'He was actually really angry that I didn't know what I'd done'
Ex-All Blacks scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow is one heck of a storyteller. His entertaining yarns, including an incredible caper about a mislaid gold medal, unfolded as quickly as the snappy pass that left him exiting New Zealand as a venerated 27-cap World Cup winner and now sees him and his young family happily ensconced in the rhythm of French life on the Atlantic coast. Home for the past four years is the Île de Ré, an island about three kilometres from the mainland of La Rochelle, the club he is now committed to through to the end of the 2024/25 Top 14 season.
It’s idyllic, to say the least, but like many things in Kerr-Barlow’s career, it hasn’t been without its difficulties. Having turned down an approach from the Mediterranean-based Toulon to instead buy into the vision of La Rochelle going from minnows to heavyweights on the French scene with his mates Victor Vito and Uini Atonio already on board, it was the early months that caught Kerr-Barlow cold in France.
“Going to the supermarket, you know that sugar and flour are not called sugar and flour here and even driving on the other side of the road is really foreign,” quipped the 31-year-old to RugbyPass over the course of a 35-minute call that reflected on how he went from being an Australian-born, Darwin-raised kid who mostly played league to enrolling in a Hamilton boarding school as a teenager and fighting off homesickness in order to give himself a shot at fulfilling his dream of becoming an All Black before embarking on his European adventure.
“We arrived here in winter when everything was dark and freezing and it was a little bit scary, but I believe we have grown a lot from our experience. It took us a year or so to get comfortable and find our place but we have had two children born in France now and where we live is a fantastic place for family. The people and the city are awesome.
“We are sold out every game that the public is allowed to and the club is really good, they have got a good vision and we are having fun trying to fulfil it,” he said, adding a snapshot of the classic French lifestyle he has settled into. “You see in the movies a French person walking down the road with their baguette or a baguette in the basket on their bike. That is not a stereotype, that actually happens and it’s pretty cool to see that kind of stuff, going to the bakery where they have got fantastic bread. We get croissants and chocolatines and come home to have a feed.”
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French rugby this Sunday will be dominated by the national team’s Guinness Six Nations opener at home to Italy. Kerr-Barlow, for sure, will check in on its progress. His pal from his younger days in New Zealand, Atonio, is packing down for Les Bleus as is another clubmate Gregory Alldritt, while Jonathan Danty has also made the team. “When our Test careers are finished, our goal is to come here, have a good life, play good rugby and help lads get into the French team so when you have players selected it is really pleasing.”
However, his priority Sunday will be helping La Rochelle to fix a run of inconsistent results in the league by chasing down a win away to relegation-threatened Biarritz. “At really critical moments in matches, we just let our concentration slip for one second and then we make uncharacteristic errors,” he reckoned, reflecting on a campaign where his team has lost more than it has won so far in the Top 14 in contrast to last year’s success where the ‘KBA – Keep Ball Alive’ philosophy qualified them for domestic and European finals.
“It’s not a system thing or it’s nothing to do with effort. It’s one thing that is fixable and when you look at it in that context, it is quite positive because you cut that out, you have good concentration in important moments and you are away laughing. We have still got a fantastic team of blokes who are very motivated to succeed. It is fixable and that is a positive. When we fix it we will be in a much stronger position.
“The next level would be to win a final, Europe and the Top 14, and to then stay at that level on a consistent basis which is hard. Toulouse have done it, Exeter and Saracens have done it, Leinster, Munster did it back in the day. There is the Crusaders, the Chiefs did it for a time and the Blues also back in New Zealand, but it is difficult to stay at the top. It’s not easy. You have to have a good foundation. We are focused on winning our first title, playing good rugby and trusting our process.”
Away games in France mean long bus journeys – the trip south to Biarritz was a 400km spin down the west coast. It’s just as well then there are some characters to keep the mood light. “Usually it’s a competition between Uini Atonio and Will Skelton. Mind you, Pierre Bourgarit and (Jeremy) Sinzelle are pretty funny guys as well and you chuck Victor Vito into the bunch and you have got a real class-act comedy group. The bus trips are long but they are also enjoyable, a chance to get together and have a laugh, but when you arrive at your destination you know you have got to flick the switch and start preparing for the match.”
You’d think having left the All Blacks, Kerr-Barlow’s best rugby is behind him but the style of game in France has instead developed him further. “The rugby is not as fast as it is in New Zealand in Super Rugby but it is much more technical,” he explained. “It has allowed me to improve my kicking game and my control and it is a little bit different. Southern hemisphere lads could do well to come here for a season or two and learn that you can skin the cat in a different way.
“In France, the nine controls the play and the tempo of the game a lot more and the tempo of the game than we do in New Zealand, which I obviously enjoy,” he continued, mentioning the myriad of rival scrum-halves he has encountered. “You get them all in France, you get the guys that talk a lot and the guys that don’t. Antoine Dupont is the best nine in the world, he’s probably the best player in the world at the moment and he actually doesn’t speak a whole lot, he is not as animated as others and he is a fantastic player. They come in all shapes, sizes and forms. France is extremely lucky with their generation.”
It was two days before Christmas 2017 when Kerr-Barlow debuted for La Rochelle, a baptism of fire at Bordeaux. “I arrived halfway through the season after the end-of-year tour and I didn’t speak a lick of French which was my fault. I should have done more lessons and arrived here with most French because basically, it is all French on the field and in the changing room. There are guys who speak English but for the most part, it is French. If I could give any advice to someone coming to play rugby in France it would be to learn your basic French before you arrive because it will help you out a bunch,” advised Kerr-Barlow, who went a different way language-wise at school in New Zealand.
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“I took Maori, the language of Maori people, but looking back it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to do French. In New Zealand, we are at the bottom of the world. Guys in Europe hear a smattering of French here and there but we don’t hear any French at home, we don’t even know what it sounds like so the accents are extremely foreign for us so that is why it is important to take a few lessons before you arrive.
“I have had a few (mistakes) and something that is really harmless can turn into something really unkind just depending on your accent. You get an e or an r wrong, you put something in the wrong place and you are in a spot of bother but usually, people are pretty kind. They know you are not from France so they give you a bit of leeway.”
Looking back on how it all started for him in rugby, Kerr-Barlow is immensely indebted to his parents. His mother Gail played Test level union for Australia, his father Reimana played at representative league level in New Zealand while his uncle Tukere Barlow even trucked north and featured for Warrington Wolves in the English Super League.
“My mum and dad have quite astute rugby brains, especially my mum. They coached me when I was young and mum taught me how to pass. I had very good influences and my fondest memories are playing juniors in the morning and then you hang around for your parents to play. Mum and my dad had a massive impact on my career,” he enthused, recalling one particular story that has lived long in the mind.
“Mum was the goal kicker and one time she pointed at the posts and put the ball down. I didn’t know what was happening but the ref didn’t point at the posts, she put her foot on the ball and then took it off about eleven metres from the line. She faked it as if it was part of her technique and then she just walked past the opposition and put the ball down and they awarded the try.
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“I asked mum what she was doing and she said she pointed at the posts but told the ref that she didn’t want to take the points, so she got a real sneaky try. It was pretty incredible. I can’t believe it worked. That is probably the fondest memory I have because there was a bit of trickery involved. It was quite bizarre but it worked. It was very funny and it always stuck with me. To have the gall to try something like that was pretty cool.”
An added reason why that moment still stands out so much is perhaps how Kerr-Barlow spent his teenage years, leaving Australia to chase his All Blacks dream by attending boarding school in Hamilton. “It was extremely difficult. I was 13 when I left. My grandparents were in New Zealand and I had aunties and uncles but mum, dad and brother were all in Darwin.
“There was only a phone booth and you got a calling card and I remember every time I called home I would be crying, telling mum how much I missed everyone. Sometimes I said, ‘Look, I want to come home’. It was a bit of tough love. She said, ‘If you want to realise your dream you are going to have to stay there or you can come back and it won’t happen’. The first three years were extremely difficult but I grew up and got a bit more comfortable, and I always enjoyed boarding school. Really loved it. Some of my best friends I met at boarding school and I still keep in contact with them to this day, but it was initially extremely difficult.”
From there it into the Chiefs, whose upcoming February 19 return to Super Rugby action versus the Highlanders will be avidly followed from afar by Kerr-Barlow eleven years after he debuted for them in 2011. “I take a massive interest. I always keep up with how the Chiefs are going. They are my old team and I try and stay current with all rugby.
“I enjoy watching what is trending, how teams and players are adjusting to the new rules because they do have quite a big effect on how you play the game, the referees’ interpretation. I love watching Super Rugby, it is a really fast game, highly skilled and you play at a magnificent tempo. It is good for the lungs. I always keep an eye on what is going on back in the southern hemisphere.”
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Looking back on his own adventure at that level, Kerr-Barlow couldn’t have had it any better as the Chiefs won back-to-back Super Rugby titles and the effect that the coaches, Dave Rennie and his support staff, had on him was invaluable. “I was just trying to soak everything up, learn everything that I could, and Wayne Smith is the best coach I have ever worked with and he is a very good friend.
“There were many moments that were challenging. Wayne blew me up a couple of times. One time he asked me on a Thursday what the opposition nine did at a scrum defensively. I always looked after lunch before the Thursday training and I was thinking of lying to him and in the end, I said, ‘Smithy, I don’t know’ and he blew me up.
“He said, ‘What do you mean you don’t know? It’s Thursday and you don’t know what the opposition nine does. You should have been looking at this first thing Monday’. You learn so many lessons from coaches like that. It was embarrassing at the time but I have never made that mistake again. He would be the best coach I worked under.”
It was October 2014 when Kerr-Barlow’s career reached a crossroads. He destroyed his knee in Johannesburg in the only match he was ever to lose in an All Blacks shirt and the injury could well have put him on the rugby scrap heap but for his belligerence to not give up on his World Cup dream. “Definitely, I had the added motivation of getting back for a World Cup,” he explained.
“The most important thing you need to do as a professional athlete when you have got a long-term injury is you have got to eat really well and you have still got to conduct yourself as a professional and just use it as a challenge. That is the way I thought of it. I thought what a cool challenge. The surgeons told me I might not be able to play rugby again, let alone make the World Cup. It was extremely tight in the end, but that was a massive motivation.
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“I used to have a VCR of the 1999 World Cup highlights package and always used to watch it. I remember telling my mum I want to play in a World Cup one day and then after the final (in 2015) I had a photo. Fortunately, she came over and we had a photo at Twickenham after the game. That was the realisation of my dream and she had sacrificed a lot for me to school in New Zealand.
“She worked really hard to send me there, so it was a cool moment to share with my mum. I had talked about it when I was little and you never know you are going to get there, but that was my dream when I was a kid and it was really cool to share it with my mum.”
The frolic since then is how Kerr-Barlow unwittingly mislaid his World Cup medal. “When I left for France I’d so much gear. I put it all in bags and sent it to my friends, and friends came around my house and took heaps of stuff. It must have accidentally been in one of these bags as I sent it to my best mate. He rang me when I was in France and he goes, ‘T, you wouldn’t believe it but you sent me your bag and it has your World Cup medal in it!’ He couldn’t believe it and he was actually really angry with me that I didn’t know what I had done. In New Zealand, it is the holy grail to win the World Cup.
“I said to him, ‘You just look after it for me and I’ll get it off you the next time I come back to New Zealand’. It’s still with my mate. He lives out on the farm so I don’t think it is going anywhere anytime soon. When I move back to New Zealand I will get it back off him.”
Kerr-Barlow still treasures his All Blacks career, even making the trip across to Paris from La Rochelle in November to watch the current crop in action against France. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch up with them because there were so many regulations around visitation and all that sort of thing, but there are still players there I call up and have a good catch up with.
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“Your greatest honour as a Kiwi is to play for the All Blacks whether you play one or 100 Tests because not many people get to do it. I would have liked to have played a bit more often and started a bit more often but that is how the cookie crumbles. I have got no regrets. I’m very grateful for the time that I was able to be involved with the All Blacks. It’s a special club and apart from your children being born, for a lot of is it’s one of the best moments of lives. An extremely cool club to be a part of.”
And yet, Kerr-Barlow would be willing to move with the times and switch allegiance. He likes how international rugby has recently opened up its eligibility rules which now allow players capped by one country to play for another. “It is a really positive thing. You get players who play a handful of Tests for a country and that is their eligibility shot and they have still got a lot to offer world rugby.
“We all want world rugby to be strong, we want it to be a spectacle and some of the best players in the world, they move overseas and they grow and they improve. You have got the likes of Charles Piutau in England, Steven Luatua is there, you have got Victor Vito in France, you have got all these guys who could add so much to their country.
“Even myself, I’d love to chuck on the Australian jersey as I spent the first part of life in Australia, my family is still there and I’m very grateful for what they have done for my family. My mum played for Australia. It [opening up eligibility] is a positive thing. You will get people saying, ‘Oh you know you’re not loyal’ or ‘How can you play for one country and play for another?’
“But if you are born in a country or your parents are born there and you feel a certain way about the country and you have got roots already established, then why not? I am a pretty open individual in terms of those sorts of things and I just want rugby to be the big thing I know it can be because if you love rugby you want it to improve.”
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