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Farewell to two greats and Sevens shocks

This is my first column for 2013, so to all readers of the supersport.com site, I trust you have had a good Christmas/New Year.

To start, condolences to the families of Morne van der Merwe and Louis Luyt, both of whom have passed away in recent times.

Morne was a popular, cornerstone member of the Wellington Lions team that won our national championship, the Air New Zealand Cup, in 2000.

The final against favourites Canterbury was a thriller, laced with heroic contributions. Norm Hewitt, the former All Black hooker played the last 20 minutes with a broken arm, and Morne carried on despite taking a head knock…something you wouldn’t be allowed to do now, but it’s just as well for Wellington that he did because somehow he managed to cut down Canterbury's flying Fijian winger when he seemed set to score a winning try….as another great character of a prop, the late John Drake used to say, props can run as fast as anyone, but only when they really have to!

Wellingtonians have paid tribute to Morne…Hewitt rated him among the top 6-8 props he played with or against, while other players have recalled his excellent guitar playing at the team get-togethers that can be so crucial in forging a strong bond.

As for Louis Luyt, well at the peak of his powers Louis was a somewhat villainous figure in the eyes of New Zealanders, as he was, at times I’m sure, to many South Africans.

He was seen as a power broker behind the Cavaliers tour that caused so much division in the NZ game, and after rising to the top of South African Rugby, and playing such a role in making the 1995 RWC tournament such a historic success, Louis put noses out of joint with some less than diplomatic comments at the post-tournament dinner following South Africa’s epic win over the All Blacks.

Roll forward to Cape Town 2001 when I made two significant purchases. One was a bracelet for my new girlfriend…now my wife, the other was a copy of the “unauthorised” Max du Preez biography of Louis Luyt, which I found so utterly fascinating that I read it cover to cover on the flight home.

I discussed the book on my sports spot on the Newstalk radio show with the country’s leading broadcaster, Paul Holmes, who had met and was also fascinated by Louis. Our conversations sparked such interest in the book that a shipment of copies had to be imported into New Zealand.

Armed with information from the book, I set up an interview with Dr Luyt two years later in Durban. I told Holmes (who co-incidentally also died last week) I was going to ask all the tough questions he had failed to ask when he’d interviewed him, on account of him being “seduced” by the charms of his host!

Easier said than done. We arrived at the Luyt home near Durban and were met with such effusive hospitality that I found it nigh impossible to take a hard-line approach. I tried, but he was a master of talking around a curly question without really answering it, and seemed genuinely aggrieved by the suggestion that he was, as so many had claimed, a bully.

Our crew eventually left, having done our interview, cleaned up the platter of delicious sandwiches, drunk fine coffee, politely declined the offer of a beer, chatted to Louis and his lovely wife Adri, and admired his beautiful home. It was a very enjoyable experience and while the hour-long interview was well received back home, I knew that I had been denied the really hard-hitting feature I had gone looking for because I too had found it hard to get past the charming side of Louis Luyt.

Dr Luyt was not perfect. He made plenty of enemies, often with people he’d been close to, and he brought a lot of criticism on himself, but there is also something to admire about what he was able to achieve, especially from such humble beginnings. His role in seeing off the rebel World Rugby Corporation (WRC) should never be understated….it was he who made the most significant move when he made the Springboks an offer they couldn’t refuse, breaking the back of the player-led revolution.

I am just glad that I was able to meet with him, and see the “other” side of him, to be able to put some balance into my perceptions of the man when much of what we had read and heard about him from afar was the controversial stuff.

Finally, the rugby season in New Zealand is under way following the Wellington round of the IRB Sevens Series.

Played in gloriously fine weather, in front of a crowd that was boisterous but better behaved than last year, the tournament was notable for a string of upsets that give credence to the PR line that Sevens is leading the global growth of the rugby game.

The home fans didn’t get the All Black Sevens victory they wanted, but they so nearly got the next best thing.

Kenya have been the adopted sons of the Wellington crowd ever since they first played here in the 2 000, and while they might have stunned the local fans with their thoroughly deserved win over New Zealand, they had their full support in the final.

England in the end were just a bit too good, making the big plays when they counted most. Their coach, Ben Ryan, had obviously been stewing over their poor start to the year and came up with a plan to shut down New Zealand playmaker Tomasi Cama and score a significant win in their opening match. They were always going to be hard to beat from there and so it proved to be.

However, they are giving New Zealand a 40-point start with five tournaments to play and I doubt they can catch them.

England become the fourth winner in as many tournaments on the current series, and with Scotland toppling Fiji and Kenya knocking off both the Blitzbokke and the AB Sevens along the way, it proves just how competitive the circuit has become.

Some of the big guns didn’t go too well. New Zealand struggled from the get-go and probably did well to get third. South Africa are missing a clutch of stars, Fiji keep changing their players, Samoa are rebuilding and after making the final in Port Elizabeth, France were back to their haphazard old selves. However, it’s great to see the likes of Spain, Portugal and Canada playing some good rugby. Upsets are bad for coaches, but good for business.

I’m sure you noticed the empty seats and it is hard to reconcile that sight with the fact that the event had sold out in minutes.

The Wellington stadium has a massive concourse and at any time during the weekend there are hundreds, even thousands of people walking around it, socialising and checking out the other costumes.

Trouble is you can’t see them, and they can’t see the playing field and it gives the impression that a lot of the paying punters are there more for the party than the rugby. It was especially bad last year, but this time at least the people who wanted to watch the rugby in the sunshine turned up, had a great time and created a good atmosphere. Those who just wanted to party either milled around the concourse or stayed in the bars, and frankly the whole event was better off without them.

Next week might be a good time to start checking out prospects for Super Rugby.

As always I’ll welcome your comments and try to respond to any queries, requests etc.

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