Buck Shelford wasn’t a bad footy player. Good enough anyway to play for the All Blacks in 48 games as well as captaining them in 14 international matches without losing one of them. So, when the New Zealand selectors dropped him in 1990, there was an outcry — and ever since then there’ve been calls, understandably a little less energetic and heartfelt as the years have rolled by, to “Bring back Buck”.
In a way, he has been brought back — at least recognised, praised and awarded — largely for his persistent efforts to persuade men to see that when they neglect their own health they’re hurting their family. Naturally, he’s kept very much in touch with rugby, initially carrying on as a player and coach in Aotearoa, then England and Italy. And these days, like so many others, committed to recovering the reo that was missing when he was a youngster. He’s on common ground there with Dale in this kōrero.
Kia ora, Wayne. You’re a Ngāpuhi man, aren’t you, but I understand that you have Scottish ancestry as well.
Well, we grew up in Rotorua, but we didn’t have a lot of relatives in town because Dad was from way up north — and Mum is from the Catlins, south of Dunedin. So, we didn’t get to see too many of our rellies in our formative years.
Mum’s great-grandparents came from Scotland in the 1850s and settled in the Catlins where they broke in a couple of thousand acres of mountainous bush for farming land. But my Uncle Jack McLennan was the last of the family to have any land down there.
Dad’s people are Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Toki me Ngāti Horahia, from out west of Whangārei, but the Shelfords started in the Horeke-Waihou area. Then a lot of them migrated down to Taranaki because our whaea was from Ngāti Ruanui, on the south-western side of the mountain.
But us kids were brought up in Rotorua and had a great life there. We lived in an area where Māori were all over the place, but there were also Europeans. Mum and Dad both came from farming families with 11 kids.
How did they meet?
Apparently, Mum set off on her OE from the south, back in the early 1950s, but she only got as far as Rotorua where she saw this beautiful man — this handsome Māori fulla, Natanahira Eruera Shelford — and they were married a couple of years later.
Then, somewhere along the line, you appeared as Wayne Tamati Shelford — although you became known everywhere as Buck Shelford. How did that come to be?
Buck is a nickname I’ve had since primary school because I had buck teeth. Very prominent front teeth. And that name has stayed with me all my life.
Although you’ve made your name in rugby and as the captain of the All Blacks, you had a background in rugby league as well, didn’t you?
Like all the boys in our neighbourhood, we played rugby on Saturday for Western Heights Primary, and then for the intermediate and high school. And we played rugby league as well, on Sundays. Our league coach was Pat Bennett who used a few of his senior players to help with the coaching.
We played both games every weekend and I did that right up until I left home as a 17-year-old. I was still playing rugby league in Rotorua when I was in high school. As a 15-year-old, I was playing rugby league prems, the premier grade. And that was a tough world when you were up against those hardened, older guys, that’s for sure.
Did you have any idols among the senior players in those early days?
Well, there was Jim Maniapoto who was married to one of the teachers. And we’d look at him as though he was a god. He was a Māori All Black and he had brothers playing provincial rugby, too. He was so big and powerful and well-dressed — and, gee, we all wanted to be like him. We idolised him.
Then the next step for you was your time in the navy. What drew you into that world?
If you were growing up in Rotorua back in the ‘60s or ‘70s, you’d go to work in forestry, or, because it’s a tourist town, you found a job in hospitality.
Hospo wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t as big as it is today. Some sort of farming career was another option, but there wasn’t a lot of that work available. And you needed a degree if you wanted to become an accountant or a doctor or any of those sorts of things.
But, for me, it was a tossup between the police and the navy. And I decided on the navy because that offered travel. And man, I’ve travelled. All around the world. On the HMNZS Otago, Taranaki, and Monowai. For nearly 12 years. And I really enjoyed my time in the navy.
Having that line of work meant that my wife, Joanne, was a navy wife who brought up the kids at home while I was away overseas. But, you know, the navy is a family, too, and our Māori people get together and look after each other. The wives look after one another, and the older kids look after the little ones, too.
We had a great time in the military and we’re still pretty tight with the other families. We catch up quite often.
What did you learn from that period of service?
We learned discipline. Hard discipline. “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir.” The rank system in the military is just so rigid and they didn’t bend at all in those days. Today, it’s a bit different because we have a different type of society now.
Back in the day, if you did something wrong, you’d get a crack across the ears. Or a kick up the backside — whereas you’re not allowed to touch anybody now.
But the discipline in the military was great for all of us. Not just for our Māori people, but for everybody. It has to be that way. Every time you go to sea, you rely on the guy next to you. Accidents happen and you need to look after each other.
No doubt you had a few memorable experiences while you were away.
At times, we were away overseas for quite a while, like for six months on several trips. And the highlight, I suppose, was in 1980, in Portland, Oregon, when Mount St Helens erupted not far away.
It was one o’clock in the morning and we were in a nightclub. The power went down, the emergency lighting came on, and we had to get back to our ship because the volcano could possibly block us from getting out of the Portland estuary.
Our ship had to shut down all the air intake systems because of the volcano ash. There was about a foot of it on the ship the next morning. But we did get away.
In the navy, I got all the way up to being a petty officer in rank, and I enjoyed that. In my last five years in the navy, I was a phys ed teacher. Earlier, I was in bombs and bullets, but I gave that away.
Then I taught phys ed. That was land-based most of the time. When the new recruits joined, they’d do all their courses and I’d take their phys ed classes. Overall, it can be a great life for young men and women.
Obviously, you were showing some real rugby talent in those days — and eventually you got named in the All Blacks.
I was still in the navy when I made the All Blacks in 1985, and it was a huge thing. Not just for me, but for my family and for the navy as well. Some people were picking me to get into the All Blacks years earlier than that, like when I made the New Zealand Colts team in 1978. But Murray Mexted held on to the No. 8 jersey for six or seven years and I was 27 before I made the team.
Then it was a matter of just keeping on playing good football — and that’s how I’d get picked for the next game.
When you became the captain of the All Blacks, they started to take the haka more seriously. You had high expectations of everybody in the team delivering it with the mana that it deserved. What was your thinking there?
Growing up in Rotorua, I didn’t have a lot to do with kapa haka or Māoridom. We had uncles and aunties nearby and we all grew up together. But none of us could speak te reo — or not that I knew of.
But when I came into the military, I started doing kapa haka. And so, from my first trip overseas in the navy, right through to the time I left the navy, I played my part.
George McGarvey (Te Arawa) and Tu Ngatai (Ngāti Porou) were at the heart of it, and all the ships had a kapa haka group. We really enjoyed it and I learned so much off the guys in charge of the groups because they came from various iwi and had different ideas about the way to do things.
We wrote some of our own waiata and our own haka — and our ships had their own haka.
Then, with the All Blacks, Hika Reid, who’s more flamboyant than me, was all for action. He was another All Black from Rotorua and we’d been teammates back in our days in the Western Heights 1st XV.
So, when it came to fixing up the All Black haka, he was saying: “Yeah, yeah. Let’s go! Let’s go!”
But I was more cautious because there was a tikanga that had to go with it. Also, we needed a 100 percent buy-in. And we needed to do it well and not bastardise it in anyway.
When we checked with everyone, they all said: “Yes, let’s do it.” But there were guys on the team, the old guys, who really didn’t want to do it.
But now look what’s happened. We did it at the first Rugby World Cup, in 1987, at Eden Park. It was huge.
And now you’ve got all the provinces with their haka. And the schools, too. It’s just out there now. And when I go to join a reo class, it’s full of schoolteachers trying to learn the language.
It’s from kapa haka that I started getting into my reo. And I still do my reo courses, — as you’ve been doing, Dale — and I keep trying to get better every day if I can. But, man, keeping it in the head is a different story.
Tell me about it, mate. Look, you had great success on the field, and you have that remarkable record of never losing even one of your 14 tests as the New Zealand captain. But then you got dropped in 1990. That must’ve taken a toll. How did you handle that?
Well, I don’t like hanging on to crap. I’m the type of person that, if something happens, I move on. You can’t change the past, but you can change what can happen today and tomorrow.
I was in England when they were picking the team for the 1991 World Cup. And I offered to come home and trial for the All Black team. Grizz Wyllie was the coach then. And I played in the trial, but I wasn’t picked. Which was hard. But I moved on to other things pretty quickly. There are other things in the world more important than rugby.
In New Zealand, that might not be true, but, in my world, being around family and friends and enjoying each other’s company is more important.
Kia ora, Wayne. But then a few years down the track you had another setback with the diagnosis of lymphoma cancer.
When you’re told you have cancer, it gives you a bit of a shock. And you wonder what you’re going to do next. Well, of course, you have to go home, talk to your wife, and your brother, and your kids — and tell them you’ve got cancer. And work out what we’re all going to do.
You can’t afford to let it go on any longer — not if you’re interested in living another 20 or 30 years. So, you need to get the pictures taken and the treatment done properly. And with luck, not that everyone has that, you can come through. As I did.
Sometimes cancer patients come through, sometimes they don’t. And I’m fairly philosophical about that. It’s not that I’m unemotional when somebody passes away. I’ll have a cry. You know you’ll miss them, and they’ll always be in your memory. Until you pass.
You’ve become a prominent men’s health advocate, which is something I admire. And you’re urging us tāne to be more open about our health. What has it meant to you to be able to persuade guys to take their health more seriously?
Too many men don’t take their health seriously. I’ve noticed that big time. If you’re affluent, you can afford to eat good food, have a good life, and go to the doctor if you suspect something’s wrong.
But if you’re not earning great money, you may be doing it hard to buy food for the family and pay the rent. And you can’t afford to go to the doctor. A lot of men in that situation see their job as making sure that the kids are looked after. So the kids go to the doctor, but mum and dad don’t.
What I keep saying is that we’ve gotta look after everybody in the family, including the dads. We have to do the best we can for our wife and our children, with a nice roof over their heads — but we’re of most use if we stay healthy.
When my dad grew up on the banks of a river up north, they had a mud floor. And in ways like that, we can see how times have changed. But we can make it better still by paying attention to our health.
You and a number of your rugby mates have been having some educational, healthy fun with another series of the Match Fit TV programme. It looks as if it’s serving a useful purpose. What do you like most about being part of that show?
As you can see, it’s all about looking after yourself. Just because we’re All Blacks doesn’t mean to say that we’re God, and that we’re going to be fit and healthy forever.
Once our All Black days are over, we get afflicted with different ailments. I got cancer and ballooned out to 145 or 150 kilos. I’m not that heavy now because I’ve almost got myself back in some sort of shape. I’m only about four kilos over the 110 kilos that I weighed when I was playing.
The Match Fit boys all had a backstory, so it’s interesting to learn about those. And the programme formula also includes getting the guys together, having them play one last game of rugby — and getting them fit enough to do that.
They have a doctor’s check-up, go on an exercise regimen for three or four months, and get their weight down for that one game.
In the course of that preparation, they get some of their mamae off their shoulders. They may have been eating or drinking too much. They’ve been inclined to carry on as if they’re active All Blacks and think they can consume the same amount without putting on weight. But they’re not doing the same exercise anymore.
The lesson for them is that they’ve got to change their lifestyle. You can still socialise, but you can’t consume the same amount of alcohol. Or eat big meals three or four times a day. Or eat crap food. And you should keep exercising until the day you die.
The Match Fit boys were tested by doctors and they had psychologists there to listen to as well. And after listening to a few people, the boys just started downloading some of the rubbish that they may have been holding on to for years.
And I think they became a bit more at ease with themselves and with getting on with the world they’re in today, rather than thinking about what happened 30 years ago.
Kia ora, man. Let’s now turn to one of the occasions when the country showed its respect and appreciation for the roles you’ve played over the last 30-odd years. That’s you at Government House being tapped on the shoulder by Dame Cindy Kiro and becoming Sir Buck. There you were in a korowai and kilt acknowledging both sides of your whakapapa.
Well, I was prepared to wear a suit to the investiture, but Joanne and I hit on the idea of me wearing my kilt and getting a korowai from down home in Rotorua. That was from the Schuster family in Te Arawa.
Then, when I did my speech at our luncheon, I opened with a Ngāpuhi tauparapara.
Many of the people who came along were work colleagues and from the organisations that I’ve done work for. So, we had people from all over New Zealand coming along to celebrate that day. Or, in the case of my mates, just taking the piss out of me as usual.
That’s what mates are all about. It’s been a wonderful kōrero. But you’re only in your mid-60s, and you’re the sort of guy to still have goals.
I’m slowing down a bit and some of my time over the next few years will be helping out with the mokos. My grandson started playing tag this year, so that’s going to take up my Saturday mornings. I’ll still go down to the North Shore rugby club and be a part of the club and the bigger game.
But I still have a lot of work to do in the world of health and wellbeing for men because I think more of our men need to get out of their habit of ignoring their own health — and they should become leaders in men’s health.
It’s been great talking with you, Buck. Thanks so much.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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