All Black's legend Sir Brian Lochore senses a repeat of 1987
Twenty-four years ago the man who shepherded New Zealand’s rugby team to World Cup triumph was Brian Lochore.
Now Sir Brian, he still cuts an imposing but friendly figure at 71. He is a bear of a man, his huge paws enveloping my own in a handshake.
His eyes have retreated a little with age but they are illuminated by a ready smile.
Sir Brian is a legend in New Zealand. As both a number eight and lock forward, he won 25 international caps for his country between 1964 and 1971. He was captain of the All Blacks for 18 of those Tests.
All Black's legend Sir Brian Lochore (left) is in deep conversation with New Zealand coach Graham Henry during a training session ahead of the final against France. PHOTO: Getty
After his playing career ended, he coached his hometown club of Masterton before moving onto Wairarapa-Bush and, ultimately, the New Zealand national side.
The All Blacks were not the favourites to claim the inaugural World Cup in 1987. The build-up had been turbulent to say the least. They cancelled a tour of South Africa in 1985 owing to opposition to the apartheid regime.
An unofficial rebel group known as “The Cavaliers” travelled there in 1986 with 28 of the original touring squad of 30.
The game was still amateur at the time but, against that, it was suggested each of them had been paid handsomely.
Despite success in seven of their eight provincial matches, the tour was regarded as a failure, with the All Blacks winning just one of the four Test matches against the Springboks.
When they returned, The Cavaliers were suspended from playing for New Zealand for two months. In their place the inexperienced “Baby Blacks” were selected.
The youngsters beat France at home and were then blended uncomfortably with the returning Cavaliers.
In their final Test matches before the World Cup, the All Blacks toured France. They won the first Test in Toulouse 19-7, then fell victim to Les Bleus 16-3, in what has become known as “The Battle of Nantes”.
Former number eight Buck Shelford has referred to it as the dirtiest game of rugby he ever encountered. He is well-placed to judge – his scrotum was ripped, he lost four teeth and was knocked out.
But Sir Brian remembers New Zealand’s disrupted preparation for the first Rugby World Cup as a catalyst for their success.
He said: “In a lot of ways, those were the best things that happened to us. The public were divided.
“Half of them were supporting the All Blacks, the other half hated rugby and hated the All Blacks because they had toured South Africa.
To give you an idea of the feeling out there, the guys would not walk down the street wearing a jersey with the silver fern on because they never knew when they would get abused or accosted.
“By the end of the World Cup, they were very happy to put that jersey on and walk down any street in New Zealand. That’s how the whole country changed in that period.”
The All Blacks adopted an open policy to garner support. Sir Brian added: “We had to go out and earn the respect of the New Zealand people.
We did that by the way we played in the early part of the tournament. We signed autographs, we talked to everyone. It was the way we conducted ourselves that changed things.”
Sir Brian also made the players live in family homes across the region where he resided. “The reason I did that, was to get the players out so they could ‘smell the flowers’,” he explained.
“They did things they would never normally do, helping out on the farms and that kind of thing. It was supposed to be a bit of a rest for them but the by-product was that everybody thought it was great to have these All Blacks staying with ordinary New Zealanders.
“Most of their hosts lived a long way from the main towns and their children were at boarding schools. They all got them back home from school and they tell great stories of having the All Blacks in their houses. They can still remember every hour of it. Many of the All Blacks can as well.”
The team that went on to win the World Cup featured a host of youthful players just beginning to make their name. To list them now is to reel off a collection of the greats of All Black rugby – John Kirwan, Sean Fitzpatrick, Grant Fox and John Gallagher to name but a few.
Sir Brian particularly remembers the selection of the open-side flanker Michael Jones. He said: “I took a bit of a punt on Michael Jones, which worked out fairly well.
“I hadn’t actually seen a lot of him but John Hart had been coaching him for Auckland and he convinced us that Michael was as good as anyone out there. He was right.
“He was a real athlete – very young and very shy – but he had the goods. The game plan we decided upon suited him. We needed a link-man. We wanted to play a fast, expansive game. Because we wanted to go wide, the breakdown was vital – and Michael’s speed was key.”
Jones became a spectacular success on the international stage, not only helping New Zealand lift the Webb Ellis Cup but revolutionising the way a number seven should play.
His strength and power in the tight exchanges were immense but his ball-handling skills and speed in support broke new ground.
New Zealand beat Italy in the opening game, which will forever be remembered for John Kirwan’s miraculous weaving run to the try-line. Fiji and Argentina were dealt with subsequently in the pool stage.
The All Blacks hammered Scotland in the quarter-finals 30-3, pummelled Wales 49-6 in the semis, then had little difficulty in seeing off France 29-9 in the final.
Twenty-four years on, the World Cup of 2011 has produced the same semi-finalists – and the same two countries on opposite sides in Sunday’s final.
So does Sir Brian Lochore predict a similar result? “I think the All Blacks are in a good position,” is all the great man will say. “Anything can happen.”
Listen to more stories and interviews from the Rugby World Cup on BBC Radio 5 live Sport this Thursday. Matt Dawson presents the show, which runs from 2100 to 2230 BST.