Kevin McCallum: The day a legendary Kiwi’s grandson cut my hair

In the thick of the ancient rivalry between the Boks and the All Blacks, lie many stories of fortitude, honour, and lessons forged in battle. Here is one such tale, learned by chance in a barbershop in New Zealand, about a man who soldiered on when the tide of the times turned against him.

By Kevin McCallum* 

A little way down Customhouse Quay in Wellington, New Zealand, is a barber shop called “Custom Cutz”. I found it quite by accident on a Saturday morning during the 2011 Rugby World Cup, but, as seems to be the way of things on rugby tours, accidents happen for a reason.

I stopped in for a trim before the Springboks were due to play Fiji in their pool match at the Cake Tin. The Boks would wallop Fiji 49-3 in front of a crowd of 34 500 later that day. It was a good time to be in Wellington if you loved rugby. Heck, it is New Zealand – it’s always a good time to be there if you love rugby. The air is thick with rugby. In Custom Cutz, the hair was thick with rugby. The New Zealanders have a strange relationship with South Africa. There has been much written about how the traditional rivalry between the Blacks and Boks is dead after the full-stop moment of the 57-0 thrashing, but the history between the two is rich.

“My grandfather was stopped from being an All Black because of apartheid,” is not your usual barbershop banter. We’d shot through the niceties. I was from South Africa. I was a sports writer. And yourself? My barber’s name was Brendan Blake. His grandfather was Alan “Kiwi” Blake, one of the hardest men ever to play rugby on this island. Kiwi was dark-skinned, having a lineage that included an African-American grandfather who was a “quarter negro”, to use Blake’s own words.

Kiwi had been picked for the All Blacks to tour South Africa in 1949, but the New Zealand selectors had to drop him after the South Africans insisted that their team only include white players. He was not the only one. Johnny Smith and Vince Bevan, both who had Maori blood, were also considered too dark for the tour. Brendan the barber reached across to a book he kept on the counter, opened it up and passed me a folded piece of paper cut from the Dominion Post from when his grandfather had died in October 2010.

Kiwi was desperate to play rugby. He had been part of the New Zealand Army team that had toured after World War. He played one Test for the All Blacks, against Australia, in 1949. But this man, with no Maori blood in him, became one of the most famous men to play for the New Zealand Maoris.

“He was approached by the Wairarapa selectors in 1948. They told him ‘because of the dark blood’ in him he would be ineligible to tour the republic (South Africa),” reported the Post. “But during the same conversation the selectors sounded him out on whether he would consider travelling to Fiji as a member of a New Zealand Maori team in 1949. ‘I said, well if I can’t go to South Africa then I certainly will, so long as I can play rugby. So, they nominated me in the Maori team and when it came out I was going to Fiji, I never even played in the Maori trial.’ ”

He was a tough man, said Brendan. He played on the flank and was described as “ruthless”. He played 23 games for New Zealand Maori and captained them against the British Lions. He was regarded as an honorary Maori, a status conferred upon him by his New Zealand Maori and Wairarapa teammate Kingi Matthews. He was the only non-Maori to captain the team. He grew up hard and he lived hard. He loved hunting pigs. It was how he trained, how he got his body right after a game.

“He was raised on a farm in the foothills of the Tararuas, where he developed a lifetime love of pig hunting and deer-stalking,” continued the Post. “He attributed his longevity in rugby – which included 178 first class games – to pig-hunting in particular. He regularly went pig- hunting with Wairarapa teammates after a first-class game, saying this got rid of any stiffness in his body.”

I do not know if Brendan Blake is still cutting hair on Customhouse Quay in Wellington. People move on, things change. But, if you are in the neighbourhood and he is there, stop in and ask him about Kiwi. He will tell you a story that take you down the long, strange path the All Blacks and the Springboks have walked together.

  • This article first appeared on the Change Exchange, an online platform by BrightRock, provider of the first-ever life insurance that changes as your life changes. The opinions expressed in this piece are the writer’s own and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BrightRock.
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