Graham O’Brien – Rugby Sage
Tuesday, May 03 2022
When Graham O’Brien talks about rugby it is well worth the listen. Ever since the process started on the front lawn at Huiakama playing with older brothers Kevin and John, there has evolved a deep understanding of the workings of the game and an ability to articulate on the topic.
It was at Huiakama Primary School where this talent first emerged. Hugh Barr, the school principal, loaded the five senior boys in his car and headed off to Toko School for a regional Taranaki Primary School trial. Successful trials followed at Stratford, Kaponga and Eltham to select the South Taranaki team to play North Taranaki at Hawera. After this exhaustive process the boy from Huiakama was named in the pivotal No 8 position. Not bad for a kid who had never played 15 aside rugby before jumping in Mr Barr’s car.
And to make sure he knew his role Dad would take him to the Kings Theatre in Stratford on Friday nights so he could study All Black No 8 Victor Yates on the Caltex Newsreel before the main feature.
For the first time ever Graham travelled away from home to the tournament in Taihape. In that side were future Taranaki players Trevor Smith, and Neil Cameron but it was none other than Graham O’Brien who upon returning to Huiakama was presented with the Bayly Scholarship Medal by Taranaki Rugby Union members Robin Walker and Noel Stanley at the school.
The Bayly Scholarship is awarded to the player who demonstrates rugby ability, character, leadership and true sportsmanship. Graham to a tee! Other notable winners include All Black captain Graham Mourie and Taranaki rugby legends Brian Quin, Andrew Slater and Kerry Eynon. The Victor Yates study had served him well no matter that it was only a few minutes each time. He had already demonstrated an ability to learn quickly and get the best out of himself.
Then it was off on the daily bus trip to Stratford High School where Graham had three seasons in the 1st XV playing under coach Ken Taylor and alongside future first-class players John Smith, Moeahu PakiPaki, Bruce Richmond, Bill Read, Kevin Phelan and Ian Snook. He was a 63kg lock the first year and then a 66kg No 8 for two seasons. He was by no means big, but he was clever. He even took over the goalkicking in his captaincy year in 1967.
The major highlight, apart from having the wood on Hawera High School in the inter-school games, was to play on Eden Park No 2 against Seddon Memorial Technical College in the first live telecast of a school game in the Northern Zone. Former All Black Frank McMullen was the referee, Colin Snedden was the commentator, and the result was a 14-3 victory to Stratford.
With the Stratford region being in the Central Zone for television viewing Graham’s parents travelled to a friend’s place in Te Awamutu to watch this grand occasion.
At 15 years of age Graham began his 20-year career in the Strathmore jersey playing in the Dean Cup alongside the likes of Taranaki players Richie Coles and Alan Jury and the tough-as-teak Kevin Ryan and big brother Kevin. The opposition sometimes included All Black Alan Smith who played one Dean Cup game after he had been selected for the All Blacks to tour the UK and only a week out from the tour commencing. The Dean Cup was always an important fixture not to be missed!
In his ball-boy days games were played on the O’Brien farm where the cow poo was cleared before the game, willows were used as goalposts and before the purchasing of a creosote marker the sidelines were turned over sod. There were no showers but there was a keg on the back of the
Landrover. In his playing days there was an upgrading to the Strathmore airfield. Toko had the Walters, Smiths, and PakiPaki clans whilst Whangamomona had the Murphys, Herberts, Lobbs, Blands and Irwins. They were good days.
In two seasons at Palmerston North Teachers College, following high school, Graham found himself playing in both the backline and forwards, one imagines the change coming about because this was the best spot for him to impart his knowledge and wisdom. Forwards in the day weren’t supposed to offer tactical advice unless it was to ‘keep the ball in front of them’.
Following college was the beginning of a 10-year senior career with Stratford Old Boys where he would play every position apart from hooker and halfback. Only a player with an understanding of each role and the appropriate skill requirements could handle something like this, and Graham was your man. This feat must be unique and obviously gave him a good understanding of the requirements when he later went on to coaching.
His teaching career took him to Hawera in 1980 where he became the ever-reliable goalkicking fullback in a team that won the Taranaki Championship in 1982 and was always amongst the top few in the other seasons.
A former Stratford Old Boys and Taranaki player Graeme O’Neill was the coach that year and there were Taranaki players all over the park including Peter Harper, Paul Wharehoka, Graham Lomas, Ray Wishnowski and wingers Micky Bourke and Phillip Bunn.
Retiring from playing in 1983 he became the Hawera coach in 84 and did four seasons, being beaten finalists in 87, whilst at the same time losing his coaching position.
If the truth be known Graham lost the job to former Taranaki coach Bill Batchelor in a quirky sort of thing that rugby committees did in those days, and probably still do. But, instead of complaining he stood for the committee and was duly elected as the Chairman only three weeks after losing the coaching role. Not too many coaches are deposed after a successful season, but committees always know best. Rugby politics are part of the game and you can bet any long serving coach knows how to play that game.
However, the enlightened mind was not lost to Taranaki rugby. In 88 & 89 he coached the Taranaki ‘B’ team with only one loss in the first season and a couple the following year. There were good vibes emanating from these performances and JJ Stewart saw to it that Graham became a Staff Coach for the NZRFU.
There were coaching sessions conducted all over New Zealand including Canterbury, Thames Valley, South Canterbury, North Otago and when he was paired with All Black Murray Mexted in Whanganui, he also met Miss Universe, Mexted’s wife.
1990 saw Graham appointed as coach of the Taranaki Under 19’s along with a couple of knowledgeable rugby men in Bruce Sutton and Geoff Rodley. This was followed with being named the coach of the Taranaki Colts, once again the assistant being his former Strathmore teammate Sutton.
This group proved a hard team to beat under the tutorship of Graham and achieved the feat of only losing one game in 1993 when they were beaten in the final game by North Harbour. This was after disposing of powerhouses Auckland and Wellington and really strong sides in Bay of Plenty and Manawatu amongst the tally of wins.
There were plenty of good young players in this group with the likes of Neil Crowley, Dean Magon, Scott Lines, captain Michael Carr, Ryan Wheeler and Richard Jarman all going on to play big roles when they made the representative ‘A’ team in the future.
The groundwork had been done. Graham was appointed as the Taranaki coach in 1994, which would be the first of three interesting seasons at the helm. Unlike some who run a smooth path Graham’s was patched with controversy amongst the high points.
In 1994, with Colin Cooper invited on as the assistant coach, the team narrowly lost to South Africa 12-16, but were controversially relegated in the final game of the season at Te Kuiti against King Country. With three narrow losses and a bonus point picked up against each of Canterbury, Wellington and Waikato the Taranaki team headed into their last game sitting on three points and King Country sitting on zero.
The encounter was brutal. With Taranaki narrowly trailing and full-time showing, Adrian Broughton charged down a kick, regathered it on the halfway and headed to the tryline. The fact that he didn’t make it was due to a head-high tackle in the motion of scoring and the ball was lost. There was to be no penalty try however and with the referee losing his composure he blew for fulltime.
Graham sited the player which obviously caused some consternation in the big office in Wellington, but as is normally the case, the big boy wins, so after a couple of months, and with little support, Graham surrendered. With the coverage rugby gets these days social media would be bursting at the seams if something similar happened.
Ross Fraser replaced Cooper in 95, as Coops went back to work, and the team set about regaining their division 1 status. The real indicator that things were back on track were the victories against Bay of Plenty at Rotorua in the semi-final and then winning well against the previously unbeaten North Auckland at Whangarei in the final.
Jamie Cameron was outstanding in the final, drop kicking a goal from halfway and kicking a couple of long-range penalties as he kicked at 100%; Dean Magon who came in at fullback took every high ball that Warren Johnston put up, and they were high; and Mark Allen lead from the front in those two vital games.
It was back to Division 1 for the 1996 season in what would prove to be a mix of lows and highs. The season started poorly and continued along a rocky path, so much so that behind Graham’s back the chairman of the TRU and another board member were visiting players and asking them to speak out against him. The fact that new captain Andy Slater and senior players still supported Graham demonstrated what it really meant to be part of a ‘team’, unlike those who were on the fringes rocking the boat.
The Ranfurly Shield challenge against Auckland arrived and as if by magic the shield was on the next flight to New Plymouth. This was all about ‘thinking out of the square’, thorough planning and a belief by the team that they could beat players wearing an Auckland jersey – the mental breakthrough had emerged at Colts level when many of these same players were in Graham’s colts side that beat the Auckland Colts.
The magic produced stemmed from a lineout play where Graham had studied the laws and come up with a plan that had not been seen before. It was not used in any other games prior to the shield challenge, was practiced in the car park prior to the bus trip to Eden Park, and just prior to the game Graham approached referee Steve Walsh who said he’d allow it. That was the key.
Graham ran back to the shed to let the leaders know and with the likes of captain Andy Slater and hooker Shane McDonald calling the play at the correct times two tries were scored much to the surprise of the crowd, the Auckland team and Graham Henry the Auckland coach.
Dean Magon was the try scorer on both occasions and by grabbing another one later on he scored three tries in a Ranfurly Shield challenge – surely a record.
There were 1500 people at the Welcome Home ceremony at Rugby Park, surely a sign of belief in the team and the staff. The next two weeks were a frenzy of support with the parade returning to Devon Street for the first time since the 60’s, a narrow win against North Harbour in the first defence and a loss to a strong Waikato team the following week.
The season ended with four wins and four losses to be in the middle of the table and at the time Taranaki were the only team that had beaten the three Auckland region teams, Auckland, North Harbour and Counties, in the same season.
Many players in this squad made their way into Super Rugby which kicked off in 96. They included Daryl Lilley, Kevin Barrett, Jamie Cameron, Ryan Wheeler, Neil Crowley, Shane McDonald and All Blacks Mark Allen and Gordon Slater.
At the end of the season Graham did not put his name forward again.
This is a story about a young lad full of enthusiasm for rugby who started on the backlawn at Huiakama and ended up holding the Ranfurly Shield on Eden Park.
He was a successful player, then a coach, who had an ability and understanding which allowed him to think beyond the norm. He created teams that were loyal and determined, and the best part is that it all happened as an amateur in Taranaki.
Today he still possesses strong views about the game and where we are heading in New Zealand. They are very much worth listening to.
Ian Snook is a former Taranaki and Waiarapa Bush first-five eighth and rugby coach.