Andrew Mehrtens was the best outside-half in the world during the late 1990s, a tactician of the "made in heaven" variety who performed minor miracles on behalf of the All Blacks in every rugby cathedral from Eden Park and Carisbrook to Loftus Versfeld and Newlands. This time last year, he found himself roughing it in some of the union game's less luxurious places of worship - Sharmans Cross Road, Solihull, just off junction five of the M42 and right at the fourth set of lights; Cross Green, Otley, situated next to the car showroom on the A659 - as a result of Harlequins' descent into the weird and wonderful world of National League One. Surreal? You could say.
The situation would scarcely have been more bizarre had Madonna, in full sadomasochistic regalia, been spotted performing at the Middle Wallop scout hut. Some of the places in which Mehrtens was obliged to pitch up made Invercargill look like the Big Apple. As he set about scoring the best part of 50 points in his first four games for his new employers, it was tempting to wonder whether he bothered to get changed into his kit. Was he wearing boots, or did he kick his goals in flip-flops?
Twelve months on, Harlequins - and Mehrtens, assuming his cranky knee clears up in time for the game - are about to reintroduce themselves to the Premiership in front of 50,000-plus spectators at Twickenham, where he wove a web or two during his previous life as a New Zealand international. He is, he says, "buzzing", for the very good reason that this is what he came to England to do. He enjoyed playing at Sedgley Park (take the Manchester Metro to Whitefield and take a £3 cab ride) last November, but hey, who spends 24 hours on a plane to visit a venue with 350 seats? Not that he would dream of bad-mouthing the experience.
"Honestly, I've played in grades far worse than National One," he said, casting an eye over the Stoop from the top floor of the luxurious stand erected on the western side of the ground last summer - a construction that has raised the capacity to the best part of 13,000. "People ask me all the time if it was rubbish rugby. It wasn't rubbish. The standard was better than a lot of people would credit; a lot of the games were pretty competitive, and if you think that said more about us than about our opponents, I promise you we didn't play poorly that often. There were a lot of big forwards and aggressive backs out there. It wasn't too different to the equivalent league back home."
Mehrtens won 70 caps and scored very nearly 1,000 international points between 1995, when he contributed majestically to a wonderful World Cup in South Africa, and 2004, by which time he had tasted the rotten fruit of life as well as the ambrosia. Beset by personal problems and pretty much off the rails for a while - John Mitchell left him out of the New Zealand party for the 2003 global gathering in Australia - he might easily have slipped off the radar altogether. Instead, he dragged himself up by the bootlaces and played well enough to secure both a Super 12 contract with Canterbury Crusaders and a brief recall to Test duty from Mitchell's successor as national coach, Graham Henry. It was at this point that he threw in his lot with Harlequins.
When Harlequins were relegated in May of last year, the general assumption was that Mehrtens would find some pressing reasons to stay put in New Zealand's south island. The general assumption was wrong. In honouring the agreement, he did professional union the not inconsiderable service of demonstrating that it was not wholly populated by egotists and mercenaries. Now, at 33, he is preparing to do us all another favour by bringing his know-how to bear on the most cut-throat annual tournament in the world game.
"I'm not sure I ever put it all together, even in my best days with the All Blacks," he ventured, to the bewilderment of those who saw him launch his country's exhilarating new attacking style with consummate artistry in Springbok country 11 summers ago. "Certainly, I believe my best rugby is to come. Back home, the structure was never geared towards players getting the best from themselves over a long period of time, because every season we would peak for three different competitions - the Super 12, the Tri-Nations and the National Provincial Championship - with three different teams. Here, it's a 40-week season with one club. I think playing week in, week out will be good for me. If selected, of course.
"It didn't cross my mind to come over here for a cruise. I wanted and needed new challenges, in life as well as in rugby, and that's what I'm getting at Harlequins. Am I missing the All Blacks? No, although there will always be a part of me that loves the anthem and the haka, whatever form it takes these days." (The thought of the slight, comparatively fragile Mehrtens participating in the new version of the Maori war dance, which ends with a running of the index finger across the throat in a delightful slitting motion, is intriguing indeed).
By the end of the month, we will learn more of his state in both mind and body than was revealed in the whole of last season. Quins play London Irish this weekend - another New Zealander, the eye-catching Riki Flutey, pulls the strings at 10 for the Exiles - and then host Gloucester, who have their own talk-of-the-town outside-half in the shape of Ryan Lamb, who is some 13 years Mehrtens' junior. A week later, he can expect a severe interrogation from Wasps, who have a similarly sophisticated playmaker in Alex King. Next up are Leicester and Andy Goode, who started two of England's last three matches.
"To be honest, I'm not one for thinking about other individuals," Mehrtens said. "It's natural to want to outplay the other guy, but I'm more concerned with setting my own standards in terms of performance." He did, however, make special mention of Jonny Wilkinson, whom he last encountered at Twickenham in 2002. "Will he get back to his best? I look at it this way: if you're good enough, you'll be OK. And Jonny is good enough, don't you think? The way he drives himself, sets goals for himself ... he's as tough in that regard as any player in the world. He's not yet at a peak, age-wise, so the more he plays, the better he'll get." Mehrtens should know. He too has had what Churchill called his "black dog days".
Those seem well behind him now, and if he finds a way of bringing something of his 1995 brilliance to the Premiership, his presence on the field will be worth twice the admission price of wherever the game happens to be taking place. Apart from anything else, it will be an education to see how an old school sort like Dean Richards, the great shambling bear of English rugby who now picks the team at Quins, reacts to some of his most celebrated charge's bolder initiatives. Richards was playing when Mehrtens, accompanied by some bloke called Lomu, ran rings round England in the World Cup semi-final in Cape Town 11 years ago. If he still holds a grudge, the New Zealander will know about it soon enough.
"Is it possible to play with that sort of adventure, with that level of self-expression, in a tournament like this? I think it is," Mehrtens said. "It's important to be judicious about these things, but my old attacking mindset is still there. What I still don't know is how long it will take me to rediscover my edge, and I won't find out until I've been caught in a few rucks. One old All Black told me that once you get past 23 or 24, you're never 100 per cent fit again. That may be true, but as things stand, I feel in better shape than ever."Reuse content