Haden, the All Black rebel, still fighting against the odds - and still winning

His Favourite old boots and that coveted All Black shirt, were once his proudest possessions. But no more. Andy Haden rummages through a cupboard drawer at his beautiful home overlooking Auckland harbour, and produces a single sheet of white paper. A graph is printed on it, beneath the words 'White Blood Cell Count'.

In most human beings, the former New Zealand forward tells me, the cell count should be between eight and 11. In September 2003, Haden's hit 210. "200 is very dangerous" he says, matter-of-factly. Blasts of chemotherapy dragged it down a little but after reaching 185, it started to climb again.

Haden had chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, and was seriously ill. This great totem pole of world rugby for the best part of a decade from the second half of the 1970s to mid-1980s, was in danger of being felled. A year ago the reading remained frighteningly high at 179. But as the 2003 Rugby World Cup was reaching its climax, Haden had his own celebrations. His reading stood at 118.5.

"That's when I knew I had it. It was after my third lot of chemo." Today, at 52, Haden still has his 41 All Black caps, has a blood-cell reading of between 50 and 55 and a golf handicap of around five. And, perhaps most important of all, his humour remains intact. "I felt encouraged all along by the fact that so many of the world's leading companies are drug companies. You don't think of that until you get into this kind of predicament. The fact is, this 'problem' 10 years ago was fatal."

Haden's attitude to the illness is, and never was, conventional. He does not do self-pity, just deals in practicalities. But then, he played his rugby in the same way. "Remaining positive is absolutely essential. But you become philosophical about it, you have to live with it. It is getting more and more treatable because of the advances in drugs. I'll always have it, but it's manageable."

Ironically, managing is Haden's business. He represents a wide variety of leading public figures, such as the model Rachel Hunter, Rod Stewart's ex-wife. But not any current rugby players. He has a definite policy on that one. "The trappings of professional sport are disturbing. I had a business I thought it [my involvement in rugby] would wreck. It seemed to me to be an environment for second-hand car salesmen who were having trouble selling cars. I sensed it was doubtful and did not want any current players on my books. Nothing has happened to change my mind. From an agency point of view, it was a good decision."

Haden was always his own man, a big man in every sense. He took on the rugby authorities for the fraud they propounded in the days of increasing "shamateurism", calling himself a rugby player and challenging them to confront him legally when he wrote a book and kept the money.

Haden says he never sought the role of revolutionary, but refused to embrace the hypocrisy of the game's position when it became obvious the authorities themselves had opened the floodgates to outside commercial pressures. You could hardly blame the players for wanting their slice of the cake when they saw men in administrative posts gorging themselves on the profits of their own efforts.

He bemoans what he calls "the sanitised environment" in which players exist today. "We did what we did because we were always afraid of losing. We had to devise our own tactics on the field; they were unrehearsed and survival-based," he says, perhaps in part in a cryptic retort to his alleged dramatic dive out of a crucial line-out, two minutes from the end of the 1978 Wales v New Zealand Test at Cardiff. All Wales fumed when the resultant penalty went over and Wales lost 13-12.

Haden and rugby football's administrators always had about as easy a relationship as bad oysters and the human stomach. He urges the game's rulers to break the cycle of World Cups after France, 2007, and look to a fresh horizon, Japan, rather than be seduced by the South African or New Zealand bid. Only by boldly embracing new venues would the International Rugby Board properly and significantly develop the sport world-wide.

The idea that his own country should be hosts, is dismissed with brutal frankness. "We are not capable of hosting a World Cup any longer. Losing part-ownership of the last World Cup postponed the harsh reality. We don't have the infra-structure to handle it in terms of hotels or transport. This country can't cope and even the Lions tour next year looks haphazard with some visitors staying on boats. I don't think the World Cup will ever come back to New Zealand."

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