Greats in every sense

Like many others who have grown to appreciate them as champion sportsmen and human beings, I took immense pleasure at the bestowing of knighthoods to rugby greats Bryan ‘Beegee’ Williams and Michael Jones.

I first heard of ‘Beegee’ in 1959 from my stepbrother Leo Brown who was billoted by the Williams family in Ponsonby when he represented West Coast as a centre in the 1959 New Zealand Under-15 secondary schools rugby league tournament.

Red-headed Leo, whose previous claim to fame was winning a Greymouth  freckle contest, spoke glowingly of the hospitality shown him by his hosts. He also raved about Beegee’s older brother, Ken, who played on the wing for Auckland and was the best player in the tournament.

“They also had this little kid who was about eight who kept challenging me to a sprint out on the street,” Leo told me.

“I finally agreed and got a hell of a shock when I was forced to hit top gear to beat him.”

That eight-year-old is now Sir Bryan who first hit international fame as a brilliant, side-stepping 19-year-old wing on the All Blacks 1970 tour of South Africa.

Before that he played a match at centre for the Barbarians at Lancaster Park, Christchurch, against the Cantabrians when he scored two tries, his sidestep leaving the redoubtable Fergie McCormick gasping air.

“What a sidestep!” I remarked to my mate Fergie after the match.

“Yeah and he’s bloody strong too,” said a tough character not given to praise.

Employed by the Christchurch Star in the late 1960s, I once wrote that McCormick was puffing more than unfit prop Alistair ‘Hoppy’ Hopkinson in a Town versus Country match.

Peeved, proud Fergi phoned me. “If you had ran as much as I did you would be puffing too.”

“Yeah,’ I agreed, “except in your case you were running from every position on the field except fullback.”

Upon my moving to Auckland in 1971, it was ‘Beegee’ who first took me to his beloved Barbarians Rugby Club. He remains a massive stalwart of the famous Ponsonby Rugby Club which has produced so many All Blacks and is a past president of the NZRU.

Sadly, Fergie, along with the great Colin “Pinetree” Meads, has passed away, though their feats will long remain etched in the memories of those of us who treasured them.

Unlike Beegee, my late stepbrother Leo, was no All Black. League, not union, was his game.

He did represent West Coast, Canterbury and the South Island and toured England and France with the 1965 Kiwis, rooming with the great Roger Bailey. He scored three tries in his first two games before injuries limited his appearances.

Upon visiting the famous Catholic shrine to Our Lady in Lourdes, France, when about to dip his hand in Holy Water, he heard the voice of Kiwis coach ‘Snow Telford’ behind him. ‘Don’t dip your finger, Leo. Throw yourself in.”

Leo also won the Canterbury decathlon title, beating the talented Mene Mene who married Greymouth girl Sally Flynn who held the NZ women’s javelin record before Valerie Adams’ former coach, Kirsten Hellier, broke it.

Leo finished runner-up, six points behind Auckland’s Ross Pownall, in a national decathlon championship in the absence of 1966 Commonwealth champion Roy Williams, brother of 1952 Helsinki Olympic champion, Yvette.

Mene and Sally are the proud parents of netballer Bernice Mene, who is arguably the best goal defence the Silver Ferns ever produced.

  •  Ivan Agnew is an award-winning sports writer and author