Rugby Union: Yates' career reborn with Hurricanes contract

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The Independent Online
IT WAS always likely to be an interesting meeting of minds, but few could have predicted such a positive outcome. Graham Mourie, a great All Black captain of the late 1970s and early 80s and the man who raised the moral high ground to a whole new altitude 18 years ago by refusing to play against the touring Springboks, has proved so successful in rehabilitating the disgraced former Bath prop, Kevin Yates, that the latter has become the first English-reared professional to earn a Super 12 contract.

Yates will play for the Wellington Hurricanes in the forthcoming tournament, which features the creme de la creme of southern hemisphere rugby and is indisputably the strongest provincial competition in the world game. Confirmation of his inclusion in Mourie's squad completes a remarkable change of fortune for the 27-year-old loose head, who quit English rugby last spring after serving a six-month suspension for biting the London Scottish flanker Simon Fenn during a Tetleys Bitter Cup tie at the Recreation Ground in January 1998.

"Graham gave me the chance to rejuvenate my career by selecting me in his Wellington side for the National Provincial Championship in New Zealand," said Yates yesterday. "Playing for the Hurricanes, who will be a stronger side in a higher level of competition, will be an even greater challenge. The Super 12 is the premier provincial tournament in the world and by competing against Australian and South African sides, as well as the other top teams in New Zealand, I'll put my ability to the test."

It is a big call by Mourie - the New Zealand Rugby Football Union habitually reserves its Super 12 contracts for home-qualified players and the odd Pacific islander - but he is well used to sticking his neck out. In 1981, while captain of the All Blacks, he made a very public decision to boycott a hugely controversial three-Test tour by the Springboks and, in his own way, helped set in motion the forces that would eventually bring about a multi-cultural revolution in South African rugby.

His efforts on behalf of Yates are small beer by comparison, but his success in persuading the NZRFU to relax its unwritten rule sets a fascinating precedent nonetheless. Not that Mourie is claiming any credit for himself; in his view, his pro-Yates campaign was an exercise in purest pragmatism. "Kevin had an outstanding season for Wellington in the NPC and was a logical choice for selection in the Hurricanes squad," he explained. "He was instrumental in the success of our forward pack last season and I'm confident he can perform at an even higher level in Super 12."

Capped during England's tour of Argentina in 1997, Yates' world fell apart the following winter when London Scottish claimed that Fenn had lost part of his left ear after being bitten by a Bath player. The club held their own internal inquiry and suspended Yates, despite his vehement denial of any wrong-doing. A Rugby Football Union disciplinary tribunal did not believe his story and banned him for six months. When he eventually returned to Bath colours at the start of last season, he was out of sorts, not least because London Scottish continued to pursue him for legal costs.

He decided to make a fresh start and turned his eyes towards the Land of the Long White Cloud, a forward-thinking rugby country where his dynamic, new-age style of front-row play might blossom. It was clearly a gamble well worth taking. When he next pulls on a pair of boots in anger, he will be surrounded by the likes of Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Alama Ieremia and a certain Mr J Lomu Esq, all of whom are contracted to Wellington for next year's Super 12.

It now remains to be seen whether Clive Woodward will fast-track him into his England squad in time for next summer's two-Test tour of South Africa. If Yates emerges smiling from the Super 12, he would be daft not to.