Interview with Nick Farr-Jones, by Adrian Barnard

AB: Well Nick, you’ve played 63 matches for Australia and your debut was against England back in 1984. When you heard that you’d been selected to play in that match what went through your mind?

NFJ: Well, I was delighted, I’d been on the bench for four matches, four tests previously the first was against Fiji in Fiji and then three tests against the All Blacks. We lost the third Test there, we won the first, lost the second and lost the third 25-24 so being on the bench was quite a trembling feeling. I think its much better to be able to run on the field. I can remember sitting on the bench feeling very nervous thinking ‘stay on there Phil Cox don’t get injured’. But, look, I started to play well at the start of the tour. I think we’d played five or six matches before the first test at Twickenham and I figured I had a 50% chance of making test selection but until you hear your name read out you’re never quite sure. I was delighted. Twickenham is obviously one of my favourite grounds, it’s a magnificent place with a great atmosphere. I debuted there and we won a World Cup final there so it’s a special ground for me, and to run out there with all wonderful ceremony and atmosphere of Twickenham, it was certainly a special day.

AB: And representing your country as well?

NFJ: Yeah – to pull on the gold jersey was something special. I mean everyone has their own feeling. I mean, I didn’t play first 15 at school, I didn’t play any schoolboy rugby, representative rugby, and to suddenly get on the rocket north because I was playing second division rugby the year before for Sydney University, and to be pulling on a gold jersey the following year was really out of the world and a special feeling of great privilege to be able to represent your country.

AB: And what memories of that first game?

NFJ: Ah, that it went very, very quickly. The first half seriously seemed like it was about five minutes, the second half maybe about ten minutes. We ended up winning 19-3 and I think we scored three tries but it was a tough game. I mean it was dog eat dog sort of stuff, nothing given, nothing taken. With about five minutes to go my good mate now Gareth Chilcott, was a little bit frustrated and he clocked me, gave me a good smack and I was about to jump straight up but up against poor old Gareth I felt like a bit of a feather. But my big vice captain Steve Williams put one hand on me and said we’re winning the referee over – stay down and pretend you’re injured so that’s one not-so-memorable memory but Gareth’s a lovely guy and a very good friend.

AB: A very successful tour that, you beat England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales on that tour.

NFJ: Arguably I think one of Australia’s greatest teams ever. You can look at the ‘91 Wallabies that triumphed in the World Cup, the ’99 Wallabies - I would say the ‘84 team, given that it was the amateur period, was right up there with the very best Wallaby team ever to have represented Australia. And certainly it was the 8th Wallabies that toured the UK and played England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales and as history tells us, it was the only Wallaby team that won the four tests. It was a fantastic team. Of course, Mark Ella scored a try in every test. Sadly, Mark retired at the end of that tour but at least I had the privilege of throwing passes to him on four occasions. Sadly though, the fun went out for Mark and he just dropped out of the game at the age of 26. But, you know, there was a smashing pack of forwards in front of me. I got the ball on a silver platter and as I said, it started with Mark Ella, it went through Michael Lynagh, our captain Andrew Slack who was a wonderful captain, Roger Gould at the back, David Campese on one wing setting everything on fire, and Brendan Moon and Matt Burke on the wings - hard to beat that sort of backline.

AB: And your first try, against Scotland?

NFJ: Yeah, just something we’d worked. It all happened very quickly. We had a two-man line out. I called for the ball, took it off the hooker round the front and in those days, the early 80’s, those sort of things weren’t common and it was easy to see if the team was snoozing to pinch some quick yards or, as it turned out, some points. It was a good feeling because I think that was the try, whilst we won comfortably in Scotland, that was the try that really put us out of reach and secured the Grand Slam.

AB: As you said, some great personalities in that Australian team. Playing with David Campese what was that like?

NFJ: Very special. As David Campese famously quoted once: ‘My mind doesn’t know where my legs are taking me’ and he’s about right. He was just one of those instinctive players that just have pure genius. Without him, I’ve gone on record a number of times saying we might not have won the ’91 World Cup. It’s a huge statement to make about a winger, to have that sort of an impact on a game but David was a true genius. Of course, people blamed him for losing the series in ’89 against the Lions when he threw that silly pass with maybe five minutes to go in the Third Test in Sydney - but you know a lot of people called for his sacking and a lot of media called for his sacking and I was forced in the end as captain to write an open letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, one of our better known Australian newspapers, to say, basically, look Campo, you know you made a mistake, you’ll learn from it – but, you know, if I was selecting the team you’d always be the first selected, you’ll play without licence and get out and do your stuff because its fair to say that David of course walked a tightrope. He wasn’t going to die wondering if he could beat the tackle and if you do that from time to time you’ll slip over and slip off. But a very brave player, very courageous player because he was prepared to chance his arm and as I said, history has shown that he was just absolutely the man of the match in ’91.

AB: It’s one thing to beat the some of the Northern Hemisphere’s sides, but to come back after that Grand Slam and go New Zealand and win the Bledisloe Cup – that must have been fantastic for you?

NFJ: Yeah, that was great. As I said, I sat on the bench in that ’84 series, when we lost the 3rd Test by one point . I’d debuted against New Zealand the following year in the one off Test in Auckland when we lost 10-9 then on that ’86 tour you referred to, the first Test we won 13-12 in Wellington, the 2nd Test we lost 13-12, in Dunedin. So quite remarkably in matches between the All Blacks and the Wallabies one point separated us in four consecutive Tests. Sadly we were only on the right side of the ledger in one. But then to go up to Auckland in the third and deciding Test and emphatically beat the All Blacks was a sensational feeling but on looking back we may have got carried away with our own worth and how good we were because I don’t know what New Zealand did in the off season between ’86 and ’87 but come the inaugural World Cup in ’87 New Zealand were first and daylight were second.

AB: Well, after that victory in the Bledisloe Cup, Australian rugby went through the doldrums a little bit. You were appointed as captain four years after making your debut. You inherited a side that wasn’t doing too well and in the next 13 games I think it was just five victories, so it must have been quite a challenge for you as captain. How did you manage to motivate the team knowing you’d had such success just a few years before, and now it wasn’t going through such a good time?

NFJ: Well the world certainly did fall off after the World Cup. We lost the one off Test to New Zealand and then we went to Argentina at the end of ’87 and it would have been unthinkable at the beginning of ’87 that you could lose a series there, but we drew the 1st Test and Hugo Porter kicked about four or five field goals and put us out of business in the 2nd, so we came back and lost the series. Our coach Alan Jones obviously suffered, he was dumped as Australian coach, Bob Dwyer came back into the coaching role – and yes, selected me a little out of the blue I thought. There were probably better credential players who would have taken over the captaincy, but I had been selected to captain New South Wales the year before and Bob sort of went out on a limb and selected me. It was a period where we still had a very good team, there was no doubt about that, but we were going through a building phase. We had to sort of pick a lot of young players, but we were a very inconsistent team. I remember particularly a tour of France in 1989 where we had a magnificent victory in Strasbourg. Seven days later we were about to be first Australian team to win a series on French soil and we played miserably and lost by six points. And what we had to do on the late 80s, and going into the World Cup, was to change the culture of the Wallabies. I think we were very scoreboard-orientated. We desperately wanted to win but because of that desperation it often translated that whenever we got the ball we wanted to score the points, and we made a lot of mistakes and often handed the game to the opposition and what we had to change culturally was to become more process-driven, to understand what your role in the team is, whether that’s in preparation of the actual 80 minutes. Do your job as well as you can, trust your team mates around you to do their job, and management to do their job – and at the end of the 80 minutes look up and see what the scoreboard tells you. And we got that right, coupled with Bob Dwyer’s vision of selecting Timmy Horan and Jason Little who weren’t playing for Queensland at the time, Phil Kearns who wasn’t even playing first grade for his club, Randwick, at the time, Tony Daly, Ewan Mackenzie, Willie Ofahengaue, John Eales in the World Cup year of ’91. So we had this great balance of youth and some good experience. Personnel was important but also that cultural change and we went on in the ‘90s, ’91. ’92 and ’93, I think we played about 25 Tests and won about 22 of them. So we did become that consistent team that we we re aching to become.

AB: Before the ’91 World Cup did you have any feeling that you were going to win this tournament, because you’d had a few up and down years before as you’ve just been talking about. And you had some very tough matches as you went through to the final?

NFJ: Yes, look, I figured we’d certainly do well. It was certainly my last throw of the dice. It all started in Wellington in 1990. New Zealand in the late ‘80s were almost untouchable and we’d lost on that 1990 tour of New Zealand. The six week tour, we’d lost the 1st Test in Christchurch, played miserably, we were actually rightfully labelled by some of the journalists as the ‘Woeful Wallabies’. We had a better result in Auckland but we still went down so we’d lost the Bledisloe. And I really believe that the 3rd Test in Wellington was absolutely crucial. There was a bit of a coup going on behind the scenes I think, to get rid of Bob Dwyer had we lost, perhaps even myself as captain. So it was desperation stuff, backs to the wall, but we played brilliantly at Wellington and that was the day we stood up and basically made a statement to the All Blacks that this is the makings of a very, very good Wallaby team. Then the next year we did very well domestically, we put about 60 points on Wales, we put 25 points on England, won convincingly the 1st New Zealand Test, lost the 2nd in Auckland 6-3. But to see the elation of the All Blacks winning in Auckland 6-3 only a year after, as I said, they were almost untouchable, you really realised that the pendulum had swung and, look, yeah, I wasn’t getting carried away but as we boarded the plane for the ’91 UK World Cup, I was very confident we could get a run.

AB: Experience and skill are obviously key factors, but also character is very important. You had a particular game against Ireland in the Quarter Finals where you won at the death and then New Zealand in the semi finals. How important was character in that team?

NFJ: Look, I’ve just written a book on Rugby World Cup, about 30,000 words, and I look at the four World Cups that we’ve had and I really think that an important element is that a team is happy and that comes from having players in the team who are prepared to sacrifice for each other, that are self-less, that really are prepared to go the extra yard for the good of the team, and all four teams that have won have had that quality. I’ve also been Wallaby teams where you haven’t got that quality in abundance and it often comes out on the field, but you just don’t reach your pinnacle or your potential and that ’91 World Cup team was a special team because of the character of the players, the ability to do whatever it took to secure the success – as you say, it had magic in it. I’d injured myself after 20 minutes so I went through all the agony of emotion seeing Gordon Hamilton score with about five minutes to go, thinking we’re on a plane tomorrow morning, on the Sunday morning, to go home, and I knew I would have retired then and there. So it was life-changing moment for me. Fortunately, in retrospect, Michael Lynagh had taken over the captaincy because had I been on the field I would have, without a doubt, asked the referee how long to go, four minutes was the response – would have kicked short thinking we need possession, we can’t win without the ball and had we not secured possession who know what would have happened. But Michael Lynagh, the acting captain, just calmly found out that there were four minutes to go, assembled the guys and said: ‘Guys, we will kick long, we will go for the field possession and we will win possession. If you get caught with possession, just keep on driving towards the Irish line, hang on to it, we’ll get a scrum and we can win.’ I mean, I know from that scrum I also would have asked Michael to go for field goal to level the scores with a few minutes to go, but the decision was his. He went for the try and history tells us we got the try. But I’ve got to say that I think I decided then and there that coaching wasn’t for me. To be sitting in the stand and to really be able to have very little input in the actual 80 minutes – too much for me.

AB: Well what about your recollections of that Final then against England at Twickenham – passionate crowd, worldwide TV audience? As you ran out onto that pitch at Twickenham what was going through your mind?

NFJ: Very much to play, getting the arousal levels up, because quite remarkably, when we went out for the final there was a full 18 minutes before kick off. The Queen had to come down and I had to introduce her to my team, and then of course Carling to his team and then there were the anthems and other pomp and ceremony. So it was difficult in the changing rooms because obviously the forwards wan to get to arousal level that they need to maximise their performance, but when you’ve got 18 minutes of standing around, you’ve just got to control that and hopefully get yourself up for kick off. So I was very much conscious of that, and I was conscious of not getting any players’ names wrong as well. I’d been to Buckingham Palace twice before and the managers who’d introduced the players to the team there remarkably forgot the name of the players. When you’re used to calling players by nicknames and not having the pressure of introducing the players by name to the Queen, you can understand that sometimes you can slip up. I was going fine until our reserve prop Dan Crowley presented Her Majesty with what I have no doubt was a remarkable souvenir for her, a little plastic ball from Castlemaine 4X which was our sponsor, beer producer. She accepted it with glee and I’ve no doubt it sitting in pride of place on one of her mantelpieces. Look, it was a great occasion, there’s no doubt about that. England chanced their arm, they played a different style to the style that they played in the previous matches in that ’91 World Cup. But I suppose if anything, slightly disappointed that we couldn’t win in the style or fashion that the Wallabies had been accustomed to. We scored one try from five metres out, from a rolling ball, we really won that game on tremendous defence, desperate defence, but we didn’t get a fair share of possession. We got beaten convincingly on line out and as I said it was the defence that won it for us. I would have much preferred if we could have played an offensive attacking game, scored a couple of tries, but at the end of the day, people don’t so much remember the style of the game, they remember who won and that was important. A great sense of relief after and it did something special for rugby back in Australia.

AB: And you are one of only four people to lift the Rugby World Cup as winning captain. Again, what was that like? Must have been a fantastic experience, the culmination of you’ve been for and been through, and aimed for, in rugby?

NFJ: Yeah, I think the further you get away from it, the more you realise it was something special. It was a great occasion. It’s hard to summarise the feelings, but I remember growing up as a young kid and I played soccer. I loved my soccer and the only reason I played rugby was because the secondary school I went to didn’t play soccer. But I used to love getting up in the wee hours of the morning to watch FA cup finals. As I went up the stairs to get the trophy from the Queen it just flashed through my mind the number of mornings, from the age of six onwards, just watching the FA cup winning captain going up the famous stairs at Wembley to collect the trophy – that was one of the recollections strangely, that I had as I went up to get the trophy from Her Majesty.

AB: Rugby has been such an important part of your life for so many years, you’ve been retired from the game for ten years now, having played internationally for ten years. There’s another part of your life, your Christian faith. How did that grow and develop?

NFJ: Look, I grew up in the south of Sydney and I’ve got a fantastic family. Two brothers either side of me, life was full of playing all sorts of sports, but one thing I didn’t have while growing up was any sort of church life. We didn’t go to church. As a family my folks were non-believers and at about the age of 16 I met some people who invited me along to church and for the first time I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. About a month later I did make a commitment, I accepted if for what it was. I understood why Christ was nailed to a cross, and why He came to reconcile man to God. But it’s a funny thing that in a country which calls itself a Christian country you could actually go through your growing up days and really for me it wasn’t till I turned 16 that I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time. It’s quite remarkable, but sadly in the big wide world there’s a lot of people who’ve never heard the uncompromised version of the Word of God. It’s a crime. You know, it’s a great responsibility on us to sow seeds as Christians and hopefully win others over to a abetter understanding of the Gospel and hopefully to make a decision to commit to God and Christ.

AB: What difference did it make to your life, then, becoming a follower of Jesus at the age of 16?

NFJ: Well, I think you probably should ask my biographer Peter Fitzsimons. You know, he went about obviously asking my family that question. I was a very impatient, often angry, young man. We had a wonderful family growing up, but I was impatient and at times angry and at times it manifested in behaviour that was not great. But my folks and brothers noticed an enormous change. It wasn’t because the Book says: ‘Thou shalt not swear, thou shalt not get angry, thou shalt love thy neighbour’ – it was probably an immediate change in my life. That was something that stood out to me when I first started going to church. I wasn’t a recognised sportsman at the time. The people at that church had no reason to pull me in under their wing; they were very caring people and I noticed the difference in these people and hopefully that also when the Holy Spirit came into my heart it caused an immediate change in me. Better to ask the people that observed that rather than me because in my biography Fitzsimons recounts that the people closest to me saw an immediate change in my life.

AB: It can’t be easy being a Christian in a rugby team, especially if you’re captain, but in the Wallabies there must have been some great pressures on you?

NFJ: I don’t know about that. I was respected as a player and we used to sit up in the wee hours of the evening - I still enjoy a beer and what have you with the lads - and having a great debate about things spiritual. I used to enjoy it greatly. It’s interesting when you talk about planting seed and often you do get frustrated that your witness can’t be greater and why is it that people turn away from God. Why isn’t it clearer to them that things spiritual are real? I was recently invited to speak at a Men’s Breakfast and the fellow who had invited me was one of the tough, hard and nasty prop forwards at Sydney University. I don’t know why, but I was amazed that he’d actually become a Christian. During the course of the morning I said: ‘Mate, how did this happen?’ And he said: ‘Eventually I heard the truth and I made a commitment. I remember going on a tour with Sydney University in 1982 with you and I’d be sitting up at the back of the bus and singing dirty songs and getting stuck into the grog’ - you know, I enjoy a can or two myself – but he said: ‘I’ll never forget, on those bus trips, you used to pull out your Bible for about 20 or 30 minutes and quietly read it on your own. And that’s stuck with me.’ So it’s interesting – and I want to encourage Christians out there, that some of the small things you do, people will remember and its seed planting. The Bible says some plant, others water – little things like that, the lifestyle you live, and showing and telling people how important it is to you. You might not think it makes any difference at all at the time, but you’d be surprised how people do watch and observe and do want to find out if there’s something there on the other side.

AB: You’ve talked about planting seeds. You’re going to be involved in this Rugby World Cup that’s coming up soon. Not involved on the field, but with some Christian media projects. So tell us about some of those things you’re involved with.

NFJ: Look, its just like the Olympic Games, like a big sporting event where there are opportunities to witness, videos being produced, Luke’s Gospel to give to players and management. Like at any big sporting event there’s opportunity to witness for Christ, to put a big screen in your church and have people along to speak and invite people who are not churchgoers to an event that hopefully is fun and interesting. I know a lot was done during the Olympic Games and it’s a great opportunity for Christians to use sport as a witness to their faith and to the truth of the Gospel.

AB: And you’re appearing in one of those videos as well, I believe?

NFJ: Yes, I’ve recently done an interview and I understand there will be probably seven or eight reasonably well-known rugby players who testify to their faith and what Christ means to them. Hopefully, Michael Jones is involved. If anyone asks me: ‘Who was the greatest player you ever played with or against’ – he stands out, not only for his wonderful playing talent but also for his commitment to Christ. Thinking of the ’91 World Cup I remember watching the opening match against England when Michael scored New Zealand’s try to put them basically as the number one in that pool – and I’m thinking how ironic, if we get through, and the All Blacks had a fairly easy channel through to the semi final – how ironic that as Jones touched down to score that try, that he was effectively putting himself out of the semi final because of his commitment to the Sabbath and that he refused to play on Sunday. I know that a number of New Zealanders tried to convince him that by time of kick off it would be about 2am in New Zealand on Monday, but no, Jones was a tremendous man for his commitment to the faith and still is and I’ve got the utmost respect for him as a player and a Christian.

AB: Finally, Nick, what are you looking forward to about this year’s Rugby World Cup and who’s your tip to lift the trophy?

NFJ: I think what I’m looking forward to is the fact that Australia has a wonderful opportunity as the sole host. I feel desperately sorry for New Zealand but their administrators got it wrong and sadly, their country misses out. But as it turns out, we’re the sole host – and just the fact that it goes for five weeks and being played in ten cities and towns – from Launceston to Townsville, from Perth to Melbourne, from Adelaide to Sydney. That’s going to be special and as the pool matches are played the momentum will grow. As we get close to the sudden death stage I just think it will be a wonderful atmosphere here in Australia and I suspect we won’t get it for another 20 years so let’s enjoy it while its here. As to who will win, well my antennae vibrate nervously about the Kiwis. They have a tremendous strike potential right across the paddock. They were probably the best team in ’95 and right up with the Wallabies in ’99 and they fell at final hurdles and they probably have a huge amount of pressure on them when it comes to those semi finals. If they get through to the final, to finally vindicate their tremendous form over a long period of time.

England, of course, are looming as a great chance. It doesn’t surprise me at all that they won down under and across at Wellington. They’re a very capable team but I’m just hoping that, like other World Cups, they peak between World Cups. What we saw in Melbourne was probably as good as it gets for England. Their management will be under huge pressure to make sure they peak October/November.

France are always capable of winning on their day but they also can struggle away from home. South Africa have only played two World Cups and 11 matches and history tells us that after 80 minutes they’ve never been behind so there’s tremendous pride in that team and whilst they’re not playing well at the moment – I wouldn’t want to be playing against them though they’ll lift the World Cup and you know, they’ve got a great chance.

Australia – we can only improve from where we’ve been in our domestic seasons, but I think we will. I think Eddie Jones will start to bring in players like Matt Rogers into the starting line up. He’ll revamp the forward pack, he’s already shown he will by selections for the Tri Nations. With Steven Larkin back we’ll be very hard to beat. We’re very hard to beat at Holmbush. History has shown us that at the Olympic Stadium and that’s where the last three matches will be played.
And Ireland – you know I’d love to see Ireland do well. They’ve often promised much but this is as good an Irish team, once you get O’Driscoll and Wood back in it, as its been for many decades. So I think that the Wallabies will be in for a really tough game on 1 November which is our final pool game. So they’re probably the only realistic chances. If I had to rate them now, New Zealand slightly ahead of England, slightly ahead of Australia, and then France and South Africa on the next tier, and Ireland just a notch off them.

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