Deputy Rector Gerry Davidson reflects on Gary Lennon's contribution to rugby beyond his beloved St Bede's teams.
While Gary had a real passion for St Bede’s rugby with much of his energy going into coaching teams at the College, he also made a huge contribution to Canterbury Schools and Southern Regions Schools Rugby. With Canterbury Schools, he achieved success in annual fixtures against Hanan Shields, Wellington, and Otago Schools and against visiting overseas teams who were here to play New Zealand schools in Test matches during the late eighties and early nineties.
It was, however, with Southern Regions Schools that he achieved one of his most memorable victories. Southern Regions played each year against the Northern and Central regions of the North Island in an annual tournament. Gary coached the team between 1994 and 1996. Playing for Southern Regions was the pinnacle for many players. Rotating between venues in each region, numerous All Blacks emerged from these teams and Gary’s teams were no exception. Coaching the team in Auckland in 1995, a young Southern team showed Gary that they could be a real force the following year and he started to plan.
Gary selected carefully in 1996 to a plan that had emerged during the 1995 tournament. He knew how to beat the strong North Island teams but now he had the firepower to do it and put into practice the plans he had been ruminating on throughout the summer. With a team that had only four players who lived above the Rakaia River, he was able to tailor his game plans to his players and what he needed to concentrate on. This was never better exemplified than by his selection of a Second Five, Mark Fitzgerald from Methven High School who at 16 he was the youngest player on the team. While lacking experience he had a prodigious boot and was prepared to listen and learn – if the opposition was shallow his booming kicks turned them around and when they dropped back the First Five Ashley Barron deftly brought them forward. Gary also picked a team that had size and determination. He chose three outstanding openside flankers and used them all in both games to great effect to play a game that revolved around speed and physicality.
In 1996 the team could boast future All Blacks Ben Blair and Nathan Mauger in the backs and in the forwards Chris Jack, Andrew Hore, and Tom Willis. Gary also had a St Bede’s player Johnny Leo’o who would later star for the Crusaders. That team executed the plan to perfection and won the National Regional Title for the first time. Nine players were selected for the New Zealand Schools team that year, the remainder of the Southern team along with nine replacements beat an Australian Divisional team 112-0 in Timaru a few weeks later on a chilly evening in front of the New Zealand Schools team.
Gary’s Southern Region tie took pride of place in his collection and I am sure that he looked fondly at the team photo for many years later. The original Shield the team won in 1996 was thrown into a swimming pool by a disgruntled coach some years later. It was fished out and fell into my hands minus the silverware. In the last couple of months, I had cut it into three pieces and had a plaque engraved and attached to each piece. The first piece was Gary’s and I gave that to him four weeks ago, I kept the second piece for myself, and the third went to the team manager Trevor McIntyre. I know that Gary loved seeing it again.