Long read: Wrapping up a life of rugby yarns

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No one’s spun more rugby yarns in this country than Bob Howitt. The tables turned on him, the Aucklander-turned-Arrowtowner discusses his own career, including being held up at gunpoint, with Philip Chandler 

Arrowtown is the retirement home for New Zealand’s most prolific rugby writer.

Wellington-raised Bob Howitt lived in Auckland for all but the first two years of his distinguished 55-year sports-writing career.

But after marrying his second wife Jenny, in 1988, he forged a link with Arrowtown.

Her father, Southland rugby administrator Ray Harper, had a crib there which the couple used to stay at during summer holidays.

When Howitt retired at the end of 2015, he and Jenny sold their Auckland home, then moved into the Arrowtown crib – “Jenny really wanted to be closer to her family”.

Apart from dabbling in freelance writing, Howitt says his new job title is ‘interior decorator’ – “I can tell anyone who wants to paint, the three keys to painting”.

However he’s also kept his hand in sport by becoming a keen member of the Arrowtown Bowling Club.

That’s not surprising, since sport’s dominated his life since school days in Petone, Wellington.

Howitt says one of his few claims to rugby-playing fame came in his last year at school when he captained a future All Black captain, Andy Leslie.

After starting as a journalist in The Evening Post reading room, the year after leaving school, he started covering Saturday sport, and says that “buggered my sporting ambitions”.

“I can remember thinking, while it would be nice to try and become an All Black, I’ve a feeling I’m going to go further as a journalist.”

How right he was.

Two years later he became the former Auckland Star’s rugby correspondent, then in 1970 launched a 26-year career as founding editor of popular weekly Rugby News

He only took that role after receiving a “sledgehammer blow” that year from the Auckland Star’sboss.

“I thought I was a monty to cover the All Black tour of [apartheid-era] South Africa but the boss said, ‘we’re not sending you to South Africa – we don’t see this so much as a rugby tour as a political tour so we’re sending the sports editor’.”

The devastated Howitt got back to the publisher of the soon-to-launch Rugby News to say he’d now be available.

“Can you believe, we got it up and running and it made such dramatic progress that I actually got to South Africa for the last two Test matches – and sat next to the so-called rugby writer.”

If Rugby News became his main job, his book-writing forged his reputation.

In all, he penned or co-penned 21 rugby books, including biographies of All Black coaches Sir Graham Henry and Laurie Mains, greats Bryan Williams, Sid Going, Ian Jones and Frank Bunce and Walter Little, and referee Paddy O’Brien.

When you add 22 consecutive rugby annuals, he’s easily NZ’s most prolific rugby author.

Howitt says his favourite was his first book NZ Rugby Greats, in 1975 – two volumes followed later.

“I actually went from black hair to grey hair in the time that book was published.”

In presenting the life stories of 25 All Blacks, he journeyed around NZ “and I probably stayed with over half of them” – including legends Sir Colin Meads, Sir Brian Lochore and Kel Tremain.

His hairiest moment came when he was held up at gunpoint in Johannesburg in 1995 while covering the Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

“I probably only survived because I had in my back pocket the 1000 rand I’d been paid that very day for magazine work.

“The police officer who interviewed me the next day said normally in that area they shot you and didn’t ask questions.”

Howitt left Rugby News when it changed owners, but before long he became founding editor for three years of a monthly rugby magazine now known as NZ Rugby World

Over his final eight years as a sports journalist, however, he worked as a golf writer for The Cut magazine.

His final book, in 2012, was his second biography of Henry, relating his success coaching the 2011 Rugby World Cup-winning All Blacks, which he also parlayed into another book, Black: Where it Belongs

Between times, Howitt also became a successful bowls player, and can claim a share of three NZ titles, four centre titles and about 16 club titles.

He also enjoys golf but regrets never taking a lesson.

“I can drive as far as anyone but I can’t guarantee to drive straight.

“I tend to take the scenic route down a golf course.”

Now 75, he’s more than happy he’s shifted to Arrowtown.

“I’ve been back to Auckland about four times and I have to say I don’t miss the humidity, the traffic, the madness of the place and I certainly don’t miss the mosquitoes.

“The fresh air down here is fantastic, and it’s inspirational looking out at those mountains.”

Perhaps he’ll be inspired enough to pen another book.

scoop@scene.co.nz