Phil ‘Gus’ Gould had a heart scare and Tonie Carroll was called a traitor.
What a start it was to my 2004 Tri-Nations Test rugby league campaign, as a journalist for News Limited.
It was a wet and windy day when I awoke in Auckland, ahead of the Kangaroos’ match against the Kiwis at North Harbor Stadium, the first match of the Tri-Nations, with both countries to shift base to the UK the following day, ahead of matches against Great Britain, and a return Trans-Tasman encounter in London.
Instead of a quiet morning, preparing for the Test, I found myself dashing around Auckland, trying to get an interview with the great, Phil ‘Gus’ Gould, who reportedly had had a heart attack at Auckland Airport, on arrival for his duties as a commentator for Channel 9.
First port of call, with photographer, Greg Porteous, was Middelemore Hospital, but there was no access to ‘Gus’, who was under observation.
Later we learnt he had been given the all clear and was in the commentary box at North Harbor. I managed to get a couple of quotes, via a third party, and filed a yarn ahead of the kick-off. (Phil was employed by News Ltd’s rivals, Fairfax).
The Test finished in a 16-16 draw, with Tonie Carroll, a Kiwi representative at the 2000 World Cup, given a hard time by fans, now that he was wearing the green and gold of Australia, the country where the Christchurch born, then 28-year-old, grew up.
Debutant winger, Luke Rooney scored two tries for Australia. The Kiwis were unlucky not to win, with centre, Nigel Vagana putting down a pass, from Sonny Bill Williams, with the line wide open, late in the match. Williams was man of the match.
My computer would not transmit my stories from the stadium, so I had to dictate to a copy taker, and that was almost impossible, given the crowd noise.
I still could not transmit from my hotel, so more dictation was needed, before drinks with league greats, Bob McCarthy and Arthur Beetson; player manager, Jim Banaghan; one of his clients, Kiwi fullback, Brent Webb and journalists, Brad Walter (Sydney Morning Herald) and Daniel Pace (AAP).
Also in the bar were former Australian hooker, Royce Simmons and All Blacks’ rugby legend, Colin ‘Pine Tree’ Meads. I resisted the temptation to join Banaghan and my fellow journalists at a late night spot at Ponsonby. I had had enough excitement for one day.
I had gone into camp with the Australian team at the Crowne Plaza, Coogee in Sydney, the previous weekend. My cab driver from home, at Zillmere, in Brisbane, to the airport, was Mrs Littleloe, who came from my home town, Murwillumbah. She said she was related to famous Tweed family, the Bugdens. On the flight, I sat beside a German chap, an aviation industry worker, based in Chinese Taipei.
My cab driver from Sydney Airport was a Russian born chap, who had been here 48 years.
I changed rooms at the Crowne Plaza, because of noisy rev heads on my floor.
The following day I caught up with team co-manager, John ‘Chow’ Hayes, a former first grader with Sydney Wests, and a good mate of my journalistic colleague, Trad McLean. ‘Chow’, a retired police inspector, loves long distance walking and had been to Nepal with his wife.
The other members of ‘Team Bennett’ were Craig Bellamy (assistant coach); Billy Johnstone (performance co-ordinator), Tony Spencer, Tony Ayoub, Robbie Aubin (trainers), Hugh Hazard (medical officer) and Polly McCardell (media officer). 
The first player I interviewed was Australian utility, Craig Gower, in much happier circumstances than 1999, when he was expelled from the Aussie camp following an unsavory incident at the Coogee Bay Hotel.
I had lunch at St George Leagues Club ahead of the Aussie’s first training run at nearby Kogarah Oval. My cabbie, on the way to the leagues club, was an artist, from Syria, while the cabbie on the return trip – Peter Oldfield – said he had played for Cronulla, and had just returned from a holiday in the Whitsundays in Queensland.
That night I had one drink at the Coogee Bay, leaving after one drunk king hit another. At the Palace Hotel, the service was hopeless, and a group of Americans tested the patience of staff by asking for all television screens to be switched to ESPN.
On Tuesday, October 12, after a coastal walk to Maroubra, I had breakfast at trendy Barzura, before another training run at Kogarah. This time my cabbie came from Bangladesh. I interviewed a host of players, and they were co-operative, although Newcastle’s Ben Kennedy, a product of Casino football on the Richmond River, was a bit terse.
The flag at Kogarah was flying at half mast, as a mark of respect for Australian cricket great, Keith Miller who had died the previous day.
Initially I was to cover the Tri-Nations for The Courier-Mail, Sydney Telegraph and Australian, but today I learned, via my sports editor, Neil Breen, that the Australian had pulled out of contributing to my expenses, instead allocating funds for Wayne Smith to cover the Wallaby’s northern hemisphere tour.
Team photographs were taken at the Sydney Cricket Ground in the afternoon. Next door, at the football stadium, the Socceroos were to play the Solomons. That night, I had a couple of ales at Randwick Rugby Club.
On my walks around Coogee, there were many delightful vistas (I particularly loved Gordons Bay) and many ‘beautiful’ people. Of course, there will always be those who make you shake your head in dismay, such as the pregnant woman smoking and a Maori family, driving along the esplanade, with a woman in the back seat nursing a child.
Wayne Bennett talked up international rugby league at the Australian team’s press conference at Sydney Airport, before the flight to Auckland. The Kangaroos looked smart, but there was nothing on their blazer to say they were a rugby league side. Rugby League has to realise that it is a very small sport, in global terms, and people from different countries are always curious about what sport the lads are actually going on tour to play.
In the Qantas Club, I saw former Tasmanian Governor, Richard Butler, who had recently stepped down from his post, in a cloud of controversy. And I think I saw actor, Ross Higgins, who played Ted Bullpit in ‘Kingswood Country’.
‘Ted’ was a ‘rugby man’, and had no time for Aussie rules, describing their players as “a bunch of pansies”. This was pre-politically correct TV.
 My assignment was to take me a long way from ‘Kingswood Country’ – to the land of the ‘Whingeing Pom’. More in future posts.
Photo 1: John Hayes (right) with Australian skipper, Darren Lockyer and coach, Wayne Bennett.
Photo 2: Tonie Carroll playing for the Kiwis.

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