There was a time when young Pacific Islanders in New Zealand could look hard but in vain to find any reference in the media to PI achievements or PI role models.
Then, in 1970, Bryan George (“Beegee”) Williams, a 19-year-old not long out of the Mt Albert Grammar First XV, made his debut as an All Black winger playing in South Africa and became an instant rugby star. Not only because of his impressive speed, but also for a sidestep that baffled tacklers throughout his nine years and 133 matches (including 38 tests) for New Zealand.
He was a godsend for Pasifika youth, not just demonstrating spellbinding Sāmoan talent in an overwhelmingly white rugby world, but giving heart to Pacific Islanders trying to making their home in an Aotearoa that, too often, wasn’t considerate, respectful or welcoming.
Through the 51 years since Bee Gee landed in Johannesburg with his All Black teammates — including three Māori “honorary whites” (Sid Going, Buff Milner and Blair Furlong) — he’s forged a career not just as a player, coach, administrator and leader, but also as a lawyer and as a compelling advocate for Pacific rugby rights.
He’s been too popular a figure to wear his knighthood all that comfortably. But it’d be disrespectful not to acknowledge that Bee Gee now is, in fact, Sir Bryan. And here’s Sir Bryan chatting with Dale.
Talofa lava, Bryan. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. I’ve admired your career over the years, as many others have. And I was prompted to make contact with you because I had a neat kōrero with Mike Mika not so long ago, and he was reflecting on, when he was a young guy, how taken he was by your sporting prowess as well as your academic success.
And, on the cusp of the rugby test match against Ireland this weekend, I thought that a conversation with you would be a good way to celebrate sport and your Pasifika background. So, perhaps we could start with you sharing some kōrero about your background and whānau?
No problem, Dale. My dad Arthur was born in Sāmoa and my mum Eileen was born in Rarotonga. Dad’s father was Australian, Arthur Williams, and he made his way — probably ran away from home in Woolloomooloo — through Fiji and ended up in Sāmoa where he met and married my grandmother, Telesia Tuala. The Tualas hail from a village called Le‘auva‘a, which was set up on Upolu after an eruption in Savai‘i around 1905.
My mum’s father, Cecil John Bouchier, was born in Capetown, South Africa. He was of Irish heritage, and his family had settled in South Africa. He was an agricultural scientist, and he accepted a job in Jamaica, apparently, in the early 1920s. He was on his way there but, for reasons unknown, he never made it. Instead, he ended up in Rarotonga, where he met my grandmother, Agnes.
Agnes was a Mitchell, the product of an English father and a Sāmoan mother. Her mum, Mele Mataele, had been a dancer, and had made her way to Tonga from Sāmoa, and there she met my great-grandfather, Ernest Mitchell. They ended up having eight or nine children.
So, I cover a range of not only Pasifika but also a fair amount of the rest of the world as well. Mum and Dad both came to New Zealand as teenagers, prior to the Second World War.
Mum’s father died as a result of a hurricane accident in 1935. He badly injured his leg and eventually had to have it removed, but then he died of complications at the age of 35. My grandmother and her six daughters, with my mum as the eldest, came to New Zealand and settled in Grey Lynn, not far from where I’m living today. Dad, on the other hand, was sent to New Zealand by his father to enlist in the army. My parents met as teenagers and the rest is history.
I have two older brothers, Ces and Ken, and a younger sister, Lorraine, who still lives in Sāmoa. She made her way up there 40 years ago and runs a successful school. That’s largely the background. Lots of different tentacles.
When you were a kid in Grey Lynn, I imagine it was chockful of new Pasifika arrivals — and it must’ve been a colourful place.
Well, initially I grew up in Ponsonby. Back in the early 1950s it was a largely European neighbourhood, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s and 1960s, after the Second World War, that the Pacific migration began to transform Ponsonby.
I started my football career with the Ponsonby Rugby League Club and spent my childhood years idolising the Kiwis rather than the All Blacks.
Billy Sorensen certainly was one of them. And Bill Snowden, Jack Fagan, Joe Ratima, and Rex Percy.
It was only the fact that my team was disbanded that I ended up in rugby. My two brothers played rugby for Ponsonby and, eventually, they persuaded me to switch to rugby, which happened when I was about 10.
Later, you went to Mt Albert Grammar where, no doubt, there were some sporting as well as academic influences.
Let me go back a little earlier. I also used to run for the Ponsonby Athletic Club where Ross Lipscombe made a big impression on me and other kids. He used to train us and teach us about the disciplines required to be a good sportsman.
I ended up being quite a good sprinter and I went off to Mt Albert Grammar and won athletics events there. I also made it into the First XV when I was about 14 and played for that team for three years. My coach was Eugene Cheriton, who helped me greatly.
My days at MAGS were special for me, and I still have a number of good mates from those school days.
I’m pleased you mentioned Ross. A lot of kids have loads of natural ability, but it often takes a mentor or coach to get the best out of them.
You’re absolutely right — Ross had a big part to play.
And when I was playing league, there was a coach who we called “Yorkie”, because he was from Yorkshire and had a really broad accent. And he taught us kids how to sidestep. He’d have us going up and down the field, but instead of running, we’d be hopping and stepping to the side. The sidestep became second nature for me, and when I look back on my career, I guess that was one of my strengths.
I believe you’d started varsity when you got picked for the All Blacks to go to South Africa in 1970 as a 19-year-old.
That’s true. One of my great mates then, and still today, Bernie Allen, was the MAGS head prefect and the captain of the First XV, and I was the deputy head prefect and the vice-captain of the First XV.
And, just before leaving school, I asked him: “Mate, what are you going to do?” I myself had no idea what I was going to do. He said: “I’m going to do law.” I didn’t have a clue what that amounted to. My family didn’t have any background in legal business. But, when he explained it to me, I said: “That sounds all right. I’ll give it a go.”
So, I began at law school when I was still only 17. But I didn’t adapt to it all that well. One of the complications was that I was playing for the top Ponsonby team, and we had a tour to Japan early in 1968. So, I was away in Japan and Hong Kong for three weeks right at the start of the university year, and I missed all the orientation guidance at varsity.
When I came back from Japan, I was all at sea. Totally lost. Didn’t know where the lectures were. Too shy to ask anyone about where to go, or what to do — and, as a consequence, I failed everything in my first year.
The dean of the law school, Jack Northey, pulled me into his office early in the following year and said: “Listen here, Mr Williams. They tell me you’re a bit of a rugby player, but, as far as law school is concerned, you’re going to have to shape up or ship out.”
So, I started working a lot harder and smarter, using my time way better, and passing exams — and, eventually, I had my law degree.
There wouldn’t have been too many Māori or Pasifika guys in law school at that time, would there?
There were a few. Winston Peters was one. We were good mates and used to party together. But it was a white man’s world, which was daunting. And I was shy. In the lectures, I hoped like hell I wouldn’t be asked any questions.
But soon I learned how to talk, how to ask questions, how to speak in public — and some people say they can’t shut me up now.
About South Africa, did you labour over the decision to go on that 1970 tour?
Not really. It had been a dream of mine for years and years to become an All Black. My priority was set in stone, to be an All Black, and I didn’t care where we played.
But I was at law school, and protests were taking place there. I remember being in the courtyard at the student union centre for lunch, and the likes of Trevor Richards, Tim Shadbolt, Syd Jackson, the anti-tour guys, would be up there, spelling out their views and encouraging everyone to protest.
I was there, eating my lunch, and no one knew who I was. I was totally anonymous. I think if they’d known I was on my way to South Africa it might’ve been a different story.
How did it feel to line up with some of the giants of the game of that era?
It was daunting. I was so shy at that stage I could barely get a word out. So, when they spoke to me, I’d freeze. I’ve heard other people talk about their introduction to major teams, and it’s the same for most — you’re overwhelmed by it all.
But you do get over it, and you take one step after the other, and, eventually, I made it on to the field in South Africa. I was lucky that the first time I got the ball, the way was clear for me. I had a 20-metre run to score, and then I managed to score a second time.
After the game, the guys were patting me on the back and saying, in effect: “You’re one of us, mate.” Fortunately, my form held up, so I was able to score some good tries and then make the test team.
There were four brown players on that tour, and you were all described as “honorary whites”. What struck you the most about that situation?
Being labelled “honorary whites” was something the South Africans needed to do to justify themselves. It was obvious that the Blacks and Coloureds were totally oppressed. It gave me a really uneasy feeling. Blacks not allowed on the beaches, not allowed in the hotels, that sort of stuff. It was bloody gut-wrenching to see it.
It was a joyous day, wasn’t it, when apartheid was overthrown. And, in many ways, our efforts in Aotearoa contributed to that change. You’ve said that the Black and Coloured people warmed to you. How did that manifest itself? Could you sense something from them?
I believe so. I think they could identify with the fact that we were coloured, just like they were, and so I think we became crowd favourites. In 1976, when I was back there again with the All Blacks, things had started to change, and we were able to go out and visit Coloured families and have meals with them.
But, even then, people would drop you back to the hotel and when you’d invite them in — you know, “Come in and we’ll have a chat before you go back” — they were diffident about doing that. They felt totally ill at ease. And they probably had good cause to be, because it was probably against the law.
Now we’ve got a Covid situation, and there’s a bit of a standoff between members of whānau over it. I’m wondering if the South African tour drove a wedge between those who were pro- and anti-tour in your own whānau? You probably experienced the reality more than most who took a side in that argument. What would you say of the 1981 tour and how that affected you?
It’s interesting, the parallel that’s playing out with Covid. Within our family, there were people who were dead against the ’81 tour. We had some healthy discussion on it. My view was that I was against apartheid, but there was more than one way to skin a cat. I didn’t play against the 1981 Springboks. My All Black days were over by then.
The 1970 and ‘76 tours illustrated that we were able to select Māori and Pasifika players. And that put a chink in the armour of apartheid, as far as I was concerned. But I give great credit to the protest movement.
Apartheid was an abhorrent system and needed to be overthrown. So, when Nelson Mandela became the president of South Africa in the early 1990s, we were absolutely rapt about that.
You had a magical rugby career, Bryan. What were your favourite playing days?
Obviously, playing for the All Blacks was a major highlight. But the biggest thrills I got were when Ponsonby won the Gallaher Shield and when Auckland won the Ranfurly Shield, because those were things that I’d wanted all my life.
Ponsonby hadn’t won the Gallaher Shield since 1954 — and, after my great mate Lin Colling and I took over the coaching of the team, we finally won it in 1976. Then we sort of learned how to win it and we won it numerous times thereafter.
Same with the Ranfurly Shield. I grew up idolising the Ranfurly Shield team of the early 1960s — the Fred Allen era — and I ended up playing alongside some of the guys who were in that team. I was starting out as a youngster, and they were coming to the end of their careers. Also, being able to play in the All Blacks alongside Colin Meads, Brian Lochore, and my clubmate Malcolm Dick and the other stars of the 1960s was something special.
I wonder how much you realise the extent that your influence as a Polynesian man has had on others, both in the sporting and academic sense.
I guess I do. I’ve always looked up to people who covered both fields of academia and sports. I’ve always felt that if you did combine both those things, you’d have a meaningful life, and I count myself as fortunate that I’ve been able to do both — and maybe, in the process, set an example to young people.
It’s great when you can get the balance right in your life — with sport and studies and work and family. All those things. There’ve been times when I’ve let the balance get out of kilter, and I had to take stock and get things back into balance.
Turning now to the major role that Pasifika footballers played in New Zealand sport, do you think New Zealand rugby has shortchanged Pasifika by profiting from many of the players’ efforts while, at the same time, lessening the sporting strength of the lands that they whakapapa to?
No, I don’t hold to that view entirely. Many of us Pasifika players who’ve played for the All Blacks are very grateful for the opportunities that we’ve had, and grateful for what New Zealand has been able to do for us personally.
Where I do take exception, and I’ve articulated this often, is that they’ve left the Pacific Islands out of the mainstream professional competition. Back in the 1990s, I was involved in coaching Manu Sāmoa, and when rugby went professional at the end of 1995, the Pacific Islands were left out in the cold — even though they’d made the quarter-finals of three world cups prior to that.
That was upsetting and disappointing. And, as a result, the Pacific Island ranking in the world order has declined. The players have always been there, but because they weren’t part of Super Rugby, the mainstream competition, the Pacific Island national teams have suffered, with many of the players ending up playing in France, the UK, and Japan.
We now have the opportunity with Moana Pasifika to put Pasifika rugby into a mainstream professional competition, and I’m involved with that initiative at the moment. We’ve got a licence, and Moana Pasifika is going to be in Super Rugby next year. And I’m absolutely rapt about that.
The All Blacks have had this mantra in recent times: “Good people make good rugby teams.” And I think that comes naturally to Pasifika players because of the service element of their lives — service to their families, service to God, service to the community.
We’re looking forward to that aspect of Moana Pasifika, the cultural side, and what it’s going to do for our people, the example it’s going to set, not just in rugby but in all of life. We’re trying to make a difference right across the board.
When I grew up, we weren’t encouraged to be Islanders, we weren’t encouraged to speak our languages or show the culture. In our family, Mum was born in Rarotonga, Dad was born in Sāmoa, and because they spoke different Pacific Island languages, they communicated to each other only in English. As a result, my brothers and my sister and I have ended up not knowing how to speak any language except English.
But one of the ironies is that Lorraine, my younger sister, has helped educate thousands of young Sāmoan kids through the school she created in Sāmoa.
It’s great to see our people combining in different ways to help shape this country’s future.
Moana Pasifika is a collaboration of Sāmoan and Tongan but also Cook Islands, Fijian and Niuean. Watching the progress that Pasifika people have made in New Zealand is encouraging. We had very few All Blacks initially, we didn’t have too many Kiwis, we didn’t have performers, we didn’t have politicians — and now I think we have 10 politicians of Pasifika heritage in parliament. And we’ve broken through many glass ceilings in every facet. The trickle has become a flood.
I think it’s made all our people proud to be Polynesian. When all those players decided to play for the Tongan rugby league team, Mate Ma’a Tonga, the great pride and joy and colour, song and dance — everything that it brought to our landscape was fantastic. Everyone embraced it, and we’re hoping to achieve much the same with Moana Pasifika.
You’ve had many accolades in your life, halls of fame, knighthood, matai titles probably, but what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all of it, Dale. But let me also repeat the old line: “Happy wife, happy life.” I’ve got to say, my wife Lesley has been a huge part of my life since we met in 1968. We’ve got four kids and 15 grandchildren now. There’s lots of fun and joy in our lives, and that’s what I’m most thankful for. I certainly look back on the rugby career with great pride, but I’m most proud of the family life.
I often ask people what things they do to stay fresh? Cooking? Hanging out with the mokopuna? Anything else that we might be surprised about that you love to do?
I certainly love hanging out with the whanau and the mokopuna. People might be surprised that one of the things I’ve always loved is music. I used to take my guitar on tour with the All Blacks and other teams. After the game, I’d pull it out and have a few beers and we’d sing for hours on end. Music has always been a great tonic for me — and, once again, it’s about getting that balance in life.
I love all sports. I played and now watch the cricket, golf and tennis. I watch the golf, and I’ve played over the years and love it. I’m a member of the Waitangi Golf Club. We have a place up in Paihia. We get up there when we can.
The Ponsonby Rugby Club has always been huge for me, and I spend a lot of time down there. A home away from home. Also the Barbarians Rugby Club — I’m the patron nowadays.
Well, Bryan Williams, it’s an absolute privilege to have a kōrero with you, and I thank you for sharing so much about your approach to life.
If I thrust a guitar into your hands right now, what would be the first song that you’d belt out?
I used to play a bit of Engelbert Humperdinck, “Ten Guitars”, Elvis’s “Love Me Tender”, and a few Beatles numbers. “Hoki Mai”, “Tutira Mai Ngā Iwi”. Glen Campbell’s “Country Road”.
What we used to do, Dale, was go through the alphabet and sing a song that started with each letter, and, if it was still relatively early — well, you’d start all over again.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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