The icon two nations call their own
Tom Hamilton in Auckland
June 8, 2014
Bryan Williams in his heyday © Getty Images
It is rare for two rugby-playing countries to hold one man so dear to themselves. Bryan 'Beegee' Williams has spent time on both sides of the Samoa and New Zealand fence and yet he is a man embraced by both countries.
He has ticked virtually all the available rugby boxes. He has played the British & Irish Lions, coached a side in the World Cup, scored numerous tries for the All Blacks and has held one of the top jobs in the New Zealand Rugby Union. Yet when you meet him, once you have got over the sense of awe at meeting such a man, you encounter a humble, welcoming individual - the handshake is as authoritative as it is reassuring.
Ponsonby Rugby Club is his home. They have just celebrated 140 years and there would have been few prouder individuals than Williams. His role is director of rugby though it extends to putting out cones for the youth sides near his Cox Bay Reserve home and then scolding those who stepped out of line at their birthday celebrations.
The legacy from his playing career is remarkable. In 1970 he toured South Africa aged 19. He finished the tour with 14 tries from 13 appearances but it was the off-field political implications for which it was really remembered. He was one of New Zealand's first Polynesian players, due to his Samoan father, and at a time when South Africa was in the grips of Apartheid, his inclusion on the tour captured the local's imaginations.
"Being selected as one of the first four non-white players was ground-breaking and history-making stuff," Williams said. "I was only 19 and I was pretty diffident and nervous about going to South Africa.
"When the plane touched down in Johannesburg I wanted to come home, it suddenly hit me about the magnitude of what was about to happen and I wanted to come home to mum. But in the event you got off the plane, took one day after the other and before I knew it I was out on the field wearing the black jersey.
"There was a bit of a riot in Kimberly after the Test there. Some of the non-whites thrust me up on their shoulder after the game, I seemed to be popular with them, and they carried me around the field.
"There were some drunken white guys who came along thinking that this was not appropriate, and they started having a go and suddenly I found myself on the ground. Then the police came out with dogs and all hell to play, so that was not nice, but apart from that I was very well received and well treated."
Six years later he travelled to South Africa again and ended up in a tear-gas attack in Cape Town as he stumbled into a anti-Apartheid protest movement. The taxi driver who escorted him back to the hotel three days out from their Test on September 4, 1976, vowed to protect him and produced a pistol to prove his point. It was a world away from the experience the current All Blacks would get when they tour today.
And they owe Williams a huge debt of gratitude. On the 1972-73 tour to Britain, the All Blacks made few friends. It was the tour that saw prop Keith Murdoch sent home after a brawl in a Welsh hotel when he hit a security guard. He suffered the ignominy of having the white fern ripped from his New Zealand blazer and has since become a recluse, last sighted in Australia.
Williams vowed never to be involved with another tour like that again. He and a few of the other senior All Blacks re-wrote the rule book for behaviour on tour and in many ways, alongside the 1905 Originals, was one of the key foundation stones for today's group.
But like all All Blacks, Williams' playing career had to come to an end. His final Test came at Murrayfield in December 1978 with injuries starting to blight his career - he dislocated his hip in 1977. But over the course of eight years he made 113 appearances for New Zealand, 38 Test caps and 66 tries overall.
After a time coaching Auckland came a conscious decision from Williams to return to his roots. He had given his body to New Zealand rugby but his mind wanted to focus on Samoa.
He was technical director for their 1991 and 1995 Rugby World Cups and coach for 1999. "I could have possibly gone on to higher honours in New Zealand, coaching wise. That path was possibly blocked as there were people like Laurie Mains, Alex Wyllie and John Hart who had it tied up. But that wasn't the reason, I had it in my heart - I wanted to go and work and help Samoa, the home of my heritage, my dad's birth. I've got absolutely no regrets about that. Even now people say you might've become an All Blacks coach but so what. I was happy with Samoa for those next ten years."
Bryan Williams in 2011 © Getty Images
In those ten years he experienced the two sides of the coin of Pacific Island rugby. On one hand he dealt with some of the game's best talents - he presided over Pat Lam and Inga Tuigamala - but he also experienced the difficulties of working with an under-funded national side.
"Just the fact we were underdogs appealed to me and trying to achieve against the odds. But also recognising players who had great ability and talent and potential and being able to work with those guys and getting them up to the required standard. We had a number of players back then who went on to play for the All Blacks - notably Steve Bashop, Frank Bunce, Alama Ieremia, Ofisa Tonu'u and Pat Lam. So that was frustrating at the time but the most frustrating was when the game went professional in the mid-90s and Samoa, despite being in two RWC quarter-finals, they were left out of the mix. I still feel upset about it."
Williams still dreams of a time when the All Blacks will visit the Islands: "I wish the All Blacks would go up to the Pacific Islands and there are lots of ex-players and current players who believe it should happen. But they are governed by their masters."
Though Williams is happy to back a Kiwi tour to the Pacific Islands, for now that's not his battle to fight. Instead his day-to-day existence is at Ponsonby, the club who have been the birthplace for 52 All Blacks
"He's Ponsonby, really" was ground manager John Allen's assessment of Williams and as you are taken into their inner-hub, the clubhouse, it is based around Williams. Above the door is a huge photograph of the great man in action against Western Province in 1970, it was a portrait saved from a local pub which was being torn down.
Around the numerous framed shirts sit glass cabinets filled with All Black memorabilia. Alongside Dave Gallaher's cap and a jersey from the 1905 tour are Williams' own accolades. Time waits for no man, but Williams will continue putting out the cones while helping bring through the next generation of All Blacks. New Zealand and Samoa are lucky to have him.
"The experiences I've had and the things I've learned, the places I've been and the friends I've made have been awesome. I thank my lucky stars that I'd been able to experience it. I'm eternally grateful really."
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Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.