Bruce Reihana: 'Northampton supporters are so loyal it made me cry'

One English club remains in the Heineken Cup – and their great attacking threat is flying Kiwi winger Bruce Reihana. He tells Chris Hewett how he became so committed to Saints' cause
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It does not bear thinking about from Northampton's perspective, given the scale of the man's contribution to their cause over the last eight years, but had things turned out just a little differently, Bruce Reihana might have been playing in Munster colours at Thomond Park tonight.

"I had a chance to move there when we were relegated in '07 and I can't say I wasn't tempted," he recalls. "I'd seen a lot of them on the television – I'd watched them win the Heineken Cup, felt the passion of that crowd of theirs. But hell, I'd have been running away from something, wouldn't I? My conscience would have kicked in. I'd have felt really guilty, which is no way to feel when you pride yourself on your loyalty."

So it was that when the Irish came knocking, Reihana knocked them back in favour of a season among the deadbeats. Munster ended up with another All Black wing, by the name of Doug Howlett: hardly the worst alternative option in the world, as his countryman readily acknowledges. But Northampton would not have swapped their New Zealander for a dozen Howletts then, and they would not swap him now. Of all the southern hemisphere imports lured to this country in the professional era, Reihana ranks in the top four or five, right up there alongside the Pat Lams and the Michael Lynaghs.

Tonight, when Reihana and Howlett meet face to face at Thomond Park in the centrepiece of this European quarter-final weekend, the earth will surely move for aficionados of wing play. Northampton, the last remaining English team in the competition, will be looking to their New Zealander to lead their attack. Both he and Howlett fall squarely into the category of "X-factor performers", in so far as they can be categorised at all: they are box-office attractions, recognised as such by the paying public, who shell out their shekels secure in the knowledge that if the ball is there to be run, these blokes will run it.

To many, it beggars belief that Reihana made only two appearances as a Test All Black, against France and Italy a decade ago. Part of his story at international level is shot through with rotten luck: he found himself caught between an old guard of staggering quality – Jeff Wilson, Tana Umaga, some bloke called Lomu – and a new wave spearheaded by Howlett and Joe Rokocoko, who weren't half bad themselves. But there was also a sense of bitter frustration at his treatment by the national selectors, and it was this that drove him abroad.

"I thought I had my chances of winning more caps under Wayne Smith, who was my favourite coach – pretty much everyone's favourite coach – back then," he says. "But Wayne left the New Zealand set-up and the people who came in told lies. They assured a few of us that they'd pick on form, that we'd play for the All Blacks if we stacked up against our rivals. It didn't turn out that way; it quickly became obvious that the playing field wasn't level. I've seen a lot of people down the years who should have made the All Blacks but didn't because of changes in the coaching structure. I didn't want to be one of the 'could have, should have' guys: I wanted to achieve things, to fulfil myself. That's when Wayne gave me a call. He was working with Northampton by then, and I was happy to join him."

For all that, Reihana has occasionally felt the pull of the All Black future he left behind. "I actually signed to go home to Hamilton four or five years ago," he reveals. "The paperwork had been completed and I was off. Then my family circumstances changed, and I decided to stay here. I haven't regretted it for a second. Could I have made the New Zealand side had I stuck to my original plans? I do look back and think about it occasionally, but this Northampton thing is so rewarding, I'm not sure I'd have had a greater feeling of achievement had I returned. This place – the crowd, the passion for the game out there in the community – reminds me of Waikato in the old days. So close-knit and tight together.

"The place has a rugby soul and ultimately, that's what kept me here. You know, when we were down in the second division, virtually every other team recorded record crowds because of the number of Northampton supporters following us around. The standard of rugby wasn't too hot: it was a nice experience in a 'back to grass roots' kind of way, but if I'm honest, it was the easiest stuff I'd played in years. Instead of being completely battered, I just picked up the odd bruise. But to see 4,000 Northampton supporters in the car park beforehand, all of them telling us they were with us all the way... there were times when it made me cry."

Just turned 34 – he celebrated his birthday on Tuesday – Reihana has made more than 200 appearances for the Midlanders and is a mere six points shy of the 1,000 mark, having taken on his share of the kicking duties down the years. "I don't spend quite as much time practising my kicking as Stephen Myler or Shane Geraghty," he admits, "but then, I'm older. Anyway, it's all in the rhythm." Might he find himself aiming at the sticks tonight? "They only give me the long, difficult ones," he says. "If I'm called on, I'll do it."

Being the free spirit he is, he would rather beat Munster with a flurry of tries than a salvo of penalties. "I'd like to see us play our natural game this time," he says, harking back to the tourniquet-tight pool match between the two sides in Limerick a dozen weeks ago and hinting that whatever game his side played that night, it wasn't one that truly suited them. "I think some of the younger players were a little daunted by that whole 'Thomond Park experience' thing. They need to learn from that and use the environment and the occasion to feed their energy. Personally speaking, the hostility is the thing I love most. It's the thing that excites me, the thing that makes me want to get out there and take a few of those crash balls.

"We have the potential to win. I'm sure of that. One of the reasons I'm on the wing, rather than at full-back, is Ben Foden's ability to counter-attack from deep. And when I look at Chris Ashton [who made his England debut on the wing in Paris last month], I see someone with a try-scoring ability that's unique in my experience. His instinct when it comes to following the ball and putting himself in the right place near the line ... it's something I've never seen before, not even in New Zealand. If we're going to make the best of it in this competition, we'll need to use everything available to us."

To English eyes, Reihana first announced himself as a player less ordinary on the so-called "tour of hell" in 1998: a seven-match trek to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on which Sir Clive Woodward's lightweight, overmatched red-rose squad were ritually humiliated in towns and cities as diverse as Brisbane, Rotorua, Dunedin and Auckland. Back then, Reihana played for the NZ Academy side in Invercargill. "I think I scored a couple of tries," he says, diplomatically declining to mention that virtually everyone put two tries past England that day.

Being half-Maori and half-French – an exotic concoction to be sure – he is most amused to learn that England are resurrecting the New Zealand midweek fixture on their trip to the Antipodes in June. "Who are they playing?" he asks. As it happens, they're playing your lot: the Maori. "That could be an interesting one. I used to love playing for them. They had an incredible record against touring sides going back years and years: in fact, people used to say New Zealand should send two sides to the World Cup, and that the Maori would be good bets to make the quarter-finals at least. I reckon that's still true now. Back in the '90s, we would have given anything for a crack at the All Blacks. For some reason, they never wanted to play us."

Northampton do not inspire that kind of fear. Not yet, at any rate. But Reihana, who has another year left on his contract with an option for 12 months more, has been a central figure in restoring the credibility of one of English rugby's great clubs and establishing them as contenders for the top honours. When the Saints say they can win tonight's game against the two-time European champions, there is no accompanying sound of sniggering. That, in itself, is a measure of their resident All Black's achievement.

My other life

"Away from rugby, I try to spend as much time as possible on the golf course, although in winter the weather makes it tough. I play off eight these days, which is reasonable. There again, Stephen Myler plays off four and puts me in my place.

"If I'm addicted to anything, it's training. I love the gym and I love the practice field: I'm a good trainer, always have been. I'm not as young as I was but I enjoy testing myself against people like Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, and I relish the thought of pushing them to new levels."