Winning captain’s log

By David Kirk In Sport

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Kirk scores in the 1987 final, photo Getty Images

It is a curious fact that no Rugby World Cup-winning captain has played in a subsequent World Cup. So what do we former World Cup-winning captains do when our playing days are over and the event that we are all remembered for comes around again? Some go on to coach – Martin Johnson will do so this year – and most work with broadcast media in one form or another. For all there are plenty of invitations to speak at lunches and dinners and official functions to attend. But mostly, like everyone, we are on our own and we craft the Rugby World Cup experiences we want for ourselves and our families.

Here’s some of what’s happened to me.

At the second World Cup in 1991 I was the only captain who had won the trophy and I was living and working in London where the Cup was being played. I remember the time more than anything for the birth of my first son. He was born the week the tournament began.

I worked for ITV doing television commentary throughout that tournament and the first match, played in the afternoon, pitted the champions (the All Blacks) against the host (England). It was a tight match, made memorable for me by a great runaround try scored by Michael Jones, who thereby repeated his feat of 1987 in scoring the first try of the tournament from the hand. (The actual first try in 1987 was from a penalty.)

I wrote and commentated and tried my best to keep up with my real job. I recall often going back to work after an afternoon match and working through to midnight to catch up. I was in Dublin in the commentary box when we lost on account of David Campese’s back-flip pass and at Twickenham again a week later when Australia carried off the Cup over the hometown favourites. I was no longer unique.

The 1995 World Cup in South Africa is the only one I haven’t attended. My third son was six weeks old, I had just changed jobs, we had moved from Wellington to Auckland and into a rented house … you get the picture. Brigit was quite right. It didn’t make sense to go to South Africa.

I watched the final alone in a dark room in the vicarage we were living in (the vicar and his family were on sabbatical) and I thought we would win. Sure, we weren’t playing all that well; Jeff Wilson looked awfully wrung-out when he came off and the Springboks were playing above themselves. But we were, after all, better. We had proved that in every match of the tournament before this. I continued to believe we would win until we didn’t. I went to bed as the sun came up, still not sure what had happened.

In 1999 it was back to the UK and the children were now old enough to travel and enjoy themselves. I was in the middle of changing jobs again, so we decided to take a nine-week break. We rented a flat in London – basement, cold, reasonable price, close to the museums – and had the time of our lives. The children were eight, six and four and spent every spare minute in the Museum of Natural History or the Science Museum, or hooning around Kensington Gardens in gloves and beanies. I did television commentary with Eurosport, this time, beamed into central and Eastern Europe, my first and only experience of being translated in real time into German, Polish, Ukrainian and a host of other languages.

It was quarter-final time and there we all were in Edinburgh. A wet night match was over and the All Blacks had won unconvincingly, but no matter, Scotland were out and we were off to Twickenham for a fateful meeting with France. The crowd had disappeared quickly on a miserable night and as I finished up in the commentary box I looked across the field to where Brigit and the kids were sitting. I could see the boys running up and down the concrete steps and climbing over the seats. I looked away and when I looked back the St John Ambulance team was climbing up into the stand and heading right for a small knot of people gathered around a child sitting with his hand on his head.

A serious-faced Barnaby, blood dripping from a head wound, made his way across the famous field in company with two laughing brothers and a calmly concerned mother and St John team.

Into the Murrayfield medical centre he went and – sitting on the bed where, not half an hour before, the wounded warriors from a World Cup quarter-final had sat – Barnes had his head stitched up. Jonah Lomu picked up Hugo and four-year-old Harry, light as feathers, one on each arm and posed for photographs in the tunnel. Back in London I was in the studio when we lost to France in what remains perhaps the most peculiar Rugby World Cup match of all time. Our holiday continued but the All Blacks went first to Cardiff for the play-off and then home to face the music.

England's Martin Johnson in 2003, photo Getty Images

I really haven’t tried to organise my life so as to be resident in cities that host the Rugby World Cup, but there we were living in Sydney in 2003 when the World Cup again came to town: the third Cup out of five in which I was living in the host city. For the first time I was worried about the All Blacks. They won well in the pool matches and looked okay in the quarter-final. But I was concerned about the semi-final. It was a great match – if you were Australian – and the bus ride home was a torment.

The final was easily the most memorable World Cup match I have watched. (Second would be the Australia-South Africa semi-final in 1999.) England continually played it safe and failed to take their opportunities or give them back to Australia. Two periods of extra time and a drop-goal to win it. No one begrudged England’s victory.

In 2007, we were back in Europe. Reprising our 1999 experience, we took a flat in Paris and travelled to Toulouse and Marseille and stayed in Avignon, watching the All Blacks and two wonderful matches in the Marseille Stade Vélodrome, a ground that resembles a gigantic bull-ring, which was made more real by countless bugle riffs that ended with an ecstatic “olé!”

We watched our quarter-finals in the south of France, eschewing dank Cardiff. It seemed a simple decision at the time, but then France lost to Argentina in their group, came second and had to play the All Blacks in the quarter-final. And, of course, as we know, as we suffered, as we still can’t quite believe, France beat us in the quarter-final of the 2007 Rugby World Cup and we were out. I, along with the rest of New Zealand, was dumbfounded. My boys had three different reactions – one was dazed and speechless, one was in tears and one threw his cellphone at the wall and swore he would never support the useless bastards again. It is at times like this you know you have married well. Brigit turned to me and said, “We’ll always have Paris.”

And so we did. Back to Paris it was and the end of our holiday. Two of the boys had to go back to school in Australia, we met up (again) with lots of friends, ate and drank, watched the best third and fourth play-off match ever (France and Argentina), spent two nights in a beautiful boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter we had stayed in more than 20 years before, watched a boring final and came home. Happy. Of course the one World Cup I haven’t talked about was the most important for me, but then there is nothing new to say on that front – you saw it all.

Further reading: Part one by Peter FitzSimons; part two by Nick Farr-Jones; and four by Paul Thomas. All of our RWC coverage here.

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