Interview - Sean Fitzpatrick: Wounded warrior desperate to fight

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The All Blacks captain and most capped forward, Sean Fitzpatrick, has appeared for his country 92 times. But making it to 100 caps is not as important to him as retiring from the game in the right way.

It says something about the man that his injury-enforced absence from most of the unbeaten All Blacks tour that finished on Saturday has been as big a story, if not bigger, than if he had actually played.

The All Blacks without Sean Fitzpatrick in their side, planning, scheming and leading from the front is like the Rolling Stones without Mick Jagger. It is just not supposed to happen, at least not since he forced his way into the team back in 1986. Yet, like Jagger, he has not gained too much satisfaction recently.

A niggling knee injury for the 34-year-old warrior is refusing to give way and not even Fitzpatrick's proven ability to play through the pain barrier has been enough this time. As he steps on the homeward plane this morning he knows that he has, in some quarters, been finally written off. Judging by his mood the other day, however, it would be unwise to leap to such conclusions.

"I'm desperate to get back," he told me as we met for morning coffee. "We'll have a bit of a break now away from rugby and I'm hoping that this will give me time to shake off the injury good and proper. Then we will have to wait and see. But I'll tell you, I've been in the team for 11 years and it doesn't make a jot of difference: I'd still do anything to be an All Black and it's a great deal harder to let go of that shirt once you've had it on your back."

This might go some way to explaining how the team's hooker, hardly a soft position, has somehow managed to play in every single international match since his second cap back in 1987, save for the 1995 World Cup annihilation of Japan when he was rested. "Pity about that one," he says. "Even I might have scored a few tries that day."

Ironically, it was injury to Andy Dalton that opened the door for Fitzpatrick, the son of Brian, an All Black during the early 1950s. "After I made my debut in 1986 I missed the second and third Tests against Australia," he recalls. "In 1987 Andy Dalton was named as captain, and would obviously play as hooker but he was injured during training and I went on to play the next three Tests. He was still injured after that and the selectors felt that the team had become stable so I carried on." And on. And on.

In fact, the international against Ireland last month was the first game that Fitzpatrick has been forced to make himself unavailable. Even this took one hell of a lot of persuading.

"I guess I've got a pretty high pain threshold and I've played on with a few injuries that might have prevented other players from doing so," he explains. "I'd put this down to training very hard and being sensible in recovery but the main reason is that I never, ever, want to give someone else a chance to take my jersey.

"So when I realised I wasn't going to make it for the Ireland game I lay awake all night deluding myself that maybe I could just get through the match and then I'd be fine. I knew, deep down, that it would be best for everyone if I withdrew. I called up Zinny [Zinzan] Brooke and told him. I remember he said: "Oh come on. You were OK in training today. You sure? Then he got me thinking again. `Maybe he's right and I'm wrong'."

The ultimate professional, Fitzpatrick overcame his emotions to tell John Hart, the New Zealand coach, that a new hooker had to be selected. Hart, appreciating the moment, suggested that the captain should tell the team himself.

"We all gathered together so that John could announce the Test team for Ireland but I got up first and told the boys my news. I'm not ashamed to say that as I told them I was fighting back the tears. I found it very difficult to say and I remember the rest of the boys looking back at me in some amazement. I don't think they could quite believe it. `What do you mean, you're not playing,' seemed to be the general reaction."

After this Fitzpatrick had to make a further announcement, this time "to the nation" back home. When you consider how seriously the Kiwis take their rugby this was akin to the abdication of the monarchy.

Watching the All Blacks bulldoze their way through almost all the opposition on this tour of England, Wales and Ireland has been both enjoyable and difficult for him. "I haven't found it at all easy sitting and watching the boys. I kept looking at Justin Marshall, for example [the scrum-half who took over the captaincy in Fitzpatrick's absence] and working out the decisions he should be making. And it's been difficult after the games because the comradeship on the pitch is always different than off it.

"The great thing about the All Blacks is our fellowship when we play the game. We have complete respect for everybody in our team and always look after one another. We're all very close, and the Test team couldn't have been happier with the midweek performances, even if it has meant that many of the Test players have been under stiff competition for their places."

Exactly. It must have crossed his mind, then, that even if he can return to full fitness the likes of Norm Hewitt could still keep Fitzpatrick out of the side. "Oh yes," he agrees. "It definitely has. I know I've given other hookers an opportunity here and it could be 1986 all over again except this time I'm the one who could suffer.

"What I will say, though, is that I was delighted for Norm when he got his chance and I really wanted him and Justin, the captain, to do well. That is in the nature of the All Black. And if it is 1986 revisited, then I'm philosophical. I've had a great career, I've won everything and I've played for the best team consistently in the world."

Indeed he has. In fact Fitzpatrick has won a staggering 92 caps, 51 of which as captain, which makes him the All Blacks' most-capped forward. During this time he has helped New Zealand win the inaugural World Cup in 1987, as well as played in the 1991 semi-final, and the 1995 final where they lost out to a South African side who worked out how to stop an All Black machine that included a seemingly unstoppable Jonah Lomu.

"Yes, that was our fault," he maintains. "We should have won the final. We let ourselves down that day, and we shouldn't have let them find a way of stopping us.

"I remember having to make a speech that night at the dinner and I was mulling over whether I should retire. I felt the same after the 1991 World Cup. In fact, at one time, I told my wife I'd retire at 26." He pauses. "She never believed me."

Such thoughts occur to Fitzpatrick after defeat. Luckily for him, defeat is an unusual experience. Off the top of his head, he reckons he's been involved in no more than 10 defeats out of the 92 Tests he has played in, but he can name every single one. "France in 1986, France again, a couple in 1991, Australia in 1992, the Lions in 1993...."

I remind him that 82 wins is hardly a poor record. "Yes, but it's the defeat the All Black remembers," he replies.

As if to emphasise his point, he tells me of his own father's example. "Cliff Morgan is a friend of Dad and he asked me to get him over to Wales for a reunion between some of the players involved in the Wales v New Zealand match in the 1950s that the Welsh won. Dad never went. My mother had to in the end. You see Dad's never been back to Wales. He refuses to do it because he played in a losing side. That's how much it means to him.

"In fact, that's been one of the best aspects of my career. My family has really enjoyed me playing for the country. They all telephoned me in Dublin as they do before every match I play." But you weren't playing, I pointed out. "Didn't matter," he replies. "They still got in touch and when I confirmed my news my mother started to cry."

Asked which of the All Blacks side has been the best he has played in, and Fitzpatrick struggles to find a definitive answer. "The 1987 team evolved from nowhere," he recalls. "The likes of Michael Jones, John Kirwan, Grant Fox, John Gallagher, helped to form a great side and this lasted up to 1990. We then had a rocky couple of years, and then, in 1992, I was appointed as captain.

"Since that final defeat in 1995 our approach to the game has changed and our fitness is better. This team is definitely the fastest and we play a far more expansive game. I remember when we came over to England in 1993. Every single game was a real battle to win but since then, and especially since 1995, we've embarked on a huge training regime. You can see the difference now between the men in the black shirts, and the men in the white shirts, even in their body shapes."

So what made Fitzpatrick, as he stood up to deliver his post-1995 final speech, decide to carry on? "Well, I announced that the All Black team would become one of the greats. When I sat down I asked myself if I wanted to be part of this great team, and then I knew I wanted it badly."

What if he has played his last Test for the All Blacks? Will Fitzpatrick be bothered on missing out on 100 caps and will he mind not bowing out to a standing ovation somewhere inside one of the world's finest rugby stadiums? "No," he says, without any thought at all. "People keep telling me I could make it to a hundred but I don't see any importance to that.

"The last thing I want to do is be like Campo [David Campese]. His whole goal was to get one hundred caps but when he made it they almost had to stretcher him on. And I'm not big on swan-songs either. It wouldn't bother me in the slightest if I missed out on a farewell performance."

Only time will tell whether Sean Fitzpatrick will grace a rugby pitch again as an All Black. As far as he is concerned the battle is far from over. But one thing is certain. The man who has become an institution back home will never be dropped.

"No way," he insists, as he heads off. "When I go, I'm going out at the top. I've said to John Hart to make sure to tell me when I'm not performing. He's promised me that he wouldn't dream of dropping me, but he will, when the time comes, advise me to hang up my boots."

He nods his head with satisfaction. "That's good enough for me."