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In Conversation With Richard Turner

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In Conversation With Richard Turner

Before the 2019 season kicks off and we get back into the Shortball we have a special RugbyPass podcast, In Conversation, where we take our time to chat to a few of the people who make up New Zealand’s national game.

Today Scotty Stevenson talks to former All Black, turned TV personality, Richard “Pod” Turner about his provincial and international career.

In his conversation with Scotty, Turner looks back at his debut as a schoolboy for Hawkes Bay, his brief All Black career, the iconic North Harbour v Auckland clash of 1994.

A big man, Turner played at number 8, and represented Hawke’s Bay and North Harbour, and the Chiefs in Super Rugby.

He played two games for the All Blacks in 1992. He now covers rugby for Sky Sport.

Download the episode here or listen in the player below.

Joining us on the line is Richard Turner, two test All Black and TV personality these days, and a great colleague and friend of mine. Pod, good day to you sir.

G’day Sumo.

Richard Turner I am going to take you way back to start our conversation.

Just before you go too far back Scotty, you know I’ve taken a few knocks to the head.

Haven’t we all. I’m going to take you back to Napier Boy’s High School. You would have been the biggest boy running around on that paddock surely Pod?

At my particular school, yeah I was. There was no doubt about that. That was me growing up.

I’m going to take us back even further, one of my endearing memories of growing up, like all most kids growing up in my era, we couldn’t get into footy quick enough and I got into it as a four year old. And I think from age four to about eight years old all I can recall from those days playing wise is my mum on the sideline going: “he’s only four! He’s only four!” because I was that much bigger than everyone else.

As you know I’ve had the pleasure of dinner time at Sina Turner’s and I am not surprised you were bigger than most other kids, she can put on a feed your mum.

There was no shortage of that. I did a lot of carbo loading from the early days.

When did you get serious about footy and thinking about it as something you wanted to do representatively?

I think probably those days, those Boys High days. Making the Napier Boys 1st XV then all of a sudden you’re attracting attention in and around that age group system. Also, Hawkes Bay age group wise, was massively dominant at U16 and U18 (and subsequently became 17 and 19).

In my last year in Napier Boys 1st XV when I got picked up to play the tail end of the NPC competition as a school boy, that was probably when I was like “ok, it’s probably time to start getting reasonably serious about obviously the dreams of higher honours.”

It’s probably more prevalent now as a kid growing up, I was into anything and everything sporting wise, and I was probably forced into making decisions at high school, because you couldn’t do everything. If you were in the 1st XV you couldn’t play basketball anymore. So it was almost, not forced into making that choice, but one of those times when I wanted to be serious about being a rugby player.

One of our other conversations in this series is with Leon MacDonald, who was picked for his provincial side while still a school boy. What was the experience like for you? He was a back so he would have been able to hide a bit, but he said even in his first 30 seconds of his debut game for Marlborough he had a black eye and probably a broken nose. What was it like for you running out there, because these were tough tough men?

That’s exactly what they were, they were men. And I was a snotty nosed school boy. I was 6”4’ and 118 kg so I wasn’t small but I was still a boy. I was literally going out there to play against men.

But, one thing I had, that Leon MacDonald probably wasn’t privy to, I had a guy in my team called Mark Shaw.

That would have helped.

It certainly did because he basically took it upon himself to essential be my minder. So my introduction to first class rugby was essentially running around behind Mark Shaw, making sure if I got stuck at the bottom of the ruck he wasn’t too far away. I can tell you, he got me out of a few stick situations. He was my saving grace.

For those listening overseas just explain a little bit about Mark Shaw to them…

Well you talk about hard men, he was genuinely a tough bugger. He came off the land, and he was pretty raw, he referred to university students or educated people as scarf draggers. Haha. There wasn’t a lot of room in Mark Shaw’s life for those sort of people. He was a good footy player, but he was a tough uncompromising footy player. He was old school.

Because I was obviously the youngest in the side, my first actual game for Hawkes Bay was an away game against King Country and you were two up in the room. In those days it was a queen bed and a single bed. I walked into the room and immediately put my bag by the single bed thinking that was my place. And Cowboy walked in and said “Nah boy, you need your sleep, you get in the big bed, I’m ok in the little bed.”

He had a huge amount of respect from other players. And that was certainly comforting from my perspective. As with the conversation you had with Leon, there were some grizzly old rugby players who didn’t take too kindly to young upstarts trying to ply their way in our national game. So it was certainly great for me to have Mark Shaw quite literally covering my back.

He’s not a bad guy to have covering for you, he’s compared often to Kel Tremain and Ian Kirkpatrick, and of course he’d go on to coach Hawkes Bay in the early 2000s as well, Cowboy Shaw. And I know subsequently in your career you toured with him to Canada I think he took a team, and the other side of him was revealed on that tour…

It certainly was, it was 1990. The All Blacks had gone to France and we were essentially a junior All Blacks team and we went off to Canada. It was probably one of the first official New Zealand Rugby Union teams to head to Canada, so they made quite a big deal about, and in fact they gave us the moniker of “the future All Blacks team”.

We spent probably 35 hours getting to the east coast of Canada, we started on the far coast of Canada, and we arrived at some ungodly hour of the morning, and there was every Canadian who was a rugby official in his blazer and tie that was in existence at that time. Lane Penn was our coach and he stood up in front of all these Canadian officials and made sure he said all the right things, that this was important and the All Blacks were in France, and we were the next cab off the rank, so it’s important you all play well not just for your immediate future but down the track. And almost as an afterthought he got up and said to Cowboy, have you got anything you want to say?

Cowboy was very short and very succinct, and something I probably can’t repeat, but it was kind of set the tone for the rest of the tour Scotty. I think the closest the Canadians got to us was 40 to 50 points and we certainly had a very enjoyable trip.

It was only a couple of years later Pod when you finally cracked the All Black side and it was during that Centenary series in 1992, and you played your first and only two test matches for the All Blacks. And we will get to reasons why they were your only two tests in a moment, but that feeling of having made it, having been around the system, having played with these guys and finally running out there as an All Black do you still look back on that now with absolute sincere fondness?

One hundred per cent. For me it was maybe even more special because back in the early nineties we still had All Black trials, and we went through the All Black trial system, and it was in my home town of Napier. So I’d moved to North Harbour by then, and I was plying my trade under the guidance of Peter Thorburn. We all went back to Hawkes Bay, and we played a trial match on the Friday and from that they picked a possibles and a probables, and the probables were essentially a New Zealand XV team, and they were the guys that were favoured to be selected for the All Blacks.

I must have had a pretty good first trial and got named as number eight in that New Zealand XV, the probables, and we got beaten by the possibles in the second trial.

Obviously home town, all my family there. We finished that second trial, all showered up and we went through to the Centennial Hall for the after match function and they actually named the All Blacks side for the Centenary tests in the hall at the after match function. And so I had my mum and dad there and a lot of my family, and that doubled down in terms of the occasion for me. To do it in front of my hometown friends and family was an amazing feeling and something that I’ll never forget.

And because you are a Turner starting with T, and they do it alphabetically you have to wait a long time to hear your name. My mum was holding my hand, and her fingernails are about three or four inches long, and as they were reading out the names they were digging deeper and deeper into my hand, and I thought I was going to be injured out of the team if I was selected because I had three inch fingernails stuck in my hand.

It was massively special and then to get together and go into a room, all those that got named went into a room, and all of a sudden you were sitting in a room with – even though you played against them you still idolised a lot of the All Blacks, the Fitzpatricks, the Kirwans and all of a sudden you were sitting next to them thinking this is pretty cool, I’m an All Black and I’m sitting next to legendary All Blacks. It was a pretty special time.

I’m just going to run through the opposition that day in Christchurch Pod, your test debut on the 18th of April 1992. The captain of the team playing loosehead prop Sole, Phil Kearns, Peter Fatialofa, Cecillon, Roumat, MacKinnon, Ofahengaue, White, Nicol, Hendriks, Camberabero, Horan, Guscott, Knoetze and Hastings. That’s a hell of a line up of international players to come up against, and I don’t need to remind you they had the better of you that day.

They did. Lost that test in Christchurch.

After getting named the next coolest thing about being an All Black is being in the changing room and getting your jersey then pulling it on and running out onto the field as an All Black and becoming one of the club.

But it was a tough game, we hadn’t been together that long, and the start studded World XV got the better and put us away. I managed to do down though, so that was pretty cool. I’ve got a photo, it was the Herald photographer who actually took the photo sent it to me. I’ve got a big photo of me scoring in the corner at Lancaster Park displayed proudly on the wall and that’s pretty cool, even though we did lose the game and I got dropped for the second test. Haha.

Sorry about that mate.

I was thinking about it, you and Inga Tuigamala were the try scorers on that day, you were probably the biggest All Blacks, one playing number 8, one playing on the left wing.

We were also one and two in the buffet line.

That’s fair enough too.

You can’t have a conversation with you without bringing North Harbour up. It would have been a big move for you to go to North Harbour that was still a very young province at that stage, what was behind the decision? Was it just a rugby decisions, or was it time for big Richard to go to the big smoke.

In 88 I was playing for Hawkes Bay I broke my arm and so I had a bit of time to take stock of what was going on, and I was a Hawkes Bay boy, and Hawkes Bay was my world, and I decided that there might be a bigger world out there. I moved up, well actually came up here for a holiday, only knew one bloke in Auckland at the time. That was Tim Barry – I went on a New Zealand youth team trip with him. He picked me up from the airport and showed me around the big city.

It’s the old Sliding Doors thing. It’s interesting how life pans out. He said, “I’ve got to go to my local rugby club for a registration evening. Why don’t you come along, have a beer, stand in a corner and behave yourself.” That was the time when Brad Meurant, who subsequently went on to coach North Harbour and has been a massive influence in my career and a bloody good bloke as well. He had come to Northcote from another club on the North Shore and a handful of guys had come into the club as well. A couple of the guys had come across the bridge and Brad sort of got in my ear and said “what are you doing here? What are you thoughts, what are your plans?” Between him and Peter Thorburn, convinced me that maybe the big smoke was the place to be. And mate, to be honest with you, I was a big fish in a small pond in Hawkes Bay and I’d come up to a very big pond that was greater Auckland and North Harbour and there was a bloke swimming around in the North Harbour pond called Wayne Shelford so I was saying to them, “I can’t see myself playing very much”. They quite rightly convinced me that “yeah initially you might not play a lot but who better to be an understudy to and learn the art of being a number eight than from Wayne Shelford?” They did a pretty good job of convincing me and I decided that that was probably the next step in my rugby career. It was to leave home and leave Mum’s cooking but I decided that was what I wanted to do. So I moved here at the age of 19.

Were they right? Was Buck Shelford a big influence? Was he the best guy to learn off?

He was obviously a great player and for me, in terms of your attitude and dedication, he certainly set a benchmark for that. It was an amateur era, well before professional. Buck’s whole life was dedicated to being the best he could be on the rugby field. At the time it was interesting because don’t get me wrong, I love being a rugby player and I love playing rugby, but I was a Hawkes Bay boy that had come up to the big city so there was all this other world that I’m looking at thinking I haven’t seen this before, that looks quite appealing as well. Whereas Buck was 100 percent dedicated to being a rugby player. He probably trained like a professional well before professionalism. It was a good thing to sit there and be an understudy to him and say, well he’s obviously the best in his position and that’s what it takes to be there, so they were certainly good learnings.

86 games you played for North Harbour through those years and you mention Brad Meurant already and Peter Thorburn, and I know those two coaches certainly had their share of funny moments. I look through the personalities in that team and dead set, it’s probably the funniest collection of blokes every put in the same gurnsies and sent out onto a playing field. What was it like to be around the likes of Walter Little and Frank Bunce and Eric Rush and Blair Larsen and so many others?

Obviously for 80 minutes on a rugby field it was fantastic. Unbelievably talented. I think if you look back on it and we’re all being honest with ourselves, we probably didn’t really reach our potential as a side. But that was because we had such strong personalities there that those guys loved rugby, loved playing the game, but also loved everything else that came with the game at the time. We probably had too much fun if I was being honest. But we also had a saying that it was boots on, switch on. We managed at times, and clearly from a coach’s perspective probably not consistent and near often enough, but there were times when we did our boots on that we were pretty good. Playing in a team with those guys, that was special. Sometimes you catch yourself quite literally standing in the middle of the paddock going “I wonder where this is going to end up”. Sometimes it was pretty spectacular. We certainly had a lot of fun and the game was different. I remember the first time I went into a changing room after a Harbour game, the first thing a lot of guys did was spark a gasper and grab a Lion Red. They were like “oh jeez thanks, that’s what I need to recover from this game” so obviously things have changed since then. We worked hard and we played hard. And it was certainly enjoyable right from ‘89 to ‘96, when I left the country. 86 games and all of them were very enjoyable.

I understand that Pete Thorburn once got so frustrated with you that he waited for an age, you were huddling at halftime on the field (teams didn’t go back into the changing rooms) and he took his time – so much time running out – walking out to talk to you that by the time he got to you the referee blew his whistle and said “second half starts” and he just turned around and walked away again.

[laughing] Thorbs used to always say that should be what a good coach does. He times his walk to get out there in time to turn around and walk back. I think part of that was often 90% of the things he said went in one ear of most of our guys and out the other. I was captain of that mob for a long time and it was interesting times. In terms of motivating them and getting the best out of them, they weren’t traditional methods. And often you just have to run with it. As a coach, they were sitting in the stands tearing their hair out but you couldn’t temper that because often that’s what got the best out of those guys when they were given the ball, and it was pretty special to be a part of.

The Battle of The Bridge final. If any game stands out in North Harbour’s history it’s that famous game against Auckland at Onewa Domain. Everything about it was an act of violence.

Yeah those dirty Aucklanders.

None of you have every forgotten, I don’t think. 1994, the season climax, and it was the first time you guys had ever hosted a final, and the Aucklanders believed that it should’ve been played at Eden Park. You guys dug your toes in and said nah it’s being played at Onewa.

They were arrogant then, still are now, Scotty.

Talk to me about that week and that game. If anyone can remember it…

If I can simplify it, it was essentially a big ol’ pot of rugby that was on a burner and the whole week we just kept chucking things at each other in this pot. One side antagonising the other side and it went to extremes. Those were the days when we were both sponsored by Nike and Nike didn’t mind spending a dollar promoting an event. They put up a billboard on the downtown shopping centre that basically wrapped, in an L shape, around one side of the street, down the corner and down the other side of the street. They put up a billboard that said “This town ain’t big enough for the both of us” and there were Harbour guys on one side and Auckland guys on the other side. Basically the Aucklanders were like “you can’t play an NPC final at the Onewa Domain, it’s a disgrace.” And we were like “too bad, we’ve earned the right to be there and you guys are going to come across and play us on our turf”. Essentially, for those who didn’t know, Onewa was basically a club ground. So it was a Takapuna Rugby Club ground that during the rep season converted to North Harbour’s home ground. So if you can imagine the changing rooms weren’t big changing rooms and certainly far from today’s standards. There were a couple of luxuries for the home team in that they got a slightly bigger one but we took great delight in poking Auckland into the smallest rooms available. We would’ve had 21 players in those days and I think they would’ve had to spread amongst three changing rooms to get themselves all in there.

The whole week they were pretty antagonistic and then it culminated…it was a good crowd, which was great, running out on the field. We knew that they were the favourites, there’s no doubt about that, and they were a bloody good team, to be fair to them. But our attitude was they were the arrogant big brother and we were gonna be the snotty nosed little brother that wasn’t going to take a back step. That pot that I referred to previously, about 30 seconds into the game it kind of boiled over. Then we couldn’t get the lid back on it.

I see clips of that game so often and you can see clips of it online still. Man, there are some acts of thuggery in that game. It’s actually remarkable. There’s never been a game like it since, and there never will be because you just couldn’t do that now. I always think it’s well worth remembering how much feeling there was, even if that feeling might have been slightly misdirected in the game. It’s always worth remembering, from a provincial point of view, how much that meant and how special that rivalry had become.

Absolutely. We also had guys that had come from the other side of the bridge, “the dark side” as we called it living on the North Shore. They’d come from the dark side, they’d come over to us, and they copped it from the Auckland guys. “You’re not good enough to play for us, that’s why you went to Harbour”. A lot of it was actually those guys didn’t enjoy that environment. They came over to us because they looked over the fence and went oh actually that’s a cool environment to be a part of, I want to be part of that. If you talked to anyone involved in that game, the guys involved in some of the unsavoury incidents, they were real anomalies. They were guys that had probably never ever behaved like that on a rugby field before. They just did things that were just…honestly. As a skipper, I’m thinking okay I know we weren’t going to take a step back but we’ve probably taken six steps forward here. But there was so much in motion, so much at stake in the game that there quite literally was no controlling it.

Cutting a long story short, you went away to Italy and subsequently to Japan after your playing career here had finished. You captained the Chiefs in their first year of existence in Super Rugby and then went and plied your trade. You’ve done many things since then but I guess for most New Zealanders and international as well, what you’ve made your name in over the last decade especially is in your television work. Do you still look at your game with the same sense of wonder and the same joy that you did as a young kid running around in the Hawkes Bay?

I look at it in awe now because the game has changed so much. The guys playing the game now, physically they’re bigger they’re stronger, they’re faster. We used to marvel at the Walter Littles and the Frank Bunces and Osbournes, and they were talented players but I’m looking at guys now – and not only guys at the top level, Scotty. We’re fortunate enough to go down to our National under 19 tournament, and the depth of talent in this country is just phenomenal, it really is. And the influence of professionalism has been huge in the game so guys are becoming athlete-focussed at a really young age so their skill level is just unbelievable.

I’ve been lucky to sit in that Sky chair for I think it’s 15, 16 years now. I’m not just saying this, it’s a real privilege to sit there. I’ll tell you what, it’s also a lot easier to sit there and tell people how they should be playing than being out there in the middle doing it. It’s a privilege to be able to do that, and over 16 years, to see some of the talent and guys that have come through the game and gone on to the greatest heights of the game. And also guys you see that you don’t see again. I still enjoy our national provincial competition, now it’s called the Mitre 10 Cup. Every year I look forward to it because every year it spits out the next generation of talent. I sit there and think, philosophically, I wonder where this can end. How good can a rugby player be? There must be a limit to the things a player can do on a rugby field but no, every year somebody else does something that you just think, where did that come from and how did you learn to do that?

 

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In Conversation With Richard Turner