28 Mar 2024

Bee Gee, the grandfather of Pacific rugby in New Zealand honoured in Hall of Fame

2:50 pm on 28 March 2024
Bryan Williams playing for the All Blacks

Sir Bryan Williams will be among the inaugural inductees to the Pacific Rugby Hall of Fame. Photo: PHOTOSPORT www.photosport.co.nz

Analysis - The impact of Sir Bryan Williams, who has just been inducted into the Pacific Rugby Hall of Fame, extends far beyond his sensational on-field exploits.

Williams was a Pacific icon at a time when young people were unsure of their identity in Aotearoa.

He transcended racial policies and showcased the power of his people.

After hanging up his boots, the man regarded by many as the 'Tamamatua' (grandfather) of Pacific Rugby in New Zealand, Williams has championed the cause of Pacific Rugby in New Zealand.

Before Jonah Lomu, Joe Rokocoko, or Julian Savea - there was Bee Gee.

First Pacific superstar

A 19-year-old Bryan Williams lit up the test arena in one of the most spectacular introductions the game had ever seen.

It was 1970, and fresh out of the Mt Albert Grammar First XV, Williams was called up from the Ponsonby Club for the tour to South Africa.

Williams dazzled the world with his speed and mesmerising side-step, scoring 14 tries in 13 games.

"When I was first selected, as you can imagine, I was certainly very nervous at the time. Just wondering what would transpire but it all went quite well for me."

Bryan Williams was always hard to bring down as the 1977 Lions discovered.

All Black Sir Bryan Williams scores one of his 65 tries for the All Blacks. Photo: Photosport

He believes it was the finest hour in a storied on-field career.

"I played for quite a few years after that and I managed to score quite a few tries for the All Blacks thereafter, but I think that tour was perhaps my best rugby."

Reflecting on his 113 All Black games, Williams said it's often the losses he is asked to commemorate.

"There were lots of great great occasions, but funnily enough, most of the things that get remembered are the losses we had because they were few and far between. So I've been able to celebrate those with people overseas. They sort of invite you to come across and talk about the day that they beat the All Blacks and it's quite interesting that they still want you to tell them about those particular occasions."

Looking at the game today, Williams noted the stark contrast in professionalism.

"We were total amateurs, we played for the love of the game and as a consequence of that, we had to go out and make our own way in life. I ended up doing a law degree and then eventually practising law for 30 odd years."

He said people often ask if he wishes he played in the professional era.

"I'm really pleased that I didn't, I'm glad I had to go and do something different and I still have this great love of the game."

A Polynesian pioneer

The journey to making his test debut was riddled with controversy, having taken place in apartheid era South Africa.

Williams was one of a quartet of Kiwis who required special permission to enter the country.

"There were four of us so called 'coloured' players who had not previously been allowed to tour to South Africa. So it was history making, it was groundbreaking."

He faced criticism back home for his decision to tour.

"Some protesters felt at the time that we shouldn't have gone to South Africa, that we were adding weight to the regime, but I have a slightly different view. When when you look back with the benefit of hindsight, you understand it, but we wanted to play rugby and I wanted to be an All Black. I don't hide from that fact, but I was totally opposed to apartheid."

The decision to tour was largely based on thumbing it to the oppressive, white supremacist rule in the republic.

"I was also a young law student at that time and was well aware of apartheid and what an abhorrent system it was and I felt well let's go and show them what what we can do and how we can play."

Williams was granted entry to the country for later tours under the status of "honorary white".

"That was a label that the South African regime at the time gave to us which I think was a bit of a nonsense but it's somehow justified the system."

He said one of the proudest moments was his contribution to the downfall of apartheid regime.

"I think the protest movement certainly were the main contributors to the breakdown of apartheid but I think these little things helped along the along that journey for apartheid to be overthrown."

A Pacific trailblazer, Williams helped laid the groundwork on which Pacific people are thriving today.

"Just looking at the history of New Zealand, we were initially hoping we would eventually get Pasifika All Blacks, Kiwis and Silver Ferns, and then we were hoping we would get our first parliamentarian which we did, to the extent now we have got lots of Pasifika parliamentarians and it sort of goes right across the board now. Pasifika people are here, we're recognised and making a very solid contribution to New Zealand."

Inspiring a generation

The feats of Williams gave belief to many young Pacific boys that they too could don the famous black jersey.

Among them, fellow Pacific rugby legend Sir Michael Jones.

"He was a hero of mine, he inspired me to pick up a rugby ball so I have that ultimate gratitude towards him."

Michael Jones playing for the All Blacks in 1998.

Sir Michael Jones credits Williams as the reason he picked up a rugby ball. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Jones said there is an undoubted mystique around "Sir Bee Gee."

"He broke the ceiling in so many ways and we all know the journey to the top for him and being an All Black in the early days, particularly in South Africa where they still had the apartheid regime. We can't imagine what that would be like, but he had the courage and the resiliency and the character to thrive in that world that he was living."

He describes Williams' influence as hugely significant.

"He was definitely the poster boy for generation like mine growing up in the 70s, in particular no one will ever forget that grainy black and white footage of him side-stepping through the South African team. To go there capture the imagination of a generation of not just Kiwis but certainly for Pacific Islanders, was huge."

The 55-test All Black said the significance of Williams' success was not lost on him as a youngster.

"It was essentially one of our people we were watching do great exploits on the rugby field in the black jersey. So, in particular for us growing up in New Zealand as Polynesians, he broke the ceiling for us, he was an inspiration and a role model that we we all we sort of gravitated to big time because he was one of not many Polynesian, superstars in any field at that time."

Jones said what Williams endured reaffirms the respect and admiration he garners.

Williams impact on Jones' career didn't end at inspiring him as a child, mentoring him as a young player in the NPC.

"I was so privileged that he was my coach when I was in the Auckland team in the 90s, and I loved it, he was a wonderful coach and then more recently, I've had a chance to work shoulder to shoulder with him to launch pretty important programs in rugby for our people."

Both Jones and Williams have been instrumental in the establishment of a permanent Pacific team in Super Rugby in Moana Pasifika.

"We call him the godfather and I just love working with him and the thing that sets them apart is he can walk into any room or environment in and he's accepted, he's just relatable. He has the mana because of his years of service, not only to the game, but the community."

Current Moana Pasifika head coach Tana Umaga said Williams embodies "the epitome of service".

"He's always giving back, he always has. New Zealand Rugby Union, Samoa Rugby Union, and then his beloved Ponsonby, and what he does here at Moana Pasifika, what he does for rugby is huge."

Umaga said Williams was and still is at the forefront of the global Pacific rugby movement.

"This is something that he's proud to be a part of. He's been right there at the start of it and he's one of those that we hold on a pedestal to make sure that we're trying to live up to his dream of what he has for us."

Jones said the passion Williams had for the game was unmatched.

"He's the gift that keeps on giving , it's amazing, that he finds time for grassroots clubs and really good causes, whether it's the rugby foundation, but also big projects that still require his type of inspirational leadership. We are so grateful that he's one of us and he's from our community and he represent us."

Williams said this was humbling to hear.

"When I look back on my career, I was inspired by so many players who've gone before as well, and that's one of the beauties of our game, the young boys and girls are inspired by the people they see playing at the top level and go on to bigger and better things themselves."

11 October 2003, Rugby World Cup, First pool D match, All Blacks vs Italy, Telstra Dome, Melbourne, Australia.
Tana Umaga.
NZ won 70-7.
Pic: Geoff Dale/Photosport

11 October 2003, Rugby World Cup, First pool D match, All Blacks vs Italy, Telstra Dome, Melbourne, Australia. Tana Umaga. NZ won 70-7. Pic: Geoff Dale/Photosport Photo: Photosport

Hall of Fame

To acknowledge and celebrate the incredible contributions of Pacific players to rugby, seven former stars will be inducted into the first ever Pasifika Rugby Hall of Fame in Auckland on 28 March.

They are the late Jonah Lomu and the late Pita Fatialofa along with Waisale Serevi, Wallabies international George Smith, Muliagatele Brian Lima, Seiuli Fiao'o Fa'amausili and Tuifa'asisina Sir Bryan Williams.

While honoured for his induction, Williams said the Hall of Fame is long overdue.

"It's a great initiative to recognise our Pasifika players. So many have made a contribution, particularly over the last 40 or 50 years. It's probably timely that the Pacific Hall of Fame is established."

He admits while great strides have been made regarding Pacific rugby development and support, there is still plenty of work to do.

"No doubt about that. Pacific Island nations have probably struggled over recent years to keep their players in this part of the world but now to have a couple of Super Rugby teams is a really good development."

Jones said the Hall of Fame honoured all that was unique about the contribution of Pasifika rugby icons.

"I think it is a reflection of how far we've come in the sense that rugby has given us so much and we're grateful. We love the game, but we have also been able to enrich the game and contribute so much. So it's a reciprocal thing. But it's all the more reason why we're at a juncture where it is long overdue that we do celebrate, acknowledge those who paved the way for us."

Williams said Pacific players would continue to thrive in the game they loved.

"I think it's well recognised around the rugby world, Pasifika players are generally excitement machines, they love running with the ball and when you please the crowd, they want to watch you play."

All Blacks, New Zealand representative rugby union team, vs South Africa, 1970. Bryan Williams top row, second from the left.

Sir Bryan Williams made his debut as part of the 1970 All Blacks. Photo: Crown Studios of Wellington, 1970

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