Thirty-four years ago this weekend, I reached my sporting peak. Given that I was eleven years old, you’ll realise this was not exactly Everest, but for me, it was just about everything. I got to be the ball boy for third test between the British Lions and the All Blacks at Carisbrook in Dunedin.
This did not come about by accident. The sideline duties at Carisbrook rotated between the two local intermediate schools, and my friend Tony Ballantyne and I had worked out in 1983 that it was the turn of our school, Macandrew Intermediate, to work Dunedin’s big international game of the year.
We nervously approached Mr Hunter, the teacher in charge of rugby early in the year, and asked if he had given any thought as to who might be doing ballboy duties that year. He hadn’t, and seemed relieved that some boys were prepared to do the drudgery of the weekly club games at Carisbrook. Tony recruited a couple of his Zingari teammates (Brendyn and Graham) and we had a posse.
By the time the test came around in July we thought we were experienced hands at this most critical but under-appreciated role. In those days there were just two boys (and it was only ever boys) on each side, and we only had one spare ball each. The pressure.
And even more so for a test match. We knew it was special. We were presented with special tracksuits in two-tone blue to match what the touch judges were wearing. On the day itself a bitingly cold southerly and torrential rain saw us given giant oilskin parkas to wear over the top. We even got our own dressing room under the old Main Stand. All Blacks second five Warwick Taylor came in to wish us good luck just before kick-off. I am not sure I could have been more excited.
The game itself is a bit of a blur. I know early in the first half Lions first five Ollie Campbell put the ball into touch and I was in a position to catch it on the full. A minor misjudgement, and the ball landed in a small lake that had appeared on the Terrace side of the ground. What followed remains the biggest crowd cheer I have ever received – in sport or in politics.
The All Blacks won 15-8 on their way to a 4-0 series whitewash. The match is probably best remembered for Stu Wilson claiming the New Zealand record for most test tries. In the grainy footage you can see Tony and I loving being as close as we could get to the action. Looking like two bedraggled ewoks, we had the best seat in the house as one of our heroes burst through to score.
At the end of the game we were given a pie, which was mostly useful for defrosting our hands, and I walked home – drenched, cold and proud.
My friend Tony is now the Pro-Vice Chancellor (Humanities) at the University of Otago. He was pretty good at cricket in his day, and probably has other sporting highlights to recall. But I know that when the boys and girls run out onto Westpac Stadium this weekend there will be at least one who will be having their greatest sporting moment. Look out for them.
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.