Phil Gifford book extract: Rugby's clown prince
Veteran rugby writer and broadcaster Phil Gifford moved to Christchurch in 1992 as an avowed Auckland rugby fan. But he quickly adopted Canterbury and the Crusaders and forged friendships with key players. In this exclusive extract from his new memoir, Phil Gifford: Loose Amongst the Legends, he talks of his affection for ex-All Blacks and Canterbury star Andrew Mehrtens.
A head pops out from behind a curtain in the room at St George's Hospital in Christchurch. It's November 1995, and the day before I've had my arthritic right hip replaced. ''Just thought I'd see how you were, mate,'' says Andrew Mehrtens.
Andrew Mehrtens, or Mehrts to every man, woman, child, dog and nana in Canterbury, was a prime example of the good bugger attitude that permeated the Canterbury team culture.
Not many 21-year-old footy players would bother to visit a broken-down media man in hospital, but while he may be unhappy if I slightly dent his persona as rugby's clown prince, the fact is you'd struggle to find a kinder, more decent man in the game.
Mind you, that's not to say there isn't a huge mischievous streak in him.
It was Mehrts who stunned journalists in 2001 when he made what seemed the amazingly arrogant claim he could ''never be dropped from this All Black team''.
Nothing to do with his playing form, he quickly explained. ''I'm the head of the laundry committee and the only one who understands how the system works. If they drop me nobody will ever see their Y-fronts again.''
It was Mehrts, who, his first Canterbury coach, Vance Stewart, discovered, while analysing a game video, had joined the crowd in a Mexican wave during a stoppage in play.
It was Mehrts who dared to call giant All Blacks prop Kees Meeuws, 'Sunday Meeuws', 'Did You Hear the Meeuws' and 'One Network Meeuws'. He survived that without any physical damage.
It was Mehrts who reckoned prop Carl Hoeft, who has an impressive set of gleaming white teeth, hated going to South Africa in case elephant poachers got him. He survived that too.
It was Mehrts, who, during the All Blacks test with Italy in 2000 in Genoa, challenged giant Italian lock Luca Mastrodomenico to a fist fight.
Early in the test with Italy, Filo Tiatia scored a try for the All Blacks and, against all reason, a huge fight broke out. Mehrts, on the reserve bench, had spent some of the previous day catching up with old friends from the time; eight years before, he had played for the Calvisano club. They introduced him to the 2m 115kg lock Luca Mastrodomenico, who now played for Calvisano.
Like Mehrtens, Mastrodomenico was on the bench the following afternoon. ''When the fight broke out in the game, everyone stood up to have a look. For a laugh I ran down to the Italian bench. I stood in front of their bench, pointing at this massive lock, telling him I wanted a piece of him, and that he was lucky I hadn't got there earlier. The Italian officials were stunned at a skinny little Kiwi wanting to fight a man mountain. Luckily, Luca got the joke straight away.''
Filled with goodwill and diesel, it was Mehrts who once thought it'd be funny to tip a glass of beer over the head of a Canterbury teammate, All Blacks prop Richard Loe. He almost didn't survive that.
Canterbury had just lost that afternoon to King Country. It was the wrong time to tip beer on Loe.
Mehrts' halfback mate Justin Marshall says: ''Loey jumped up, roaring and grabbed Mehrts by the throat with one hand. All of a sudden Mehrts just slumped, out to it. It was so funny to watch. Mehrts had thought it was so hysterically funny to tip the beer. Seconds later he was asleep. From the moment he woke up he never tipped one drop of beer near Loey again.''
When he did overstep a behaviour boundary Mehrts didn't have to be held up by the throat to apologise. In the last minutes of a crucial Super Rugby game with the Bulls in Pretoria in 1999 he dropped a winning goal. He'd copped stick from the crowd all afternoon and, so as he ran back, he flipped one-fingered salutes with both hands to the local fans.
Coach Wayne Smith remembers how straight after the game Mehrts grabbed him and said, 'Can I come to the press conference?' Smith had seen the goal, but not the gestures. He didn't have time to find out what was behind the request.
At the conference Mehrtens made a sincere apology, so much so that the Bulls' captain Ruben Kruger, was moved to say that in the same circumstances he might have done the same thing.
It was easy, with the quips and the fun, to make the mistake of thinking Andrew didn't take winning and competing seriously, when, in fact, he was as intensely competitive as the most red-faced, snorting, angry prop.
Playing by the rules and knowing exactly what they were, was something he took on the paddock with him too. Todd Blackadder reckons Mehrts was often the Crusaders' secret weapon, in his ability to play mind games with officials.
''He never says anything derogatory; he's just talking about the laws of the game on which he is quite astute. Most players don't know the rules that well, so the ref can easily say, 'You're penalised because of whatever'. But Mehrts says, 'No ref, under such and such a section that shouldn't be the case' and he rattles them.''
One of the most heartfelt statements I've heard made by Mehrts was about referees.
''I know I shouldn't have a go at them. But the trouble is I know the rules so much better than they do.''
We looked at each other and started laughing at about the same time.
Talking of heartfelt, the passion Mehrts has for rugby, and Canterbury rugby in particular, was bred in him. His grandfather, George Mehrtens, was an All Black fullback in 1928, and his father Terry was a Junior All Black in 1965. Terry played for Natal against the All Blacks in 1970 while he and his wife Sandra were on a working holiday in South Africa. So when Andrew was born in Durban in 1973, there wasn't much chance rugby wouldn't be in the blood.
At his best at the top level he was almost two players rolled into one. If the game called for kicking for position, and then accurate goalkicking, he had the 50m punt and the 50m place kick. If the game called, as it did in Brisbane in 1996 against the Wallabies, for some running, he could do that too.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Mehrts, even in Canterbury. In 2001, he was briefly dropped from the Crusaders playing squad and sent back to club rugby by Robbie Deans.
The rugby community in Christchurch was on fire with gossip, but Mehrts kept his dignity intact, sharpened up his game and was soon back in the team, going on to star in the magnificent 2002 Crusaders side [that went through unbeaten to win the Super rugby title].
It's a real tribute to the calibre of Mehrtens the man that when he was sliding out of calculation for the 2003 World Cup and was not in the first All Blacks training squad of that year, he'd go on national TV, with every chance to slag the selectors, and say, ''If I was in their shoes I wouldn't pick me at the moment.''
In recent years Mehrts has lived in Europe and now Australia. We caught up when he married his lovely wife, Jacqui, in Sumner in 2006, but there was a five-year gap before our paths crossed again.
During the 2011 Rugby World Cup TV3 ran a live late-night rugby show, Cup Talk, fronted by James Gemmell.
At about 11pm I was at TV3 talking in the waiting room near their studio with James, fellow guest Trevor McKewen and producer Jon Wild when Mehrts arrived.
I guessed he was fairly tired and emotional when I was enfolded in a man hug, and the show that followed was a fascinating 30 minutes.
A Herald On Sunday story by gossip writer Rachel Glucina under the heading 'Was Andrew Mehrtens Under the Influence on TV?' kicked around the issue of whether Mehrts was intoxicated.
I'd just say, having sat next to him throughout the show, that while he may have had a drink or two beforehand, he certainly wasn't drunk. You can't express coherent opinions and never once lapse into gibberish or searing if you're tanked. TV3 obviously thought the same, keeping him as their most regular panel member for the next five weeks.
Let me finish with a story that shows how, unlike some in the public eye, Andrew enjoys a joke just as much when it's on him.
In 1996 we celebrated [my wife] Jan's fiftieth birthday with a party at the Sumner Yacht Club. The invitation asked people to come as their fantasy. I was one of the rugby tragics who dressed as an All Black. Jan was the Queen and Richard Loe (I am not making this up) came dressed as The Devil.
Mehrts arrived clothed from head to toe in a real Springbok uniform, complete with the number 10 on the back of the jersey.
When there was a chance to have a private word with him I said, ''Mehrts, I know you were born in South Africa, but please don't tell me your fantasy is to be a Springbok.''
''No, not all all. This is Joel Stransky's gear, we swapped after the [1995 Rugby World Cup] final last year. My fantasy is to be the guy who kicks the winning goal in a World Cup final, not the dick who misses it.''
Phil Gifford: Loose Amongst The Legends is published by Upstart Press under the Mower imprint.