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The last All Blacks bolter

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'Nobody saw it coming': The story of the last All Blacks bolter

By Liam Napier, NZ Herald

All Blacks lock to winemaker is not a common theme but, then, Bryn Evans’ rugby odyssey has never been predictable. He may, in fact, be one of the last quintessential bolters to grace the black jersey.

No one saw Evans’ All Blacks call-up coming. Not least the man himself.

Prior to the phone call from All Blacks manager Darren Shand that woke him from a slumber on the couch, Evans was coming off the bench at the Hurricanes.

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“It was definitely out of left field,” Evans recalls while perched on a park bench in Manchester with his sleeping daughter, Bowie, in tow. “I’d take that call any day of the week.”

Next thing Evans knew he was preparing to play a test match against France.
Evans always showed promise as a reliable, hard-working lock. But as far as All Blacks bolters go, he must rank near the top.

On the road to Super Rugby, he progressed through the Joe Schmidt-coached Napier Boys’ High School first XV alongside Zac Guildford, Colin Bourke, Callum Bruce and Glen Horton.

“He was drawing up some pretty advanced whiteboard plans,” Evans says of Schmidt.

“Once the boys got a grasp of that it was good fun.”

Provincial footy with the Hawke’s Bay Magpies followed. One fond memory is the 8-6 victory over the star-laden Wellington side which eventually lost the final to Auckland.

That 2007 match in Napier is notable not only for the upset, but the 10-week suspension Magpies prop Clint Newland copped for his knockout punch on All Blacks front-rower Neemia Tialata.

“After that, he went to the Highlanders and I don’t think he ever bought a beer. We were just Hawke’s Bay country boys and we managed to get one up. That’s one match I still remember.”

Evans made his Super Rugby debut off the bench at Ellis Park in 2008 but only played three games for the Blues that season. Little did he know his shift to the Hurricanes the following year would inspire his rapid accession to the All Blacks.

Stuck behind starting Hurricanes locks Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush, both of whom went on to play test rugby, Evans was content chipping away.

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“I’d only started a few games for the Hurricanes and had got used to a bench role that season. I was just trying to concentrate on making an impact when I came on and not trying to make too many errors.”

Earning selection for the Junior All Blacks and their Pacific Nations Cup tour was notable enough but when injuries hit incumbent test locks Anthony Boric and Ali Williams, Evans was straight on the plane to Auckland and soon sitting opposite Graham Henry.

In the age of social media speculation, enlarged All Blacks squads and apprentice players, the days of comparable selection bolters are now, largely, pastime phenomena.

“It was all a bit surreal but I was buzzing the whole time I was in that environment.”

Immediately named on the bench – behind starting locks Brad Thorn and Isaac Ross – for the first test of 2009 in the experimental Mils Muliaina-led All Blacks side against France in Dunedin, Evans had mixed emotions after the shock 27-22 defeat.

“You never want to lose, especially playing for the All Blacks, but the experience was something else. Everyone says when you pull that black jersey on it’s that different feeling and I 100 per cent agree with that.

“I did the haka and then sat down and looked around at the packed stands. When I came on it was all a bit of a blur – I was running around trying to get to every ruck and do everything you can.”

First test All Blacks receive a second jersey in addition to their playing one, with many rookies opting to gift their maiden strip to family members. Evans had a more hairy approach.

“You’re in the changing rooms and someone comes and taps you on the shoulder and it’s Sebastien Chabal asking for your jersey. I was wondering what I had done in the game to make him come after me. To swap jerseys with someone like that is something special. I’ll remember that forever.”

The following week in Wellington, Evans played his second, and what would be final, test off the bench as the All Blacks extracted revenge in their 14-10 victory. That jersey now hangs at his Havelock North club alongside fellow local All Blacks Danny Lee and Hika Elliot.

“I was fortunate to get two caps but it was only two caps in the scheme of things. I would have loved to have played more but I was then forced out with a back injury for six months which stalled that and then competition to get into the All Blacks is so fierce all the time that if you take time out, you’re going to struggle to get back in that mix.

“It gets mentioned from time-to-time but you’re definitely a long way from New Zealand here. It’s definitely not forgotten – I’ll never forget that.”

Seven years after his test debut Evans watched proudly as Gareth, the Hawke’s Bay, Hurricanes loose forward and youngest of the three brothers, followed in his footsteps by coming off the bench in the All Blacks 69-31 victory over Japan in Tokyo.

“The difference between me and him is I was a definite bolter so it wasn’t really on my radar but that’s something he’s wanted for years and he’s worked hard. He’s gone through some tough injuries and long spells out. I couldn’t be happier to see him pull on that jersey and have a good run.”

Now 35, the eldest Evans has savoured a career that’s taken him to London Irish, Biarritz, where he returned to get married, and the Sale Sharks.

During his nine years in English rugby Evans’ consistent contributions were good enough for World Cup-winning England centre Will Greenwood to name him in his Premiership team of the decade – ahead of local stars Maro Itoje and Courtney Lawes.

In explaining his selection, Greenwood remarked: “I simply never saw Evans have a bad game.”

Evans says: “Someone said it was a bit of an old man’s XV but I’ll take it.”

In all likelihood, this will be his fifth and final season with Sale.

“You never say never but especially with this little one it’s getting a bit tougher to roll out of bed in the morning and get going.”

The next step? Become a winemaker, of course.

Evans’ family bought the Red Barrel vineyard and is in the process of changing the name, with middle brother Rhys to oversee production.

Like many professional athletes Evans grappled with post-rugby plans but having recently completed wine courses in Manchester, the future now has a rose-tinted appeal.

“Instead of having a coach tell me what to do it’ll be my younger brother telling me where to sweep and start from the ground up again.

“I’m looking forward to that once I do eventually decide to hang these boots up.

“I don’t mind a glass now and then – it eases everything over. Now I’ve got the chance to do something with the family, it’s exciting.”

Swapping triple-layered winters for New Zealand’s dreamy east coast appears the next chapter on a journey few ever predicted.

“It’ll be nice to get back to that Bay sunshine and put my jandals back on.”

This article first appeared on nzherald.co.nz and was republished with permission.

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'Nobody saw it coming': The story of the last All Blacks bolter
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