Almost 30 years on, Buck Shelford’s scrotum is back in the headlines.
A new book by French investigative journalist Pierre Ballester (sic) exposes widespread drug use in French rugby during the 1980s and 90s. Ballester quotes the French team doctor at the time as saying it was customary for players to have “their little pill in front of their plates for the meal before the game” and that the French team was “loaded” on amphetamines when they beat the All Blacks in Nantes in 1986.
It’s a matter of record that the French played with a ferocity that went beyond the bounds of what was acceptable, even in an era in which a certain amount of subterranean violence was regarded as part of the game.
With a few minutes to go, Shelford retired hurt which was unusual, if not unheard of, for a player imbued with the warrior spirit and blessed – or cursed, depending on your point of view – with an extraordinarily high pain threshold. In the shell-shocked All Black dressing room it fell to John Kirwan to ask the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Buck, what happened to you, mate?” Shelford’s laconic damage assessment - concussion, some teeth kicked out - concluded with “Oh yeah, and this”. Whereupon he lowered his shorts to reveal a split scrotum.
In the deathly hush that followed, Shelford explained that the injury had happened in the second minute “but it got to the stage where I just couldn’t stand it anymore”. Kirwan’s abiding memory of that night is getting back to the hotel after the formal dinner to find Shelford, who’d been at the local hospital getting 40-odd stitches in his scrotum, standing at the bar “with his legs a long way apart”.
The revelation vindicates Shelford, who has always maintained the French were hopped up – last week he recalled that they looked “high as kites” in the tunnel before the game. It also harks back to a shameful footnote in All Black history, one that can be deployed whenever those hampered by rose-tinted spectacles and highly selective memories evoke the good old days when the All Blacks were a band of brothers united by their devotion to the black jersey, unlike today’s show ponies who are only in it for the money.
Halfback David Kirk had made himself unpopular with many of his teammates for opting out of and speaking out against the last, furtive assignation in New Zealand rugby’s tawdry love affair with South Africa which involved the All Blacks rebranding themselves as the Cavaliers and touring the pariah state for considerably more than 30 Krugerrands.
In his autobiography Kirk recounted how their bitterness overflowed the day after the Nantes defeat: A drinking session started around 10am. There wasn’t a good feeling in the room. “A drinking session started around 10am. There wasn’t a good feeling in the room. The sourness of defeat crystallised the larger anger of the rebel failure. And when alcohol had loosened people’s tongues, some of them found it easier to be direct with me about my part in the fiasco and what an inadequate individual I was.
“There is a cumulative power in these sorts of attacks from your teammates: they know you intimately; you trust them at an important level; their attacks have the power to damage you that enemies’ don’t have. I was surrounded. And the long and short of it was that after a while I couldn’t take anymore and I ended up sobbing in my room”.
Both Shelford and Kirk had to retire from the fray because they couldn’t take anymore. The difference was that Kirk’s hurt was inflicted by his fellow All Blacks.