WORLD CUP RUGBY: Upstart kickstarts new era

Chris Rea meets Andrew Mehrtens, the All Black following in the footholds of Fox
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A GLANCE at the World Cup records, almost daily being rewritten by Gavin Hastings, instantly conveys the importance of Grant Fox to the All Blacks. His prodigious feats of points-scoring very often hoisted New Zealand to new peaks and occasionally carried them to victories as improbable as they were undeserved. The last-minute mugging of the 1993 Lions in Christchurch was an example of the debt the All Blacks owed to Fox's remorseless accuracy.

Yet Fox himself contends that there was nothing exceptional in his skill and that he was merely doing his job, which was to convert the relentless pressure of his forwards into points. He was, he argued in typically self- effacing fashion, the latest in the line of old hoofers which nevertheless included such legendary figures as George Nepia and Don Clarke. But Fox, while he may have kicked the life out of the opposition, could never have been accused of kicking a game to its death. There was so much more to his play than the machine-like precision of his goal-kicking.

The national selectors have spent the last two years scouring the country and trawling the South Seas in fruitless search for a playmaker who can kick goals. The problem was given added complexity by the fact that with Fox in the side, the All Blacks were getting two for the price of one. He afforded them the luxury of fielding a full-back like John Gallagher to bring width and controlled adventure to their pragmatic game.

In 1987 when New Zealand won the World Cup and until Gallagher turned professional, it was an irresistible combination. And when it became obvious that the All Blacks had in Glen Osborne the natural successor to Gallagher, the search became increasingly frantic. Because, like Gallagher, Osborne is a full-back who runs, tackles and finds touch but who does not kick goals. Since Fox's retirement, many have been called, a few were chosen but none completely filled the bill. And time was running out.

Then last season, Canterbury won the Ranfurly Shield. Their success coincided with the blossoming of a 21-year-old fly-half, Andrew Mehrtens, who had played for New Zealand Colts and whose provincial partnership with Graeme Bachop caught the imagination of the public. More importantly, it caught the attention of the selectors reawakening their interest in Bachop and alerting them to the exciting possibilities of Mehrtens.

The boy had an impressive pedigree. His grandfather George had been an All Black in the Twenties and four decades later Terry, his father, represented the Junior All Blacks at fly-half. Born in South Africa, Mehrtens had dual qualification although there was never the slightest doubt that New Zealand, the country where he had been raised and which had tutored him in the basic rugby skills, would be the beneficiary of his talent. "With my background it was almost unavoidable that I would take to rugby and that I would set my sights on one day playing for the All Blacks," Mehrtens said.

The day came rather sooner than he expected, but it was a propitious one for New Zealand, Mehrtens creating a world-record total of points for a player on his international debut. Against the Canadians, Mehrtens scored 28 points and convinced the All Blacks management that their wait was over. The World Cup squad was due to be announced the following week, but even after a display as stunning as this, Mehrtens didn't dare built up his hopes - "I just couldn't have stood the disappointment".

Brian Lochore, a contemporary of Terry Mehrtens and the All Blacks World Cup campaign manager, has been impressed by the young man's temperament. "Nothing seems to ruffle him. He has the perfect temperament for the position, inwardly self-assured and outwardly extrovert. In the changing rooms before a match he is laughing and joking - totally relaxed."

It was this which finally persuaded the selectors to include Mehrtens in their World Cup squad. "The bigger the occasion, the better Andrew seems to play," said Laurie Mains, the All Blacks coach, preparing for today's match against Japan. "He's played a few stinkers when there has been little at stake, but put him in the big time and give him responsibility and he's transformed."

Before Christmas, Mehrtens was on the outer fringes of the national squad. Ahead of him were Steve Bachop and Simon Culhane, another richly gifted young star whose goal-kicking and all-round control has lifted the unfashionable Southland into the First Division of the Provincial Championship. "I had no thoughts of making the World Cup squad," Mehrtens said, "even when I was invited to one of the All Black training camps." It was there that Mehrtens came under the influence of Grant Fox who had been brought in to work with the kickers. "He is an incredible bloke, such a perfectionist and so analytical. He explained the mechanics of goal-kicking and changed my approach to the whole business."

With 65 points in his first three internationals, Mehrtens' head may be in the clouds but his feet remain firmly on the ground. "I still can't quite believe what is happening, but I recognise the dangers of getting carried away. The first few games are often the easiest because of the surprise element. Once opponents have had the chance to suss me out it could be a different story."

I doubt it. The story seems destined to be a long one for here at last is a fly-half who, in giving freedom to his backs, is not the curse of his forwards. A 22-year-old with a commander's level of maturity, an extrovert with the competitive hardness of an All Black. A winning combination, surely.