The unkindest cut
On Saturday at around lunchtime, six hours before the Springboks showed just how tough and ruthless they can be, I had my hair cut by the grandson of an All Black the media called “tough” and who the grandson called “ruthless”. It’s a strange thing to have sat down in a barber’s chair, been gowned up and, as the clippers began buzzing, to have your barber tell you his grandfather had been denied an All Black cap because of South Africa. Well, it is and it isn’t. This is New Zealand. Everything eventually reverts back to rugby.
Walking down Customhouse Quay street after gym on Saturday, I walked past “Custom Cutz” before doubling back to see if they could smarten me up for, er, the other lads in the press box, I suppose. Brendan Blake, the barber, swept me on to a chair and five questions later had it out of me that I wanted a number two on the sides and back, some dignity on the top and was a rugby writer from South Africa.
“My grandfather was stopped from being an All Black because of apartheid.” It’s probably the best line in chat I have had from a barber. My reply was less eloquent. “Shit. Really? Jesus.”
Brendan is the grandson of Alan “Kiwi” Blake, who died in October last year, just three days short of his 88th birthday. In 1948, just after World War II, Kiwi Blake had been told he would be picked for the All Blacks to tour South Africa. But Kiwi Blake was dark-skinned, having a grandfather who was, by his own words, “a quarter negro”. It was assumed he had Maori blood, but it was actually African-American. The New Zealand Herald wrote in 2003 that, “ironically, it was racism that saw the Wairarapa flanker become a ‘Maori’ despite having no Maori blood. An outstanding forward in the New Zealanders' World War II Army team, Blake said he was told by rugby bosses after the trials in 1948 that he, with Johnny Smith and Vince Bevan, would have made the following year’s All Black tour of South Africa had it not been for the colour of their skin. His granddad got his All Black cap against the Wallabies in 1949, but he wanted to play the South Africans.
“Former All Black captain Fred Allen said Blake was an excellent player who should have made the tour had New Zealand not acquiesced to South Africa's demands for whites only. Allen said it was only later people learned Blake was not Maori.”
As he buzzed the hair on the side of my head down to a “one-and-a-half” Brendan Blake asked me if I’d like to see a clipping from the Dominion Post on his grandfather. A friend had given it to him and he kept it folded in a book on his counter. I read it as he cut. Kiwi was picked for the New Zealand Maori team in 1949, and because of his reputation as an outstanding player, never had to play a trial.
“He was, however, 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. 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.’ ”
The papers described him as “tough”. Brendan said he was “ruthless”. “When he was looking after us we knew not to mess around. He didn’t take that too well. And we were pretty well behaved, I can tell you. Grandad had been in the war. I think he was captured, but he didn’t talk about that too much. He played for the Kiwis rugby team that went to Europe, which is how he got the nickname.”
Blake, wrote the Post, “was raised on a farm in the foothills of the Tararuas, where he developed a lifetime love of pig hunting and deer-stalking. 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. He was a mentor to All Blacks great Sir Brian Lochore in the early stages of the latter's playing career in Wairarapa. In 1959 Kiwi Blake captained the Wairarapa-Bush team against the touring British Lions. He and his wife, Betty, raised their family of six on a rural property in the foothills of the Tararuas.
On the field Kiwi Blake was tough, off it he was a gentleman.”
Brendan’s dad played top-class rugby and his brother had played for the junior All Blacks before he was injured. He’s a youngish man, but is old in rugby and tales. In 20 minutes I had a $25 haircut and a story that warmed my heart. We shook hands and I told I would be back on October 2. “See you then, brother.” If you are ever in Wellington, be sure and go to Custom Cutz. Tell Brendan I sent you and ask him about Kiwi Blake. He was a hell of a man.