Thirty years ago Jeff Wilson was unveiled to the sporting world via a remarkable schoolboy rugby display. Logan Savory looks back at how it unfolded in 1992.
There’s a reason why the late Jim Valli was regarded as one of the best newsmen in the business.
Valli’s respect in the newspaper industry stretched the length of the country. His knowledge of people and events in the south has been described as encyclopedic.
He amassed a 40-year career in various news roles at The Southland Times.
A matter of months before Valli’s retirement from full-time employment at the paper, the lower grade Southland rugby results crossed his desk one evening. It’s a moment in time that highlighted his nose for a potential story, and in turn, shone a light on a future sporting great.
It was the Monday of Queens Birthday Weekend in 1992. Among those lower grade results was Cargill High School’s 102-6 win over James Hargest in an under-19 schoolboy contest.
It piqued The Southland Times’ news editor’s interest.
* Zip it … Southland rugby nearing referee crisis point
* ‘Dream come true’: Josh Moorby relishing his Hurricanes chance as Jordie Barrett returns to 12
* Who will be the Highlanders’ head coach in 2023?
It was late in the evening and a young reporter, Angus Morrison, asked Valli if there was anything he wanted him to pick up.
Valli couldn’t let that 102-6 scoreline slide. He sensed there was something more to it.
He told Morrison to make some calls. “Some kid might have scored a lot of points,” Valli told Morrison.
He was right, some kid did.
That some kid was a future New Zealand sporting great. Valli’s intrigue helped unveil a talented teenager by the name of Jeff Wilson for all to see.
Morrison called then Cargill co-coach Keith McKenzie who told him Wilson, the Cargill fullback, had scored 66 points.
Wilson ran in nine of his team’s 18 tries and kicked 15 conversions against James Hargest in the humble setting of Oreti Park near Invercargill’s Oreti Beach.
Morrison went to Wilson for some comment: “Sixty-six! I knew I had a few, but … Are you serious?
“I thought I scored seven tries, although I knew I put a few kicks over,” Wilson responded.
At the time Wilson described it as a sporting highlight, but he also seemed wary about taking anything away from his teammates as the media spotlight started to centre brightly on him.
He suggested he’d never played in a better Cargill team and unfortunately, James Hargest bore the brunt of it that day.
“The game wasn’t a fair indication of James Hargest’s strengths, though. We were in top form,” Wilson said 30 years ago.
Interestingly his 66-point haul would have been 75 points if the game was played just a matter of a few days later.
Wilson’s nine-try tally came days before the four-point try was changed to a five-point try.
After Valli’s intrigue and Morrison’s follow-up phone calls Jeff Wilson featured on the front page of the June 2, 1992 Southland Times.
The headline read: “Jeff Wilson 66, James Hargest 6.”
Morrison’s story was sent out via the Press Association network and featured on other front pages throughout New Zealand. It prompted a television crew to turn up at the Cargill High School the next morning wanting to know more about the then-teenage Wilson.
That moment in which Valli spotted the large scoreline amongst Southland’s lower-grade rugby scores prompted a frenzy of interest.
Wilson quickly emerged as a New Zealand sporting star.
As Wilson reflects 30 years on, he agrees it was that moment on that sunny 1992 day at Oreti Park in Invercargill that probably launched his career.
“And it truly was a case of the rest is history,” Wilson says.
“Over the years, I think I must have met every Hargest player who played in that game.
“If it’s in a pub I’m normally usually happy to buy them a beer given what happened,” Wilson says.
Prior to the 66-point haul, Wilson had already played senior club cricket as a 14-year-old and as a 15-year-old played for Southland’s top-flight cricket team at Hawke Cup level.
Although he says it wasn’t until that moment in 1992 that he had national media showing interest in him.
At the time he was simply stoked his school Cargill was getting some attention given it was traditionally Southland Boys’ High School that dominated the school sporting scene in Invercargill.
Now-Vodafone New Zealand chief executive Jason Paris was one of Wilson’s Cargill teammates that day headlines were created in 1992.
Paris slotted in at second five-eighth. He says his job was to simply get the ball to Wilson as quickly as possible.
Paris recalls the 102-6 scoreline coming as a large shock given the two Invercargill schools had historically been involved in tight tussles.
Just the year before the two schools had squared off in the Southland under-19 final.
However, just what Wilson produced that day was not so much of a surprise to his teammates.
“We knew what a phenomenal player he was already, but that put him on the international stage really. Little Invercargill doesn’t get on the 1News too much, especially for a school sports game,” Paris says.
“It was pretty incredible having the TV cameras show up the next day, and he was on national news. But it could have been for one of four or five sports, it just happened to be for rugby.”
Wilson was on the national youth sports radar at the time for athletics, rugby, cricket, and basketball. He was the kid that excelled at any sport he tried his hand at.
“I’ve seen him score from a flying header and a bicycle kick in soccer,” Paris says.
Paris adds it should be noted that Wilson did not score nine tries in that single game in 1992 because he was in search of a large tally.
“He’s massively competitive, but a real team player. The fact that he scored 66 points is because he’s a phenomenal athlete, not because he was being greedy.”
Richard Cournane was part of the Cargill forward pack the day he says Wilson “shot to fame”.
During the past 30 years, over a beer or three, Cournane has been quick to point out to others that it was that dominant forward display by Cargill which was the making of Wilson.
Although Cournane concedes the reality is Wilson did much of the work on his own.
“There were a lot of long-range tries. They kicked the ball to him a bit, and he basically returned the kicks, and they couldn’t catch him,” the now Rangiora-based builder says.
Cournane had a first-hand look at the rise of a sublime young sporting athlete given he also attended primary school with Wilson in Invercargill.
There were kids that excelled at any sports they tried, and then there was Wilson, Cournane says.
He was in a class of his own.
“He was kicking conversions in Year 5 and 6 when no-one else was kicking conversions. I remember playing interschools with him at Newfield [School] and we’d just give Jeff the ball, and he’d do the rest.”
Weeks after the media spotlight that followed the 66-point deed, Wilson was selected to play fullback for the Invercargill Metro senior representative team.
Tom Downey was coach of the Invercargill Metro team and after a discussion with Jeff’s father Bill it was decided the schoolkid was up to it.
“The bottom line is it was handed to me very fast,” Wilson says.
The selection came despite Wilson never playing in a game of senior club rugby before.
They played Otago Country – featuring the likes of Otago hooker David Latta – in a midweek game at Rugby Park in Invercargill.
Most of the players took half a day off work for the game. Wilson took half a day off school.
Marty Hurring lined up at first five-eighth for Otago Country.
Hurring recalls them scoffing a little at the boldness of the Invercargill Metro team selecting a schoolboy at fullback.
“If I have to tell you the true story it’s not that good,” Hurring jokes 30 years on.
“Our game plan was to pretty much bomb this schoolboy with the high ball and take him out of the game. But probably after the third bomb we worked out it wasn’t such a good idea.”
“I think he come in [from fullback] on the outside of our centre and left him standing still about three times.”
Wilson scored three tries, set up another couple, and kicked a conversion as Invercargill Metro banked a 33-19 win over Otago Country.
By the end of it, the Southland selectors were convinced the teenager was ready for first-class rugby that year.
David Henderson was the Southland captain at that time and says it was a unique situation having a schoolboy join the Southland team, given he had yet to play senior club rugby.
Although Henderson and his teammates were aware Wilson was a unique case.
“We were playing touch rugby one day, and I ended up marking him. I probably gave him a metre and a half on the outside. I was young and fit in those days and pretty good on my feet, but he run around me and I didn’t touch him. He left me in his dust,” Henderson recalls.
“I knew straight away he had something special. He was a sprightly young lad that was keen to learn, and we knew he wouldn’t be with us for long because he was going to go up the line pretty quickly.”
Just 17 months after Wilson’s 66-point schoolboy masterclass he was playing test rugby capping a rapid rise to the top. He scored three tries on debut for the All Blacks against Scotland in Edinburgh on November 20, 1993.
Eight months before that 1993 All Blacks debut, Wilson had already played cricket for New Zealand in a one-day series against Australia.
At 19-years-old he scored an unbeaten 44 from 28 balls to lift New Zealand to a one-day victory over an Australian cricket team that included a long list of cricketing royalty. It included Mark Taylor, brothers Mark and Steve Waugh, David Boon, Dean Jones, Ian Healy and Merv Hughes.
Wilson had become a “Double All Black” before he had even celebrated his 21st birthday.
“Honestly, it’s a bit bizarre,” Wilson says, reflecting on the crazy 17-month period that followed that schoolboy demolition at Oreti Park.
“I myself even struggle to look back at the whirlwind that it was.”
It’s a feat that seems almost certain to never be repeated.
Although Wilson himself is not so certain.
“I think it’s possible with T20, I really do. You watch the Black Clash this year and you watch [rugby players] Will Jordan and Keiran Read hit a cricket ball, Jordie Barrett bowl a cricket ball.
“The natural ability is there and T20 is the place to showcase that because the technical expectations aren’t the same. If you’ve got a good eye and can hit the ball you could play for New Zealand in T20.
“I think we are so slow to jump on the opportunity to get these [rugby players] playing in a T20 competition.”
Wilson went on to play 60 tests for the All Blacks and after retiring from rugby he returned to play cricket and again represented New Zealand in limited-overs cricket in 2005.
He is now an established broadcaster with Sky Sport.