Mark Reason: Tour Around My Father Part 3: 'Mike Gibson still the greatest Lions back to tour NZ'

A collection of Lions rugby tour books on display in Rotorua.

A collection of Lions rugby tour books on display in Rotorua.

My father wasn't always dead.

And sometimes I think he did not die after all, although I was there when two men carried his body down the stairs, white gloves in obsequious hands, the Sowerberries of Twickenham.

And Mike Gibson was standing stage right at the funeral on the sort of winter's day when Charles Dickens would have remarked that there was a toothache in everything. I was with my two young children, holding their hands as Gibson walked towards me with a smile.

Mark Reason continues to follow in his journalist father John's footsteps on the British and Irish Lions tour.
LOREN DOUGAN/FAIRFAX NZ

Mark Reason continues to follow in his journalist father John's footsteps on the British and Irish Lions tour.

I was panicking. I did not recognise this man with a white cotton wool ball of hair floating on top of his head. What would I say. But he spoke first, a gentle, considered voice full of soft Belfast vowels. For some it is a smell that sends them tumbling back through the years, but for me it was a sound.

READ MORE: 
Tour Around My Father Part 1
Tour Around My Father Part 2

 
Waka Nathan (R), pictured with Colin Meads, shared John Reason's view on rugby's amateurism ideals.
Olivia Hemus

Waka Nathan (R), pictured with Colin Meads, shared John Reason's view on rugby's amateurism ideals.

Of course it was "the Gibson man" as Cliff Morgan once memorably called him in commentary, as if he was a remarkable archaeological find. The moment Gibson spoke I knew him instantly. But in the eyes of my memory he would always look as he had in the seventies, the curls of light brown hair jostling amongst themselves.

It was in Rotorua that Gibson played his last match as a Lion in 1977. My father wrote, "It was a sad moment when Gibson left the field...New Zealand have always regarded Gibson as the greatest midfield back ever to tour their country from the British isles. It really was remarkable how many fathers I overheard saying to small boys, 'That's the greatest back ever to come to this country,' in that tone of hushed respect people use when they are standing in church."

Looking at what passes for midfield backs on this Lions tour, it is hard to imagine that assessment having changed much. And walking through the streets of Rotorua it seems as if everything and nothing has changed.

There in the window of a second hand emporium is my father's book of the '71 tour nestled between three of Terry Mclean's books and one by Wallace Reyburn. My wife buys me McLean's book I, George Nepia.

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While she is at the counter I flick through Mclean's Lion Tamers, his account of the Lions 1966 tour. In the appendix at the back it charmingly lists the occupations of all the tourists. There were eight schoolmasters, two doctors, two salesman, a farmer, a steel worker, an army officer, a branch manager, a hosiery worker and a television compere.

There were others, but how could you not wonder what the hosiery worker got up to in his spare time. As a meeting of people, surely those were greater days. Now the meeting of people is done by the fans. My father and Waka Nathan were as one on the merits of amateurism, a word derived from the Latin for love.

"Waka's attitude to Rugby football had a natural dignity and a natural respect which made it unthinkable that he would ever do anything to harm the game. He believed that players should be given far more consideration than they are, though he rejected professionalism completely, but he believed that the disciplines of authority are still essential."

The five men sitting round the coffee table in Capers in 2017 would surely agree. My wife is on the either side of town, half way up a tree, watching the mass haka. Phil Campbell, Chas and John Harris, Tony Rutledge and I are looking forward to the game, but fearing that the Lions tight five will be too strong for the Maori.

We are also looking back. The elders agree that the greatest Lions team of all was that of '59, the team of Jeeps, Risman, Butterfield, Jackson and O'Reilly. We talk about the grandeur of Maori oratory and whether such oral tradition is a dying art.

At least my kids learned te reo when they arrived at their first New Zealand school. When Chas Ferris, the coach of the '93 Maori, and his brother John first went to school in 1955 Maori was the only language they could speak. It was beaten out of them with a stick.

An hour or so later Phil Campbell escorts me outside. Or should that be Kill Phambell, better known as Killer. I had completely forgotten the game my father and I invented together when we switched the consonants of given names and surnames.

Phil says my dad had brought it out to New Zealand in 1977, although whether the manager would have liked to be called Don Jaws is anyone's guess. But then it was not a happy tour for Dawes. The great rift between management and media had begun.

"Your father had more sources than a baked bean factory," says Phil.

A smell of sulphur crosses the street. Rotorua fascinated my dad. He had started life a chemist and the sheer scale of nature was a wonder. He would not have been impressed by all the presumption of the causes of climate change. He would have assessed it as partly informed opinion passing itself off as fact, vain man thinking he was bigger than the cosmos.

Sadly in '77, "The Lions were in no mood to examine the thermal pools and the shooting geysers of scalding water and the bubbling mud pools which make Rotorua such a remarkable place. In the main their observation of the local phenomena did not go beyond Bobby Windsor's lugubrious comment when he looked up from the dining table as a group of particularly well-endowed local girls walked past. "Now I know why they call it the Bay of Plenty", he said.

But I never found out about the Bay of Plenty as a child. When a man and a woman kissed in a movie my father would start up a conversation. Not in front of the children. Even when we were 16 he was still talking over the romantic or sexual moments. In some ways he was an oddly Old Testament man.

We drive out of Rotorua on our way to Hamilton and its remarkable gardens. I look at the mounds of earth surrounding the meeting house in the Te Parapara garden and remember my father and I turning over the soil. Over in the nearby fruit cage all hell would break out between my mum and my older brother over some bit of nothing and strawberries and radishes would begin to fly.

My father raises an eyebrow and silently we carry on digging for spuds.

 - Stuff

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