Hero photograph
Warwick Taylor
Photo by Mark Ealey

Interview with Warwick Taylor

Mark Ealey —

Warwick looks back on his playing and coaching career

Many of our younger players probably aren't aware that Burnside High School PE teacher and 1st XV coach Warwick Taylor was a famous All Black who went on to become an iconic figure in Canterbury rugby.  We asked Warwick (and Tracy) some questions.

What are your earliest rugby memories from up in the Waikato?

“In the frost, barefoot, trying to play rugby from the age of about five or six years old. I remember that once I played a game with a dislocated little toe, but didn't realize it until afterwards because the ground had been so cold.”

Tell us about your 1st XV experience at Matamata College.

“My two brothers had played in the 1st XV for the three years prior to my joining the team. Theirs had been a very, very successful team. I was the third replacement first-five in the year that I made it in there. One first-five had broken his arm and the other had broken his leg. So I got in there as a 4th former playing 1st XV rugby. I remember a big Maori no. 8 running at me and knocking me on my backside. But the next time he ran at me I fell with him and grabbed his feet and knocked him over. So, it was a good learning experience. We lost far more than we won over the next four years that I was in the team. I played first-five most of that time, but moved to second-five towards the end. I learned how to tackle and how to take losses. Every now and then we’d get a win. It was a great experience.”

What about down in Otago when you were doing your PE degree?

“My brother had been in the All Blacks before that and I wanted to see if I could make it on my own. I felt at times I’d been given opportunities because of my brothers, so I when I went down to Dunedin I didn’t let people know who I was. … I learned a lot down there playing in all sorts of conditions. I learned how to play in the rain, in the mud – it was a great learning experience.”

What are your fondest memories from playing for Varsity here in Christchurch?

“Friendships… I made lots of friends. And we had a very good Varsity team when I was here as well. Dale Atkins, Vic Simpson … well everyone there really, it was a top team. So it was easy to play in, but the fact that we were all good mates made it even better.”

Tell us a little about your midfield combination with Victor Simpson.

“Victor and I got to know each so well that I knew where he’d run. He’d zig-zag his way through and I’d work hard to get there. Vic was always going to take us forwards. We trusted each other. It was a good friendship that I think was reflected in our play.”

What do remember most clearly about the Ranfurly Shield era in the early 1980s?

“Again it was friendships. Besides the University team, that Canterbury side was a team in which we were all good friends. The wives and girlfriends were all good friends. We had a lot of good times, but at the same time, it was hard. The training was tough. It was almost as though we were a professional team before the professional era started. But we had some good blowouts as well, and that’s probably what made it, there was a good balance. Even today when we meet up, it’s just great to relive those old friendships. Actually, when we lost the Shield it took me a while to get over it. It was such an intense time - it’ll never be forgotten by us anyway.”

Your first cap for the All Blacks was in 1983 against the Lions. Tell us something about that series.

“The major thing I remember about that is that my father and brother came down to watch it. At the end of the game, my brother came down and said ‘There’s an old bugger up there who wants to see you’. It still gets me now - the fact that he’d come down. How proud he must have been. I never thought it’d happen. I’d always thought that my older brother Murray was a far better footballer than I was. I just happened to be the right person at the right time.

That series was really good. We got to know the opposition so well, as friends. Rob Ackerman, my opposite number, became a good friend. We had gatherings at which we could get to know them … it was great. In that respect if feel a bit sorry for the professionals now, because that doesn't happen so much. The Lions in 1983 were a good team, but they struggled as the tour went on. We won the first test, a close game, but from there we got better and better.”

Looking back on your experience touring South Africa with the Cavaliers in 1986 what stands out?

“The fact that we weren’t the All Blacks. That was probably the major thing. I’d always wanted to beat the Springboks over in South Africa. That was my goal. That was probably the reason why I went over there as a Cavalier. But, still to this day, I remember on the day of the last test, which we had to win to draw the series, I grabbed an All Black tracksuit that I’d taken over with me. I put it on thinking I might get the same feeling I’d get when I played for the All Blacks, but then I realized that we’d gone over there as individuals. It didn’t feel the same. I wasn’t representing the All Blacks. I wasn’t representing New Zealand. It made me realize how much representing the All Blacks meant rather than being a straight-out individual in this case. I’d gone over there to beat them, but when I realized that we weren’t there as All Blacks it was a little bit different … and we were never going to beat them. They were never going to let us. The refs were a bit different.

But going over there was a great experience. The countryside was just amazing. It’s a lovely country. Sort of like New Zealand but with lots of wild animals!

The political side of it… well, I’d been to meetings for and against us going, and in the end I decided that I wanted to go and see for myself. Would I do it again? Don’t know.”

You are a World Cup winning All Black. How was that experience in 1987?

“At the beginning, no-one really knew what the World Cup was about. Brian Lochore said to us that at the end of it all we’d then understand [the magnitude of ] what we will have achieved. We came to understand how the country had got behind us. We travelled all over, we did a bit of billeting…. That was really good. We had done it for those who been before us. Every time we went out to play for the All Blacks we were ten points better than everyone else because of what had gone before us. So our winning that World Cup was our way of showing those prior All Blacks that they too were world champions. I still that we didn't win it for us. We won it for all those who had been before us. For the likes of Colin Meads, who’d never been told that they were world champions.”

You’ve worked all of your teaching career at Burnside High School - what are the highlights?

“Just seeing kids grow. We’d had a couple of kids in the 1st XV who, to be honest would have been in a lot of trouble. They probably would have taken a different direction in life if they hadn’t been 1st XV players. So the highlight has been that we’ve saved a number of kids, just through that.

There was a tour over to Australia, and that group of guys got on really well. I just met up with one of the parents the other day, and while we’re talking about 30 years ago, they still all keep in touch with each other. And that’s just one group. There’s Tom’s group. They were another special group of boys, but they’ve all been special. Being involved with the kids has kept me young. It’s been fantastic.”

What do you think you got out of rugby and what do you think it still offers to teenagers who are prepared to commit?

“Friendship is no. 1 and enjoyment is no. 2. And, being as good as you can be. That might be to the very top level, everyone has a different ceiling. When people ask what was it like I can say that I retired having pushed myself to become what I feel was a good All Black. I wasn’t a great All Black, but I got as far as I could. When I retired there weren’t any ‘What ifs’. It’s about not having any ‘What ifs’. I think I managed that.”

Tell us how you and Tracy felt when you watched Tom win his first cap for New Zealand, starting against the Wallabies?

“Probably like my old man did. Every emotion was there. We were excited, a little worried as to how he’d go. But he started off well it became a lot easier. We anxious around the goal-kicking. He missed the first two then adjusted and did well. We were really, really proud. I knew how much work he’d put in - a lot more than I had. He deserved to be where he was and to have people appreciating that. He got a real ovation when he came off. I think people in the ground and around the country were rooting for him. They wanted him to do well. It was great. We were so proud because he’d played really well.”

What challenges do you think grassroots rugby faces at the moment?

“Players coaches and managers. Keeping players playing, because there are so many sports out there now. Lately there is a little bit of negativity around concussion too. We need to get the message to the parents that the kids will be all right, they’ll be looked after, but it’s finding enough coaches to be there for the players, and I think that’s going to be a struggle in the future. It has been there for a long time, but I think it’s slowly getting worse. Even in this school. When I first came to the school there would have been ten in each class who would have played rugby, but now it’s only one or maybe two. And it’s not just the other sports, there is also the [computer] gaming… so somehow we have got to make them want to play the game. And now there’s the part-time work thing too, so it’s difficult.”

Please tell us some of your fondest memories from your coaching at Burnside High School?

“Nearly winning a final with the 1st XV. But probably my fondest memories have all been around going out and having some fun with the boys at trainings and games, just being out there enjoying seeing them grow. I really enjoy seeing them improve their level of play while they are with us. Those memories, and the friends I’ve made through rugby here at school. The Andrew Ellis’s, the Willi Heinz’s… They became good friends. It’s great when former players come up to us and tell us about their lives and say that we made a difference for them.”

Where do you think Burnside High School rugby is at the moment?

“It reminds me of the year that I entered the 1st XV at Matamata College. We are in a rebuilding phase. It may take a few years to rebuild, but if I look back at Matamata’s situation, they went on to have a few really good years. That’s school rugby. It ebbs and flows. We may struggle because we can’t buy people in, but at the least the kids who are here wanted to be here in the first place. Every now and then we will get a team that clicks, but they are all doing their best. That’s all we can ask.”

A question for Tracy: What was the toughest thing about being to an All Black’s wife? What about the good things it brought?

“Being alone for long periods of time. Northern tours were at least six weeks long and there were other tours away too. So there were lonely times then. It was before the professional era, so while Warwick was away I had to stay behind and work. These days the wives and girlfriends are able to travel with the team to some extent. We purposefully didn’t start a family until Warwick retired from top rugby. Tom was born the season after Warwick finished playing. The good part was the social life - the feeling of camaraderie among the wives and players. Warwick having been an All Black also meant that we got to travel so he could play in Venice. That was a great experience.”