Rugby Union: Surfer, thinker, All Black: the one and only Josh Kronfeld

The world's greatest open-side flanker does not fit into the mould of the traditional New Zealand rugby player.
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The Independent Online
A QUARTER of a century ago, the average New Zealand forward fell into one of two categories; there were the "Grizz Wyllies" - fierce, monosyllabic and a total nightmare to play against, but generally well behaved in polite society - and the "Keith Murdochs", who boasted precisely the same qualities apart from being total nightmares off the pitch as well as on it. It can be reported with considerable relief that the era of the unsmiling, granite- faced All Black seems to have disappeared. Nowadays, we have weird, wonderful, off-beat characters like Josh Kronfeld to entertain us.

To refer to the finest open-side flanker in the world as a one-off is akin to describing Jonah Lomu as quite well-built. Kronfeld is pure, silver- ferned bohemian, a one-man bonfire of conventional rugby attitudes; a beach bum, surfer, harmonica player, environmentalist, ornithologist and outspoken supporter of what he gently describes as "progressive causes", he is about as far removed from the humourless, lantern-jawed Colin Meadses of All Black legend as is Carisbrook from Twickenham.

Disturbingly for England, Kronfeld's idiosyncratic habits do not extend to his rugby activities, even though he once painted a "No Nukes" symbol on his familiar black headguard in protest at the French Government's testing programme in the Pacific. When it comes to scavenging for possession among the flying footwear, burying opposing outside-halves with extreme prejudice or linking with his threequarters in the wide open prairies, he fits snugly into the grand New Zealand tradition of Nathan, Mourie and Michael Jones.

"When I was 15," he said in Dunedin yesterday, two days before his 27th birthday, "Michael was the man. I didn't want to be an All Black, especially. I just wanted to be Michael. It was the neatest moment of my whole career when I got to play alongside Michael in a Test back row. To be out there with the silver fern on my chest and my mentor by my side... Well, it was pretty special."

There has been something special about Kronfeld these last three years. After winning his first cap in the 73-7 demolition of Canada in Auckland in 1995, he proceeded to blaze a trail through that year's World Cup with some definitive displays of close, rapid support work. His try against England in what became known as the "Lomu semi" was adjudged the finest of the tournament and Joel Stransky, the beautifully balanced Springbok stand-off, needed all his wit and party trickery to lead his pursuer up the occasional blind alley in the final.

Kronfeld smiles at the memory. "No matter who you are or how well you think you're playing, there is always someone out there with the skill to give you the odd 30-second burn. All you can do is accept it, say `Hey, you smoked me there', and then get out there and pin him next time. Anyway, I don't go into a game with my mind set on getting one over on any particular opponent, even if my coach thinks I should. I'm out there to win ball and act as a link whenever and wherever I can. Simple as that."

As an up-and-coming Otago breakaway, Kronfeld made two promises to himself. "I decided early that if I hadn't become an All Black by the time I'd hit 24, I would give it up and do something else. As it turned out, I made it at 24. And the second promise? That I'd stop playing international rugby at 29. I'll stick to it, too. I'll play at Test or Super 12 level for another couple of years - I've set my heart on being involved in next year's World Cup - and then pull out. There are other things in life, after all.

"It's not the actual playing that I find difficult these days, although I have to say professional rugby is tough on the mind and body, it's the 24-hour routine that gets to me. I'd love to go for a beer or two with my mates at five on a Friday night but if I do that, I know there will be 20 guys at the bar who'll also want a beer with me. That's the thing about being an All Black and, sometimes, it closes in on you."

Life after rugby holds few fears for Kronfeld, whose passion for the great outdoors has never been more intense. "I live near the beach at St Clair and I surf all year round. Then there's the wildlife out on the Otago peninsula, the sheer majesty of the whole area. We don't have much heavy industry here, nothing to wreck the environment. Sometimes, I feel I never want to leave."

Yet he might leave, if the rugby money is right. English clubs have already approached him through his "representatives" and Kronfeld confesses he would be "plain stupid" to dismiss a lucrative opportunity to capitalise on his golden reputation in the northern hemisphere. "It's all telephone talk and I'm not directly involved, but it's nice to get news of the offers as they come in. Maybe I'll go for it, maybe not. How's the surfing in England these days?"

In answer to his question, the surfing is in infinitely better shape than the inexperienced and overmatched England side he faces in his own backyard tomorrow. He is not remotely dismissive of the likes of Pat Sanderson and Josh Lewsey, however; typically, he steers well clear of the party line and gives voice to his own oblique view of the skirmish ahead.

"I think this whole trip is good for the England team and if I was one of their new caps coming into Test rugby, I'd be up in the clouds at the prospect of making a debut against a side like the All Blacks. Jeez, what more could a rugby player want? When we were rebuilding before the last World Cup, the public was right on our backs. What happened? We came up with a new team that played new rugby and very nearly won the trophy. England will have a new look soon and it will be as a result of this tour."

Photographs: Allsport