Rugby Union: The overlord and his understudy

The healthy rivalry between two lords of the flies emphasises New Zealand's embarrassment of riches; Tim Glover speaks to Andrew Mehrtens, an All Black with all backs in the world at his mercy
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The Independent Online
CARLOS SPENCER has been blessed by the gods in everything but timing. The 22-year-old stand-off from Auckland would walk into any Test team bar New Zealand's. It takes a special kind of player to keep Spencer out of the side and the All Blacks have Andrew Mehrtens.

Such is the crush of modern international rugby that Mehrtens, at the age of 24, seems to be a comparative veteran. Even so, the last few days in Dublin have opened his young eyes which, in itself, is refreshing because the Fair City tends to have the opposite effect on most dog-eared travellers.

When the All Blacks arrived at the Burlington Hotel from a delayed charter flight from Cardiff, they barely had time to change before being whisked to Kitty O'Shea's. "It's very easy to slip into the social life here, isn't it?" Mehrtens said. "We had an awesome evening."

The All Blacks' warming up on the black stuff would be every ad man's dream, apart from those connected with Steinlager, the tourists' official sponsor.

Mehrtens, bright, receptive and talented, epitomises the new image of the All Blacks. Previous teams were, literally, spat upon; they closed ranks, closed doors and trashed hotel rooms. Not any more. In marketing the All Blacks, Mike Banks, the manager, compares them with Marks & Spencer.

As it is, they have their own M & S. There is a perception in New Zealand that the rivalry between Mehrtens and Spencer is not of the healthy variety. "They've tried to make it a personal issue back home and I'm fairly annoyed about it," Mehrtens said. "We get on fine. There is no animosity, no bad feeling. Having a rival keeps you on your toes and that applies throughout the squad. We fully support and help each other."

When the All Blacks arrived, Mehrtens and Spencer shared a room at the Oakley Court Hotel in Windsor. "In attempting to make it simply a two- way thing, they have down-played the roles of others, like Simon Culhane," Mehrtens said. "There is no doubt that Carlos is an amazing footballer. He does some things that I could never hope to do."

And vice-versa. New Zealand had been searching for a natural heir to Grant Fox since 1993. Walter Little, Jon Preston, Simon Mannix, Stephen Bachop and Marc Ellis were tried before Mehrtens announced his arrival by scoring 28 points on his debut against Canada two years ago, a world record for a first cap. Spencer's calling card, when Mehrtens was injured, was also brandished with a flourish. He scored 53 points in two games against Argentina earlier this year before returning to the replacements' bench.

The 1995 World Cup was a bitter-sweet experience for Mehrtens. Until the all-consuming final, the South African media regarded him as one of their own on the grounds that he was born in Durban. The Canterbury tale is that his parents visited South Africa for a holiday and stayed five years. His father Terry, a school teacher, played stand-off for Natal against the All Blacks in 1970 and the family moved back to Canterbury when Mehrtens was 18 months old.

Mehrtens was encouraged to run with the hounds rather than follow Fox's example and in the process became an even more prolific scorer, amassing 60 points in the World Cup games against Ireland, Wales and Scotland. Against the latter in the quarter- final in Pretoria, Mehrtens ran 70 yards for a spectacular try, leaving Gavin Hastings, among others, nonplussed.

"I was embarrassed to watch it afterwards because I thought I looked like a frightened rabbit. It was more my wonky style of running that caught them unawares. I always end up making a clumsy attempt to dive and falling flat on my gut."

After the demolition of England in the semi-final in Cape Town with Jonah Lomu looking for all the world like something that had escaped from the Kruger National Park, the stage was set for the final against the Springboks in Johannesburg. The All Blacks, of course, went down to an agonisingly close defeat after some critics thought that Mehrtens, who missed an injury- time drop goal, had fallen flat on his face.

"I don't want to think about it too much in case I get depressed," Mehrtens said. "You have to learn from the disappointment. By the time we got back to New Zealand, the entire country was still behind us. We lost for all sorts of reasons but I don't want to go into that. It will sound like sour grapes."

Not so much sour grapes, perhaps, as food poisoning, which is one of the reasons put forward for the limited performance. Since then, with Mehrtens kicking virtually everything in sight, the All Blacks have ransacked South Africa and Australia in the Tri-Nations.

When New Zealand touched down two weeks ago John Hart, their coach, breaking from tradition, said: "I think this squad is capable of anything. It may be one of the best New Zealand sides of all time." Typically, Mehrtens, with 19 Tests under his belt, would not be drawn.

"I'm probably not qualified to compare us with other teams. It's not something for the players to do. Only when we are finished will others be able to make such judgements."

Meanwhile, outside of a celebrated pack, Mehrtens has developed a telling partnership with his Canterbury colleague, Justin Marshall. "He's a very physical attacking player," Mehrtens said, "and he reacts to what I'm doing. On occasions, when I haven't talked loudly enough and he hasn't got the message, he still manages to find me. In some ways my role has been simplified and I don't call the shots as much as I used to. The onus is more on the team to play an entertaining brand of rugby. There's pressure on us to play an attacking game and that means getting the basic skills right with a high level of discipline. With the accent on attack, it's also very enjoyable to play."

The age of Mehrtens and company suggests that the All Blacks should be heading for the purplest of patches in the 1999 World Cup. It is, after all, unfinished business.

"We have a lot of rugby to play before then," Mehrtens says. "There are two Super 12 series and two Tri-Nations tournaments." There is also the matter of his Arts degree at Christchurch University. He is in his seventh year and at this rate he could enter the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest-serving student.

"I have one paper to do," he said. "I'll finish it next year. Mind you, I say that every year."

Two into one won't go: Inside battles of the outside halves by Paul Trow

Barry John-Phil Bennett

Between 1966 and 1978, the Wales No 10 shirt belonged to these two all- time greats of British rugby. Bennett spent several years as understudy to John whose career peaked during the Lions' victorious 1971 tour of New Zealand. With little else to prove, John retired from international rugby with 25 caps in 1972 aged just 26. This gave Bennett his chance - he went on to win 29 caps and play a key part in the Lions' 1974 triumph in South Africa.

Tony Ward-OLlie CAMPBELl

In the tradition of London buses, Ireland waited two decades for a worthy fly-half to succeed Jack Kyle (Mike Gibson won most of his caps at centre) and then two came along at the same time. The squat Ward was capped 19 times between 1978 and 1987 while the almost ghost-like Campbell won 22 caps from 1976 to 1984. Both were fine place-kickers and in 1981 the selectors switched Ward to centre so they could play together.

Mark ELLA-MICHAEL LYNAGH

Lynagh, the world's leading international scorer with 911 points from 72 caps between 1984 and 1995, played his first five games for Australia at inside centre because the mercurial Ella was already ensconced at fly- half. At the age of 20, Lynagh played outside Ella against the four home countries on the 1984 Grand Slam Tour, and made the playmakers' slot his own when Ella, capped 25 times between 1980 and 1984, abruptly retired.

ROB ANDREW-STUART BARNES

After making 76 international appearances for England and five for the Lions between 1985 and 1995, Andrew is the world's most capped fly-half. Yet when he began his England career, the dependable Andrew looked likely to play second fiddle to the virtuoso skills of the Welsh-reared Barnes. In the end, Barnes played only 10 times for England between 1984 and 1993, and at the height of their rivalry there was little love lost between them.

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