Rugby Union: Wilson in the wizard's mould: Chris Rea reflects on the lustrous line of All Black wings

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON THE way to Murrayfield last Saturday, a Scotsman drily observed that Vai'aga Tuigamala had flattened more people in the last month than Beijing flu. The Scots, he assured us, had been inoculated against any such attack. On the day, it wasn't Tuigamala who ran unchecked through the Scottish team, but a 20-year-old with the face of a cherub and the heart of an assassin.

But hold on a minute, these are the All Blacks we are talking about, those hard-headed pragmatists whose unswerving allegiance to the organised framework of team play at the expense of eccentric individualism has been pursued down the years with messianic zeal.

Students of the game will not be surprised that Jeff Wilson, who began the tour as a teenager, will complete it as a seasoned international, or that a country which has been building loose forwards with the same precision and regularity as the Welsh once used to produce outside halves, should have pulled Wilson from the mould. The fact is that, in the last 25 years, New Zealand has produced more world-class wingers than the four home countries put together. The New Zealanders' perception of a winger is not as decorative dandy in starched collar and gleaming boots, but as one who inhabits that area of the field where the pace is often at its fastest and most furious, 'twixt touchline and tryline, football's equivalent of the six-yard box where raw courage is more important than graceful artistry.

A few, a very few, have managed to combine both. Bryan Williams in full cry was as stirring and noble a sight as any. Such power flowed from those legs of teak, but such elegance too. Fittingly, his extraordinary gifts were first unveiled to the world at large in Bethlehem, a small township in the Orange Free State, during the All Blacks tour to South Africa in 1970. Even then, as a teenager, Williams displayed skills few have surpassed; in 14 matches on that tour he scored as many tries. His sidestep, more languid than the convulsive darting of Gerald Davies, was his most devastating weapon. Opponents knew it was coming, but were still mesmerised by it.

Williams had already assumed the mantle of greatness as a player when the apartheid issue divided the New Zealand nation at the time of the Cavaliers tour. Williams, hero-worshipped by the black and coloured communities in South Africa, maintained his dignity and his integrity. Both sides wanted to claim him as their own, but Williams's glorious talents belonged to all who loved rugby.

All Black wingers have come in many guises. From the purring elegance of Williams to the brusque and bristling Grant Batty. An explosive runner with a temperament to match, Batty's determination to prove the principle that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, brought him into bruising conflict with many of those who stood in his path. Batty was there to win matches, not friends.

Bernie Fraser, like Batty compact and combative, embraced much the same philosophy, but without Batty's abrasiveness. Fraser was also fortunate to have played alongside some of the finest backs to have represented New Zealand, among them his Wellington colleague Stu Wilson. Both were playing in the match to celebrate the Welsh centenary in Cardiff in 1980, and none who saw it will forget the build-up to Hika Reid's try. Bruce Robertson put Wilson clear but, somehow, Robert Ackerman got to him. Upended by Ackerman's last-ditch tackle just short of the line, Wilson, with acrobatic balance, held the ball up before popping it into the hands of the supporting Reid for the try.

Wilson, perhaps more than any of New Zealand's great wingers, was his own man, unfettered by the chains of conventional wisdom. Possibly as a result, his captaincy of the All Blacks in England and Scotland in 1983 was not a success, not least for the fact that, on the wing, he was too far removed from the combat zone to exercise his authority. Nevertheless, his presence graced many a field and enlivened many a dinner table.

It was in 1983 that the rugby world first heard of John Kirwan. Ciaran Fitzgerald's Lions were touring New Zealand at the time and John Hart, the Auckland coach, had sprung a surprise by picking the 18-year-old in the provincial side to play the tourists. Hart was convinced that, allied to Kirwan's powerful physique, was a mental resolve capable of withstanding the rigours of international rugby. His boldness was rewarded. Kirwan's try-saving tackle on Clive Woodward was the turning point of the match.

It is, of course, as a try scorer that Kirwan will leave his indelible and distinctive mark on the game. In the estimation of many, Kirwan is the greatest of all New Zealand wings and, of the countless tries scored in his career, none, surely, will surpass the one against Italy in the 1987 World Cup when he used every device in the manual to deceive and, finally, to outstrip, the opposition on that incredible journey to the line.

At Murrayfield last Saturday, Jeff Wilson put his foot on the first rung of the ladder which may eventually take him to the heights attained by many of his illustrious predecessors. There are, however, many pitfalls ahead, of which one is arrogance. His curt refusal to be interviewed on television last week does him no credit. Neither B G Williams nor 'Sir Kirwan' would have been so discourteous, and Wilson, good as he is, is not yet in that class - not by a long chalk.

(Photograph omitted)