Almost 60 years, but Bob Blair never forgets

60 YEARS ON: Bob Blair is in Wellington for the Sports Awards and took time to visit the grave of his former fiancee Nerissa Love.
60 YEARS ON: Bob Blair is in Wellington for the Sports Awards and took time to visit the grave of his former fiancee Nerissa Love.

Bob Blair is back in town.

He looks a million bucks but promptly rolls up his trousers to show padded magnets strapped below his knees.

Blair is 81 now. He looks fresh. His skin is clear, his teeth are straight and white, his wife younger, his memory sharp and importantly for him can still play golf off a 18 handicap.

Blair hasn't time for a round. He has been to the cemetery, though, as he does every time he returns home.

Out at Taita three days ago, he paid his respects to Nerissa Love, his former fiancee who died in the 1953 Tangiwai rail disaster.

Most people know the tragic story. A Christmas Eve lahar, a bridge swept away, an end for 151 souls on board the Overnight Express. One was Love. Blair was 21 and playing in a cricket test against South Africa at Ellis Park. He grieved in his room, listened to the game on the radio and then in one of the defining chapters of New Zealand sport he appeared at the batting crease to partner a bloodied Bert Sutcliffe.

There has been a play, a book and movie about the saga.

The book was by far the most accurate account, he says.

Blair lives in Cheshire, England these days. He has been flown home by Sport Wellington as a special guest for tonight's Dominion Post Wellington Sports Awards.

It is coming up 60 years since Tangiwai and time does heal, though a cloud always hangs over Christmas.

"It hurt at the time, it hurt a lot," Blair said.

"We went to the grave two days ago. I went last time I was out here (2010). It was difficult for my wife. She is my second wife. She knows all about it. She's lived through all these years. We've been married 27 years.

"I have a thought every Christmas. It is 60 years this year. It always comes up, it will never go away. It is something you have to live with."

It's a special time for the Blair family. His brother Jim will sit alongside him at the ceremony tonight. "He identified the body". Son Michael will be there too. "He has grown up with it".

You wonder how the tragedy shaped Blair's cricket career. The Wellington paceman took 43 wickets at 35.33 in 19 tests and a head turning 330 wickets at 15.16 at first class level, including 9-72 against Auckland.

Did he lose heart? Did he draw courage from the tragedy?

"It made me," he said.

"When I got the ball in my hand I wanted to hurt people. I had been hurt. I wanted to deck people, that is why I bowled so short.

It gave me fire."

Blair has certainly kept himself busy. He has coached in Queensland, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Northern Ireland and England. He played his last game when he was 67, for Widnes. He captained Lancashire under 50s in a county competition, taking 7-12 in the semifinal.

He loves talking cricket. He rates Tim Southee and Trent Boult as "two kids doing well", is not so happy that "an Aussie" (Luke Ronchi) is keeping wicket and feels the Black Caps need a "guts player" to stiffen up the test side's middle order batting.

Blair is happy to be home. He always makes an effort to catch up with his old mates. He is worried about his partner in crime, Bruce Morrison, who has sore hips. "He got me a lot of wickets with his bowling at the other end". Blair has also caught up with John Reid, his former skipper who lives in Taupo.

"I spoke to the 'Skip' yesterday.

"I always call him 'Skip' and he always calls me 'Rabbit'

"When he picked up the phone yesterday he said 'How are you Rabbit'. He even writes letter to me 'Dear Rabbit'."

The Wellington Sportperson of the Year will be announced in front of 500 people tonight but no one deserves an award more than 'Rabbit'.

The Dominion Post