NZ rugby legend Byron Kelleher talked to Tony Stanton about life post All Blacks … and what it meant to pull on the famous jersey. Photos: Jason Reposar.
Byron, what was it like pulling on the All Blacks jersey for the very first time?
It’s a privilege to represent your country in any sport, of course. A real honour. But in New Zealand, rugby and the All Blacks are a national religion. It’s what every boy and girl aspires to. So my first experience was a special one, made more so by the fact I was standing next to Jonah Lomu, the biggest legend in the game. I was so proud I never wanted to take it off.
What was the road to that moment like for you? How did you grow up?
It was about working hard to get results and to get ahead in life. I had to make so many sacrifices to stay on top and wear the jersey week in, week out. It was all about doing extra work to be better than my opponents. Growing up was tough but I had loving family that supported me through the journey.
When did you first learn to do the Haka, and how important is Maori culture to rugby in New Zealand?
In New Zealand as soon as you can stand up as a child you’re taught to do the Haka. It is sacred and religious and historical – it’s who we are.
You used to room with Jonah, what was that like?
He was a mentor to me but the early years I had to prove myself in the team, so I had to carry and do little jobs for him whenever he asked. You couldn’t say no to Jonah Lomu. A very nice and humble person. Of course I have many more stories but I don’t think we should discuss those here! RIP my friend Jonah.
What was a typical day like during the season?
Early mornings with two to three trainings a day except match day and the day before. Regular media interviews during the week, signing sessions with the public, dinners with the major sponsors and living in hotels… and then travel by plane or bus to more training. There were the occasional beers in the changing rooms with the team after winning … a guitar and good sing-along.
What was the hardest thing about being an All Black?
Public expectation. And winning of course.
You travelled the world and were celebrated for the game … who was the most interesting person you met?
We met a lot of very famous people … royalty, actors, musicians and other athletes. But the one that sticks in my mind was talking to Nelson Mandela.
What would you consider the pinnacle of your rugby career while wearing the All Black shirt?
I played in three rugby world cups but I really enjoyed playing against the British Lions during their tour to New Zealand and winning all three test matches – a very proud moment.
Why is New Zealand so passionate about rugby?
It’s our national sport and we have been the number one team in the world for 125 years. As soon as you are born in New Zealand, boy or girl, you’re given a rugby ball or an All Black jersey. We love the game.
You moved to France after leaving the New Zealand squad, how did you adapt to life there?
I had to learn another culture and another language so it was difficult at the beginning but I won two national French championships and was named player of the year. We also went on to win a European championship as well so it could not have been better. Toulouse was passionate and mad about rugby too.
What have you been doing since retiring from the sport in 2012?
I do Ambassador work for Airbus and Capgemini, some French commentating for rugby on the radio and I owned a sports bar. I lived in Monaco for about four years then decided to travel back to good old New Zealand. I love Asia too.
How did Bali become part of your life?
It’s a beautiful part of the world and not too far away to escape to from New Zealand during winters. I also do promotional work in Asia, so having the rugby world cup on next year in Japan I need an Asian base. Bali just ticks all the boxes.
Byron, thanks for your time!