The return of the little rascal Andrew Mehrtens
This is 'Mehrts' we're talking about, so usual interview rules need not apply.
No need for a long, probing list of questions. No need for extensive background material. No need for formalities of any sort, really, considering last time I'd seen him we'd appeared in front of the TV cameras together and he was, well, seven sheets to the wind.
Yes, this is Andrew Mehrtens, and talking rugby is one of the things he does very, very well. Actually, make that talking, period. During our 35-minute conversation he navigates a verbal course through an array of subjects while barely drawing breath. It's why Sky TV has jumped at the chance to add him to their world-class commentary team. The prospect of unleashing one of rugby's great streams of consciousness on to the global audience is just too good to miss.
And, by the sounds of things, Mehrtens is primed to unload. He's working in finance - of all things - in Sydney and some time away from day-to-day rugby has his brain well and truly engaged.
Nothing much changes with Mehrtens. He's still smart, witty, engaging, funny, intelligent, and just a little bit naughty. As mentioned, he made quite a name for himself the last time he was in New Zealand in a rugby capacity, appearing on TV3's late-night Rugby World Cup chat show a little, er, tiddled.
I know this because I was alongside for one of the shows in question. The funny thing was it didn't diminish his performance one iota. Like most things this fellow does in life, he carried it off with a cheeky grin and a blast of his intellect.
He laughs when I wonder aloud whether he might have to be just a little more, well, "restrained" for his new employers. They do rather take their rugby seriously.
"Its horses for courses," says this fellow who speaks a handful of languages fluently, and knows epithets in many, many more. "I don't think there are many games at 11 o'clock at night. I want to be myself, but if at times I have to be a little less of myself than I'd like, that's fine too."
Mehrtens is keeping himself decidedly busy since moving the family to Sydney last July (he was snapped up by Centric Wealth CEO Phil Kearns who knew a good addition to his team when he saw one). As well as fast-tracking his knowledge of the finance industry, he's been helping with coaching at Easts (his son plays for a feeder club), has agreed to help the Waratahs kickers (as a favour to former team-mate Daryl Gibson and because he likes the cut of Michael Chieka's jib) and is now poised to add a commentary layer to his rugby re-emersion.
Not bad for a guy who walked away from a six-year involvement in French rugby feeling rather disillusioned with the game (see sidebar).
"It's been nice doing something different," he says of his corporate role with Kearns' company. "I'm liking the role, liking getting round and meeting people and liking being involved in this industry. I'm also a lot more passionate about rugby again, now I'm out of it day to day."
How about those All Blacks, then? Mehrtens agrees it's as strong as he's seen the national team, though he remains a big fan of the World Cup-winners of the late-80s.
"The depth these days is incredible," he says "To lose guys like Carter and McCaw who have been so influential on the world scene and not miss a beat, it just shows their structures and environment are really, really good. It's no secret it's come from those three guys who took them to the World Cup.
"Look at what Wayne Smith goes and does at the Chiefs. I know Dave Rennie is a good coach, but the contribution from Wayne to any team is phenomenal. He's a teacher and an educator, and I don't think he likes all the bullshit that goes with being a head coach. He does it for the players."
It will come as no surprise either to learn that Mehrtens does a great Steve Hansen impression. Mimicry is his forte (and, legend has it, part of the reason he fell out with one of his old coaches) and it turns out he goes way back with the All Blacks chief.
"His best attribute is he breaks things down, cuts through all the crap and puts it in the most simple terms. And he gives you so much confidence. If it's defence (he slips into that familiar Hansen voice) he says: ‘At the end of the day, cock, you either want to make the tackle or you don't, and you've got your mates around you . . .
"The first time I met him I was 19, and he was about to be my club coach at Old Boys (in Christchurch). He said to me (back in his Hansen voice): ‘Why don't you and your young halfback mate come round and dig me a ditch at home'. So we did a bit of a working bee, and at one point he took each of us aside. I remember he said, ‘look, I want you running our team. I'll do everything I can to help you; I'll crawl over broken glass for you'. That, to a 19-year-old, is massive.
"They don't shout it from the rooftops, but people would be amazed at the depth of personality in those three guys who took us to the World Cup win."
Mehrtens, an All Black from 1995 to 2004, reckons global dominance has been achieved by "having a very high quality of execution, and doing things really simply. They work well together, their communication is fantastic, and with their fundamental skills, they're all capable."
Two more years of it is seen as a stretch by some. Not Mehrtens.
"They'll keep working on the basics and on identifying opportunities. You've got to get to the ball quicker. There are 150 cleanouts in a game, and if you're not accurate at the cleanout you're stuffed. Fortunately we've got good structures for training that in New Zealand, and I haven't seen that elsewhere."
So, what are we going to see from Mehrts, the commentator?
"I've always seen myself not sticking my face on screen the whole time. I don't think that's good for anyone. Having more of a relaxed role suits my personality, and I'm probably better at that than trying to be too prepared."
But he doesn't think his old mates Justin Marshall and Jeff Wilson need to start glancing over their shoulders.
"I'm the new kid," he says. "I haven't done a lot of it. I enjoyed seeing those guys when we all worked for different channels at the World Cup. But it's not all beer and skittles. We've got a job to do, and hopefully if you're enjoying yourself then that comes across as well."
Be sure of one thing: watching rugby is about to get a lot more interesting.
- Sunday Star Times