On Saturday 18th April members of the Colt’s playing group and their parents were fortunate to hear from David Kirk MBE, Friends of SUFC Chairman and their annual dinner at St Andrew’s College.
The speech was so well received by all that we would like to share his speech with the SUFC community.
David is a Rhodes Scholar with degrees in Medicine from Otago University and Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford University. In the sporting arena, David enjoyed a highly successful rugby career playing for Otago and Auckland and captained the All Blacks to win the World Cup in 1987.
Thank you for the invitation to speak this evening. My brief is I think rather simple. I am to spend about 15 minutes providing you with some useful information pertinent to your current position as successful young men at the beginning of your careers.
Your careers are already twofold. One is as rugby players and the other as students with a wide variety of careers ahead of you.
I am not really qualified to give you advice about now to develop your rugby careers but I hope I have a few interesting things to say more generally.
So I’m not going to tell what I think you should do or what you should learn from my experiences but I will gladly tell you what some of those experiences were and you can determine for yourselves if there is anything of value in my experience for you.
But before that I want to just make a rather abstract point. You may find it difficult to see the relevance of it today, but then you are young and as you get a bit older I hope you will find the abstraction becomes a bit more concrete for you.
The abstract formula I want to just seed with you is this.
In a successful career – be it rugby or medicine or business or law or carpentry – what you are looking for is to develop excellent judgement. And excellent judgement comes from understanding.
Understanding the simple truths, understanding the complex trade-offs, understanding your own talents, loves and prejudices, understanding life is not fair, understanding that not that much really matters and so on. Understanding.
And where does understanding come from? Understanding comes from the combination of knowledge and experience.
So you, young, ignorant and inexperienced that you are, need to accumulate broad (and where appropriate) deep knowledge and to experience as widely as you can.
There is no such thing as useless knowledge and no such thing as irrelevant experience. It all matters, it all adds up. Good and bad. Success and failure. It all contributes to the understanding that allows you to exercise good judgement.
Finally, accumulating knowledge and having meaningful experiences is mostly about being there. Being present in the moment. Being intensely present in the moment.
And you have a big advantage as sportspeople, because you know what it is like to be intensely present in the moment. It’s what happens to you when you get that pass five metres from the try line or you are throwing the ball into a lineout on your 5 metre line or you step up for a kick at goal or you absolutely have to make a tackle.
For what it is worth I have tried to live all of my life as intensely in the moment as possible. Fully engaged or not engaged at all.
When I worked for McKinsey & Co in London I used to travel from my flat in London to work by tube. The closest tube to St. James Street, where the office was, was Green Park. Green Park is pretty deep and when you come off the platform there is a long escalator up to the street. Most people stand on the right and the escalator moves them up. A few people walk up on the left as the escalator moves.
I decided on my first day of work in London that the day I no longer felt like walking up on the left hand side of the escalator was the day I should leave my work and do something else for a living. I never got to that point.
When I left to work in the Prime Minister’s office in New Zealand 3 years later I was still cheerfully walking up the left-hand side of the Green Park escalator.
When I think back on my rugby playing career, of course I remember the big moments – my first Test, my first Test as captain of the All Blacks, losing to Australia on Eden Park – 1986 – the last time the All Blacks lost to the Wallabies there – I was the captain – the World Cup final and so on, but I remember lots of funny little things that happened at all levels.
Maybe it was the amateur era but lots of things seemed to go hilariously wrong or were genuinely weird in those days.
Like my first number 8 at Club level at Otago University, Tupu Williams. He was a big Maori guy and he used to punch himself in the nose before we went on the field. Blood would be pouring out of his nose in the changing room, smeared across his face and jersey and the back of his hand.
It took me a while to get the courage up but I eventually asked him,
“Tupu, why do you punch yourself in the nose and get a bleeding nose before you go on?”
“My nose always bleeds when it gets a knock”, he said, “Might as well get it over with.”
Early in my career I was at university in Dunedin and playing for Otago. We were playing Manawatu and they had a giant forward pack: Gary Knight, Geoff Old, the Clare brothers Mark Donaldson and most ferocious of all Mark Shaw. The names won’t mean anything to you but take it from me they were genuinely scary. I was warming up with the Otago team under the stand on the sawdust at Carrisbrook.
The rafters of the grandstand were above us. You can look down from one warm-up area to another under Carrisbrook. And I did, to watch the murderous giants from Manawatu warming up on the other side.
And then I noticed Mark Shaw. He was warming up doing tuck-jumps, leaping in the air and drawing his knees up. Every jump he made he moved backwards about a yard and I could see he was getting closer and close to a rafter that angled down with the grandstand above it. I was spellbound. ‘Please, please,’ I said to myself, ‘Don’t stop … another one, another one … that’s it, that’s it’.
Sure enough SMACK! He hit his head on the rafter and was knocked out and couldn’t play.
Talking of getting hit in the head. In the Eden Park dressing room in those days there was just one toilet in the corner and it had a little door on it that swung inwards.
I was a new player playing one of my first games for Auckland. Andy Haden was the usual captain but he must have injured or away because this day it was a grizzled old number 7 by the name of Kevin Ramsey. A real up the guts and over the top type of guy.
He was ranting and yelling and storming around the changing room, smashing his fist on the table and on the walls and as he walked past the dunny door he smacked that too. In the door swung with a huge force and hit poor tubby Noel Anderton, a prop playing his first game for Auckland, who was sitting on the toilet with his head down trying to deal with his nerves. SMACK! the door hit him right on the top of the head and split it and that was the end of his debut.
Perhaps it only seems so in retrospect but while we took everything deadly seriously – we had to win – we did seem to be able to lighten up on the field whenever the opportunity came along in those days.
John Drake was the tighthead prop in our World Cup winning team of 1987. He played for the Auckland University team – we had 4 players in the 15 that played in the World Cup final – me, Drakey, Foxy and Fitzy – look them up if you are too young to know who they were.
Drakey loved to practice his drop goals at club practice. He would get there early and endlessly see if he could bang over a drop goal from half-way. I never saw him get one.
You can imagine my surprise then when Drakey walked into my room during the 1987 RWC campaign, sat down on the bed opposite and said,
“Kirky I’ve been thinking about it and I think this game – it was the semi-final against Wales in Brisbane – is going to be a good one for me to kick a drop goal.“
After I stopped laughing, I booted him out and told him to focus on his scrummaging and lineouts and forget about the drop goals. We started the game the next day well. Smashing Wales backwards in the first scrum. At the next break Drakey came up to me and said,
“Kirky, this it. We’re gunna beat these guys easy. I’ll give you the call. Drop goal.“
I ignored him.
Well the game went on and then a celebrated incident occurred. We were winning easily and as Wales kicked off and Gary Whetton took the ball down, from the kick-off he elbowed Huw Morgan, a Welsh second rower. Huw flared up and threw a couple of punches at Whetton. Buck Shelford decided to get involved and landed a right hook on Huw’s jaw, which knocked him cold.
We all froze. This was the semi-final, Buck was a hugely important part of the team and if he were sent off he would miss the Final.
Huw Morgan had to be revived with smelling salts and when he was, he was sent off by the excellent Australian referee, Kerry Fitzgerald, for starting the fight. Buck was told he was a naughty boy and not to do it again.
During the period in which poor Huw was being revived Drakey came up to me and started on about the drop goal again. I waved him away. I hoped for the last time.
The match went on.
Then finally, last a few minutes from full time. We are hot on attack in the middle of the field, 22 metres out, and as the ball is coming back from the ruck I hear Drakey,
“Kirky! Kirky! This is it, right behind you, right behind you”.
I had Foxy screaming for the ball on the left, JK doing the same thing on the right and hear it comes, into my hands.
“Bugger it,” I thought, “I give it to him.”
So I turned to face behind me and there was Drakey … way back on the halfway line, 20 metres away. ‘Bloody deluded prop’, I thought, ‘not only does he think he can kick a drop goal. He thinks he can do it from halfway.’
Anyway I went through with it. I fired him the ball and I remember thinking as the ball flew through the air, ‘This will be very cool if he gets it over.’
I think maybe he was thinking the same thing. Just as the ball arrived he looked up at the posts and thud! It hit him in the chest and he dropped it.
When I finished my rugby-playing career, at 26 years old, I just got on with the rest of my life. I went back to university and studied, got a good degree and a job. The rest is history.
I got a huge leg up from my rugby-playing career. I knew people, people knew me. My leadership credentials were taken for granted. But my success in my career after rugby has been based on being good at what I have done at the time: management consulting, public policy advising, corporate management, technology investing.
I have never traded on past success, always been prepared to start again, to put my head down and do the work necessary to succeed. I have always wanted to be judged against my peers of the day, never seen as a ‘former All Black’ and to have been judged to have done well … for a former All Black.
This is a great club. There is something special about playing for a University club. I never played for any other. The only Clubs I played for were Otago University, Auckland University and Oxford University.
Here you have the chance to enjoy, learn, build knowledge, gain experience and develop understanding.
To end I will repeat what I said earlier. Live your life in the present, fully committed to and engaged with whatever you are doing.
And if you can do that you won’t go far wrong.