Tougher Than The Rest

Listener, October 18, 2003

As the Rugby World Cup kicks off, former All Black and current All Black selector Mark Shaw explains the new team’s philosophy and what it takes to impress him.

“I got dropped for 1987 World Cup,” says Mark Shaw. “Like Oliver, Randall, Cullen and Merhtens: exactly the same thing happened to me. And I sat at home and thought I was still good enough. Lochore and co decided I wasn’t required. I got up and went to work the next day and played club rugby the next Saturday. Life goes on. You’re either good enough or you’re not.” 

Now Shaw’s back in the frame at the highest level of the game – as one of the three wise men; along with coach John Mitchell and former All Black fullback Kieran Crowley. They are a pragmatic, dour lot and it’s no secret that they weren’t interested in past reputations when making their selections for the World Cup. They were after players who would do their jobs for 80 minutes, game after game. “It’s not about a couple of nice tries, or a couple of nice passes, or a couple of nice tackles that you might see close up on your TV screen,” says Shaw. 

“I remember watching the semi-final against France in Cardiff at the last World Cup when the All Blacks got beat. I also have vivid memories of when they played off for third and fourth, and to be perfectly frank and honest, I was ashamed to be there, to be a New Zealander: to watch that performance, where they were so despondent and depressed at losing the semi-final they didn’t put up any inkling of a fight. They basically just threw the towel in. 

“Their body language was atrocious, they didn’t chase kicks, they didn’t tackle, they didn’t want to be out there. And consequently they got beat, finished fourth. It was still a test match to be won. They were still playing South Africa. Third’s better than fourth, and I was disgusted and ashamed of the All Blacks at that tournament. Several players that the country are getting emotional about being dropped now were there. They weren’t good enough four years ago, so why all of a sudden are they good enough now?” 

Shaw is a straight shooter. Ex-All Black winger Stu Wilson nicknamed him “Cowboy” on his first tour – of Australia – in 1980. “The exact reasons for it are better off being left in house,” he says. “I guess I just reminded Stu of someone out of the Westerns: quick on the draw – rough and ready and uncomplicated.” 

Shaw granted me an interview because I patronise his Paraparaumu Beach pub on the Kapiti Coast, which he co-owns with his brother and sister. Lisa, the eldest of his four daughters, works behind the bar. It’s a well-run establishment, catering mainly to sports’ fans, although all sorts duck in to play the pokies. Pubkeeping is a family tradition. Shaw’s parents ran the Waikanae Hotel for 12 years. 

Normally, he says, he doesn’t speak to the press: his lip curls and his tone roughens when talking about “negative and uninformed” criticism of the current selection process. 

“In previous regimes, the press probably had too easy access to the inner workings of the management team and what they were trying to achieve in selection,” he says. “At the end of the day we were charged with the responsibility of finding the best 30 players we could to do a particular job, in a particular way to win the World Cup. Obviously it’s a big passion in New Zealand and everyone’s got their favourite players. Everyone picks their own team, everyone has a say. And that’s fine. 

“But the press have become more tabloid. They’ve become more hungry for headlines. You’ve got a culture of young reporters, who are not specialist rugby reporters, with a grounding and a history in the game and who are able to be analytical. You’ve got a lot of fleas in the system They write shit. They’ve got no idea of what they’re talking about. 

“We can’t be sidelined or swayed by fleas. Simple as that. I’ll talk to anyone about footy, who I respect, who understands footy, and has been there and done that, who has made contributions to the game at whatever level. But I can’t waste my time talking footy with fleas.” 

* * * 

Shaw was no All Black centrefold, like the “film stars” in Auckland during the John Hart era, but he was included in Joseph Romanos’s 1990 book Famous Flankers in which he wrote of him: “If the opinions of his peers are worth anything, then he deserves to be rated right up there, not so much for the try-scoring abilities of a Tremain or Kirkpatrick, or the speed of a Nathan or a Michael Jones, but for his work in the tight and his ability to make sure any team in which he played had every chance of winning.” 

He had the reputation of being a hard man on the field and he wasn’t averse to dishing out physical justice to infringing opposition players. He was caught in a photograph in Famous Flankers breaking the jaw of Australian lock Steve Williams with a left hook. His role was to protect the lineout jumpers and he wasn’t one to shirk his responsibilities. “Different game in those days,” he shrugs. “It was very much the law of the jungle.” 

Shaw, 47, played 68 games for the All Blacks in the No 6 jersey, which included 29 tests between 1980 and 1986, scoring six test tries. He played two tests during the infamous 1981 South African tour and was a member of the Cavaliers team that toured South Africa in 1986, for which he copped a two-test ban. He played his final test against Australia . “I’d had a good run.” 

But he continued to play, captaining Hawke’s Bay for a couple of seasons and finished up playing club rugby for Hutt Old Boys. He then coached the New Zealand under-19 team and Hawke’s Bay, and a couple of years ago decided to sever his ties with rugby to concentrate on his pub, until he got a phone call from John Mitchell. 

“I got a phone call from Wellington to say that they would be here in three-quarters of an hour and could I organise somewhere for us to have a yak. So they just walked through the front door: Mitch, Kieren Crowley and assistant coach Robbie Deans. We went across to the boating club across the road and we had a meeting and I was very impressed with what they were trying to do and where they were going and I committed myself to them.” 

He says rugby in this country had lost its way in adapting to the professional game and that the timing was right to take a step backward to look at where the game had come from. “We needed to rethink the values that were important to the All Blacks. I had played a lot of football with Kieran and Robbie. We were All Blacks together, toured together. Mitch was a little bit after me, although I did play against him in the latter part of my career. 

“We are cut from the same cloth. We think in similiar ways. We’ve done the hard yards in terms of coaching. We all came out of the amateur era. Although Robbie and Mitch coached in the professional game, they were still traditionalists at heart. They still believed that to be successful and to be a team we had to take the best out of both worlds.” 

Shaw a uses cricketing analogy to make his point: “I used to really admire Ewen Chatfied he supplies potato chips to his pub. There would be a test at the Basin Reserve at Christmas. And it would be blowing its bloody head off. Hadlee’s down one end firing ’em in, getting five-wicket bags and Ewen Chatfield is bowling into the wind all bloody day at the other end and doesn’t get any wickets, but they the opposition don’t get any runs either. And at the end of the day the contributions were the same. And yet their lives now are totally different. 

Yes, he agrees, “You’ve got to have your stars, you’ve got to have your enthusiasm of youth.” But “you’ve got to have glue in any team . . . It’s the players that have been roundly criticised in the media that fill that roll. But they are the glue. You can’t run out on the field with 15 Jonah Lomus and think that you’re going to win every game.” 

And are we going to win the World Cup? Can we beat the Poms? “I’m excited by it,” he says. “I really honestly and sincerely believe that Robbie and Mitch have left no stone unturned. They have worked very hard. I think we’ll go very well. 

“As for the Poms. I guess for the first time since the game started they’re really a threat to us. When I played they were never a threat: they were soft, they were unfit, they used to squeal. They just couldn’t hack it. In recent times they have got themselves to a situation where they’re going into a World Cup as not only a threat, but as favourites, and they deserve that. You’ve got to beat them to win the World Cup basically. 

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