Former ABs coach John Hart looks back on his career and the death of Jonah Lomu

by Clare de Lore / 08 January, 2016

John Hart. Photo/Ken Downie

John Hart still remembers the vicious reaction to the team’s failure at the 1999 Rugby World Cup. 

The day he turned 50, John Hart was appointed All Blacks coach, which he calls “the best job in New ­Zealand”. As he approached his 70th birthday, Hart called on all the skills acquired in his life in business and rugby, as he led a team of his best players in preparation for an Eden Park event unlike any other – the public memorial service for rugby superstar Jonah Lomu. When Lomu died suddenly, aged 40, in November, Hart was shocked and sad, but he took on the role of organising the great winger’s farewell.

How did that come about?

My wife, Di, made a cake and I went around to pay my respects. Michael [Jones] and Dylan [Mika] were there and I said let me know if I can help you. Michael said something like “coach is here, our prayers have been answered” and we ended up as a triumvirate, ­working together.

Jonah’s death was huge and the pressure on the family was getting heavy. We had huge love and respect for Jonah, and what Dylan and Michael did with the family was amazing.

How did you three approach the task of farewelling Jonah?

We had to put a plan in place quickly for what the family wanted and get a lot of other people involved, starting with the Government. The combined experience of VCO [Visits and Ceremonial Office of the Department of Internal Affairs] and Eden Park was invaluable. The thing that stands out to me from the memorial was, it wasn’t a state funeral, but it was close to being one. Jonah touched the world in such a way that the Government was keen to acknowledge that. It was a big statement from them.

How stressful was it?

It was right up there. A lot was happening in a short time. The wishes of the family, Jonah’s mum and Nadene, had to be kept in play all the time. It took an immense amount of time for the three of us, but if we got a bit tired or grumpy, we would remind ourselves “we are doing this for Jonah”.

John Hart at home. Photo/Ken Downie

John Hart at home. Photo/Ken Downie

Being caught up in that, did you have space to grieve for your friend?

Not as much as I would have liked because I was just so busy. Jonah and I had a very special relationship. I think what Eric Rush said at the memorial was quite telling: he said Jonah was one of the loneliest All Blacks of his time because of who he was, he was a very private person. He was always under pressure because the Tall Poppy syndrome was alive and well, and then there was his health. Jonah and I didn’t see a lot of each other, but I would often get a call from him if he had heard someone criticise me or say something he didn’t like – he was quite protective of me.

You have said that Michael Jones was the greatest player you ever saw or coached. What was it about him that stood out?

He was one of one of the hardest hitters on the field you’d ever see, and one of the softest people off it. He is a special person as well as a great rugby player.

Because of his religious beliefs he never played on Sundays. Was that hard to accept as a coach?

Yes, but I understood that when I brought him into the team. It was the commitment he made to his mother. I didn’t try to persuade him to play on Sundays, but occasionally when we had injuries, I know he felt guilty – but he didn’t bend from his beliefs.

I am not sure in the professional era today if that would be easy to manage, but this was at the start of that and we were accommodating. With Jonah’s death, seeing his calmness and ability to think for and with people, and take them with him – he is a beautiful person.

Looking back over your career, 1999 was a low point, wasn’t it?

It was probably the worst time in my life. We lost the World Cup semi-final and there was a backlash. I had immediately resigned as coach, but the day I got home my family met me at the airport and as our horse was racing in the NZ Cup in Christchurch, they persuaded me to fly down. It was not a pleasant experience. A small section verbally abused me. One guy actually spat in my face. Some even threw beer at my horse. I lost a lot of confidence. I’d had a successful career in business [as HR director for Fletchers] and had had a great time coaching Auckland and the All Blacks. The loss and particularly the ­reaction were a big setback.

Celebrations in 1996 after a series win over the Springboks. Photo/Getty Images

What got you out of it?

In 2002, John Bayley organised an auction for Team NZ through the Bayleys offices and asked me to project-manage it. We raised $1 million. John then asked me to go on the board of Bayleys, as the first non-family independent ­director. Those two things gave me back my confidence and I got back into life. I owe him a great deal.

You have shelves full of sports trophies and memorabilia as well as sports books including two about you – Straight from the Hart and Change of Hart, both by Paul Thomas. You say you’re not a reader though?

I went to Auckland University and had a great time. I completed qualifications in cards, movies, parties, cafeteria 1 and 2; unfortunately not the units that counted – I got 2/9th of a Bachelor of Commerce degree. So I didn’t cover myself with glory. I’ve had a block with reading since but I do read the odd sports book. [Former Manchester United ­manager] Alex Ferguson’s book A Will to Win: The Manager’s Diary was pretty impressive and so was his longevity as coach – I met him in 1997 when I was coach and I had three hours with him. We played England at his ground, Old ­Trafford. He gave me his book. I admired what he’d done, and the values he developed as a coach. I learned from that.

Have you read all the All Blacks’ books?

A lot of them from my time, Jeff Wilson, Jonah, Andrew Mehrtens – they’ve all produced books, as have more recent All Blacks. It is a commercial opportunity to capitalise on their playing career and some of them have done very well. Some of those books are good, some are very boring, and a few are inspiring. The reality is when you are an All Black and retire, you have limited opportunity to enhance your profile and writing a book is one way.

The timing for Dan Carter couldn’t have been better – releasing his book at the end of the World Cup having been voted player of the year, and the magic of his comeback, his book went through the roof. I did pick up a book on the way back from the World Cup, Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice, by Bill Browder. It’s about a guy in Russia who took Russia on as a financial investor. It was a great read in terms of the internal ­ructions. I couldn’t put it down.

This article was first published in the January 16, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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