacks in the final and I’ll do everything I can to make it happen.’ We were looked after like you can’t believe; no phone calls during the night, no noise in our hotel area, it was wonderful – until we were in the final. Suddenly the odd car alarm would go off during the night; stupid phone calls would come in – wrong numbers that sort of thing. In hindsight, we should have got out of Johannesburg and gone somewhere on our own. Anyway, up until then we’d been eating in the hotel restaurant with the other guests; but on the Thursday before the game, we thought we’d have lunch on our own. Friday morning there were 16 of the 21 guys down and out. To be realistic there were a lot of things we didn’t deal with well. We didn’t handle the Jomo Lomu thing properly; from a good player suddenly he was a super star – we should have used him as a decoy. Instead we kept shovelling the ball to him. Also we were a young team, we were a bit naive; and physically we weren’t really strong enough. There was the whole Mandela buzz, just the whole amazing occasion; it’s impossible to blame one thing.

You were going to retire after that game, but you didn’t. Why was that?

I was going to retire – win or lose. But at the dinner after the match I remember saying, ‘… we are devastated we lost, but this All Black team will go on to be one of the great All Black teams.’ While I was saying it, I was thinking, ‘Hey I’d like to be part of that.’ The next two years were the best years I had with the All Blacks.

You are the most capped All Black of all time, how did you last that long?

Right in the beginning I was on a tour and rooming with Mark Shaw (AB flanker). He said to me, ‘Don’t be a good All Black – be a great All Black – and always prepare as if you are number two.’ In other words, never think you are good enough. From then on I just trained harder than the guy next to me. Warren Gatland, the number two hooker to me, sat on the bench for 63consecutive games – I wasn’t going to give him a chance. He now coaches Wales. But he would have done the same. That’s how it was in those days – you didn’t come off. I remember Murray Pierce, (AB lock) against France, with five minutes to go had his face ripped apart and he made as if to go off. We all said, ‘Where you going?’ He said, ‘My face is falling off’. We said, ‘There’s five minutes to go – guts it out (laughs)’.

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