Brothers Fred and Kawhena both wore the black jersey 40-odd years ago, and now their achievements have been outdone in some style by the next Woodman generation, writes Jamie Wall in this extract from his new book.
“All I heard growing up was: oh, is your dad Kawhena or Fred? Ohhhh, I played alongside your dad, he was a legend …”
She loves to talk about her whānau, it’s obvious. Even though she says that Dad’s time as a rugby player was a lifetime before she came along. Dad and Uncle Fred, that is. It’s one thing to have a father who was an All Black, a Māori All Black and a North Auckland stalwart, she’s got an uncle who was one, too.
These days she’s the one who gets the headlines. Her name is Portia Woodman. The daughter of Kawhena Woodman, she’s now the biggest name in women’s rugby. There was every chance she could have played for the Silver Ferns, before she switched from netball to rugby in 2012. She has won a World Cup in both XVs and Sevens, and a Commonwealth Games gold medal. She once scored eight tries in a test match. But before she’d even picked up a ball, her dad and uncle had already etched the family name into the heritage of the black jersey she’d end up starring in.
The Woodman brothers are from a different era to the one that Portia now dominates. You could count on one hand how many serious games of women’s rugby there had been in the early 80s. Representative Sevens was still a bit of a muck around piss trip up to Hong Kong once a year. Women’s Sevens didn’t even exist.
The province that we now know as Northland was known as North Auckland, which is an odd name given that none of what is now the North Harbour union was actually in it. It was where Peter Jones had come down from in 1956 to score one of the most important tries ever and then tell the crowd he was absolutely buggered. Where Sid Going and his brothers and sons made sure their family name was on a team sheet for the better part of three decades. Where Norm Berryman, Warren Johnstone, David Holwell and other cult heroes came from.
The Woodman brothers wouldn’t have exactly what you’d call the most high profile or classic All Black careers. Fred would play three tests and Kawhena none. Their careers spanned the late 70s to the late 80s, mostly running out on Okara Park in Whangarei.
Fred was the oldest. He was a tall, lean and fast winger who debuted in the Cambridge blue jersey of North Auckland in 1978 as a 20-year-old. It was an eventful year, they took the Ranfurly Shield from Manawatu late in the season but then refused to put it on the line for their final two games against Southland and Otago. While that didn’t win them any friends, it showed the national selectors that Fred had the goods to step up.
That was the first aspect of a career that is basically a pub trivia sports section goldmine. He made his All Black debut against Fiji at Eden Park in 1980. The Fijians weren’t deemed test worthy back then, but it falls into the grey area between test matches and tour games, so it has its own significance of being against another nation, on New Zealand soil, but not officially an international. Fred had a good day out, scoring a try in the 33-0 win. Almost the same scenario occurred for his next game. The All Blacks stopped over in San Diego for a match against the United States later that season, on their way to the Welsh Rugby Union’s centenary test match. Again Fred started on the wing, picked up a try but not a test cap. It wasn’t a great time to be a winger trying to bust your way into the All Black test XV, though. Wellington’s Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser had the two spots locked down tight and were in the prime of their careers, so it seemed like the only way Fred would make it is if one of those two got injured.
Fate has a funny way of working sometimes, though, because the next year was to be that of the infamous 1981 Springbok tour. Fred finally did get his break, but not because of being an injury replacement. Bruce Robertson withdrew from the team because of his objections to the tour, which meant that Wilson was moved in a spot to centre, and Fred came onto the wing for the first test at Lancaster Park.
It’s fair to say it wasn’t a game for wingers. The All Blacks took the same sort of approach that the police and protesters had been adopting outside the grounds where the tour matches were being played, straight up in the faces of the Springboks in an exceptionally brutal, direct manner. While they did score three tries to none, the 14-9 win was a slugfest.
The next test in Wellington also saw the same backline combination retained. This game did see one of the wingers score, but unfortunately for Fred it was Gerrie Germishuys, the Springbok he was marking. It was the only try in a comprehensive 24-12 win to the Springboks. Fred was dropped for the decider, and got to watch what became known as the ‘flour bomb test’ from the bench.
The All Blacks weren’t done with him yet, though. Fred ended up on the end of year tour, adding another test to his tally in Paris against France. He was done with All Black rugby after that, being able to boast that he’d scored tries in games against Fiji, the USA and a Romanian selection.
Not that he ever would boast about it. According to Portia, Uncle Fred is the quietest member of the Woodman family, preferring to let his deeds speak for themselves. His brother Kawhena, though, that’s a different story.
Portia grew up in a household that was full of stories and recollections of her father’s career. All sorts of different stories, about what his exploits for the teams he played for to being allowed into a kitchen on a tour to Italy so he could provide the NZ Maori team with a boil up. He was a stalwart in the North Auckland team, playing on the opposite wing to his brother.
But Kawhena’s call up to the All Blacks came somewhat out of the blue in the 1984 tour to Australia. Like his brother, he came in as a replacement for one of the team’s stars. John Kirwan had been injured and Kawhena slotted into the midweek side for three games against New South Wales Country, Queensland Country and New South Wales B, scoring tries in the second and third games.
His All Black career came to an end the same way it started for Fred – against Fiji. The team toured the islands at the end of the 1984 season, again not giving the match against Fiji test status. Kawhena played in the three lead up games, and scored his third and final try for the All Blacks on a stinking hot day in Nadi on a field that would have been as hard as a carpark.
Ironically, the next year saw him get his only All Black trial. By now Kirwan and Craig Green had the test wings spots sewn up through to the World Cup and like Fred, his international career was over.
You can see the pride in the Woodman brothers’ eyes in their team photos. They’re good looking men in their early 20s, sporting two of the best moustaches that have ever been seen in the All Blacks. There is no doubt at all that Portia is Kawhena’s daughter, both in her eyes and the way she plays.
She may have surpassed him and her Uncle Fred in terms of on field deeds, but the way she talks about her dad speaks volumes of the regard she holds them in.
“He’s been there and he’s done that. Everything he did was for the love of the game, whatever input he can give me, I take it on board. In my eyes, he’s my hero, my idol no matter what.”
Extracted from Brothers in Black: The long history of brotherhood in New Zealand rugby by Jamie Wall, published on August 6 (Allen & Unwin, $36.99)
Subscribe to Rec Room a weekly newsletter delivering The Spinoff’s latest videos, podcasts and other recommendations straight to your inbox.