Paul Thomas

Us vs them and us

Oct 17, 2015 | Sports

Given that New Zealand is the world’s leading exporter of rugby players, it’s perhaps appropriate that the All Blacks were on the receiving end of the most famous performance by a foreign-born player in international rugby history.

Prince Alexander Obolensky was a member of the Rurikid dynasty, one of Europe’s oldest royal houses and the first imperial Russian dynasty. (There were only two: the Ruriks and the Romanovs.) He was born in St Petersburg but brought up in England after his family wisely fled their homeland following the 1917 revolution.

Obolensky made his England debut against the All Blacks at Twickenham in January 1936. His selection was controversial in that he was still a teenager but not yet a British subject. Concerns about his age and allegiance evaporated after he’d scored two tries, one of which was deemed to be among the best ever, and England had won 13-0.

In 1940 Pilot Officer Obolensky died when his Hurricane overshot the runway during a training exercise. He was 24.

New Zealand got into the player export business early on: Matamata-born, Sacred Heart College educated flanker Greg Davis played 102 games for the Wallabies in the 1960s and early 70s, captaining them in 16 tests. Latterly, though, exports have boomed to the point that there are 40 New Zealand-born players representing other countries at the Rugby World Cup. The leading importers are Samoa (13), Tonga (nine), Japan (seven) and Australia (four).

They range from players who might well have made the All Blacks, like Ireland utility back Jarrod Payne who played for three of our Super Rugby franchises and represented New Zealand at sevens and under 21 level, to journeymen like Japan loose forward Michael Broadhurst, brother of recent All Black James, who played for Poverty Bay in the Heartland championship.

They don’t include Wallaby prop Sekope Kepu who was born in Sydney, crossed the Tasman as a youngster, attended Wesley College and represented New Zealand at three age group levels. On the other hand, we can’t take too much credit for Japan’s captain and outstanding loose forward Michael Leitch who was born in Christchurch to Fijian parents and moved to Japan to study when he was 15.

Highlanders flanker John Hardie is the latest in the line of “kilted Kiwis” who have pulled on the Scottish jersey. The kerfuffle surrounding Hardie’s fast-tracking into the Scotland team recalls the case of Brendan “Chainsaw” Laney who in 2001 was picked for Scotland within a few days of setting foot there for the first time. When Laney made his debut, the camera rather unkindly lingered on his barely twitching lips during the singing of the national anthem.

New Zealand is also a prolific exporter of rugby coaches: leaving aside the All Blacks, there are six teams at the World Cup coached by Kiwis, including serious contenders Ireland (Joe Schmidt) and Wales (Warren Gatland).

There’s no question that globetrotting coaches, not all of them New Zealanders, are a key factor in the dramatic improvement of the so-called “minnow” nations. (Another is that many of their players now ply their trade in the various European leagues.)

Not so long ago the All Blacks knew that when they played the lesser teams they simply had to get the ball into the wide channels and the tries would flow. No longer: improvements in physical conditioning, aerobic fitness, game understanding and defensive organisation have made these teams much harder to break down, as the All Blacks discovered in their pool game against Georgia who are coached by former New Zealand Rugby resource coach Milton Haig.

This article originally appeared in the New Zealand Listener.