Sir John Graham: The All Black who put rugby in its place

by Paul Thomas / 10 August, 2017

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Sir John Graham. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library: 1/2-207609-F

Distinguished player, educator and leader John Graham left a big mark on the national game.

John “DJ” Graham wasn’t merely an All Black; he was a very good All Black. In his book on the All Blacks’ 1963/64 European tour, British Lions halfback turned journalist Andy Mulligan described Graham, an 83kg flanker, as, “pound for pound about the best forward I have ever seen – hard, relentless, with the energy of a Chinese firecracker, only more consistent”.

And he wasn’t merely a schoolteacher; he was an exceptional educator. Having been an All Blacks captain and put in 20 influential years as head­master of Auckland Grammar School, DJ could have settled for well-earned retirement. However, the third act of his life was as distinguished as acts one and two: between 1997 and 2005, for instance, he was successively manager of the Black Caps, chancellor of the University of Auckland and president of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union.

The tributes that followed Sir John Graham’s death this month acknowledged a remarkable record of service, achievement and leadership that was both strong-minded and open-minded. He did so much that it’s easy to overlook his role in changing rugby’s culture, from an insular, conformist, chauvinistic conservatism, which indulged brutishness on and off the field on the basis that boys will be boys, to one of tolerance, inclusiveness and professionalism that – mostly – shows contemporary New Zealand in a positive light.

Graham was a formative influence on two coaches who themselves did much to change the way rugby presented itself, assisting John Hart when he began his coaching career with Auckland club side Waitemata and, later, Graham Henry, with the Auckland provincial team. He was also a leader of the push to do away with rugby’s oppressive dominance, eagerly sustained by generations of schoolmasters oblivious to the reality that it was doing more harm than good.

All Black, diplomat and MP Chris Laidlaw began work on Mud in Your Eye (1973) while a Rhodes Scholar in response to frequent requests for “the inside story on the phenomenon that was New Zealand rugby”.

In 1970/71, the All Blacks came down to earth with a bump, liberating him to focus as much on what was wrong with New Zealand rugby: “Many headmasters insist that boys play rugby whether they want to or not. Headmasters mask their obsession with the trite claim that rugby is essential for teamwork and discipline.

“Any such claim is, of course, a nonsense: enforced activity, particularly when someone is no good at it, breeds the very reverse of team spirit or discipline. I have grown up with boys whose social and cultural life has been a misery because of their inability to succeed at rugby.”

DJ wasn’t one of those headmasters. “The practice of compelling people to play rugby has gone, and that’s a good thing,” he said in 2003. “A lot of those playing 30 years ago didn’t want to. Some of them stayed with the game, but a lot hated it and continue to hate it. I made a conscious decision not to push rugby.

“Playing for the senior sports team gave you access to the tuck shop queue, which was highly prized; I extended that to musicians, chess players, table tennis players. When I gave an award to a musician, there was a surly rumble from assembly. I took off my glasses and gave them a look and pointed out that he would have put more time into learning his instrument than any sportsman. We were honouring excellence, which isn’t the exclusive province of sport.”

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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