Richard Turner was still at school when he started playing NPC rugby for Hawkes Bay. His size, skill and determination gained him a contract with North Harbour and a call up for the All Blacks. He went on to play rugby around the world before finally retiring at 33. Richard now lives at Omaha Beach with his wife Victoria and their two daughters. He sat down with Mahurangi Matters reporter Rod Cheeseman to explain why his era was the halcyon days of New Zealand provincial rugby and why he thinks the best is yet to come with the current All Blacks squad.
One of my earliest memories is of my mum screaming on the touchline, ‘He’s only four years old!’ I was such a big kid for my age that the other parents couldn’t believe I wasn’t several years older. By the time I was 17, I was 183cm tall and weighed 118kg. That’s why I had a career in rugby ahead of me. My Mum is Samoan and my dad is Pakeha. My biological father left us when I was young – my stepdad has always been my Dad. In his 50s, he was still playing rugby, much to my Mum’s annoyance. He would hide his kit bag under the porch and sneak out of the back to play.
I was born in Napier, attended Napier Boys High, and I’m a Hawkes Bay boy through and through. My Mum worked very hard in a wool-spinning factory from the time she came over from Samoa aged 18 until she retired six years ago. Mum always encouraged my three brothers and I in sports. My brothers liked cricket because they were good at it and I liked rugby, probably for the same reason. Hawkes Bay has always had very strong age group teams, and that was how I got fast-tracked. I ended up playing the last few games of the 1986 NPC season for Hawkes Bay whilst still at school. I moved positions from lock to loose forward and really enjoyed it. I didn’t have to stick my head in the middle of scrums and have my ears rubbed off for 80 minutes. At that time Mark Shaw, one of the hardest former All Blacks ever to play the game, was guiding me. That increased my confidence and I guess I was more full of myself than I should have been.
At 19, I left Hawkes Bay for Auckland and chased a career in rugby. I knew one person in Auckland back then, Tim Barry. His father, Kevin, and grandfather Ned were both All Blacks. Tim introduced me to Peter Thorburn who was the North Harbour coach. Peter was very innovative and way ahead of his time. He had the biggest television I’d ever seen and would spend days analysing games. I played number eight, but there was this guy called Wayne (Buck) Shelford in that position! So I moved back to lock. I ended up at blindside flanker in the loose forward trio with Buck. It was amazing for me at such a young age. In my first season of club rugby for Northcote I scored 36 tries and never carried the ball for more than five metres! That is how strong our forward pack was. At that time, North Harbour was in the first division. Ant Strachan, Eric Rush, Pat Lam, Willie Los’e and Frank Bunce all came over the bridge to get more game time. The Auckland-North Harbour rivalry came to a head in 1994 in the NPC final. There was a huge advertising campaign with the slogan ‘This town ain’t big enough for the both of us’. That still ranks as one of the most spiteful games I’ve ever played in. Players were sent off, blood was spilled, and Auckland won 22-16. The stands at Onewa Domain in those days were chock-a-block. I’m very grateful to have been playing at that time. They were the halcyon days of provincial rugby. It was the tail end of the amateur era, before rugby officially went professional in ’96. Players trained twice a week after work and played on Saturday. My first job in Auckland was as a salesman for a tobacco company! Can you believe that? I look back to that time and think about all the crazy superstitions I had. I would stretch my socks using the opposite foot to the one they would end up on, but by far the worst was not eating. I never ate before a game because I would always feel sick. That was fine for a 2.30pm kick-off, but when night rugby started I struggled. In the end I would get up in the early hours, eat and go back to bed. Physiologically, I wasn’t eating on the same day.
In 1992 I went to the All Black trials in Napier, my hometown. They announced the squad at a dinner event. My Mum and Dad were there and it was the proudest day of my life. My first game for the All Blacks was in Christchurch at Lancaster Park against the World XV side. The match was part of the All Black centenary celebrations that year. It was so emotional that I struggled to get through the national anthem. I wished I had more time in the black jersey, but I busted my arms and shoulders and became more injury prone. My Mum says it’s because I started playing too young. She refused to watch me play for Hawkes Bay because I was still at school. I guess she was right. I was a big boy, but I was still a boy playing against hard men. Having said that, if Mum had her way I would still live at home!
In 1994 North Harbour was playing Counties Manukau. I got in Jonah Lomu’s way and he fell over! He was only 18 at the time and went on to build a reputation for running straight over the top of any opposition. I’ve dined out on that tackle more than a few times, but I did get him pretty good and he did stay down. His manager at the time, Phil Kingsley Jones, never let Jonah forget that tackle. If we were in the same room together he would always rub it in.
At the end of 1996 I went to play for Milan in Italy and absolutely loved it. The rugby was a challenge because it was more like club rugby, but the lifestyle was fantastic I had long hair and rode a scooter! From Italy I moved to Japan and played there for four years. My wife Victoria still bemoans the fact that she met me after the overseas rugby career. I took her to Ashburton and Waiuku instead of Milan and Japan! I think I was married to the game for too long. After Japan, at age 33, I decided I’d had enough and retired in 2004. The club asked me to stay on in Japan and coach, but I thought coaching wasn’t a long-term job and wouldn’t make a good career! It boiled down to two options: buy a business and buy myself a job, or get a corporate job and learn at their expense. I decided on the latter and worked for a national hotel chain as a sponsorship manager. Around that time I went to watch Hawkes Bay. Sky broadcaster Tony Johnson was commentating the match. His co-commentator dropped out and he tapped me on the shoulder to step in. I was nervous, but thoroughly enjoyed it. Sky asked me to do a few more and then their accounts department asked me for an invoice. I couldn’t believe I was going to get paid for it! Commentating keeps me associated with the game I love.
After the hotel job I opened a pub in Ashburton. It was successful, but in Ashburton there was one pub, one radio station, one newspaper. That made doing business very easy – we never spent a single dollar of our advertising budget! The local newspaper reporter knocked on the door and said, ‘If you’re doing anything, let me know and I will decide if it’s newsworthy’. That meant we were in the paper just about every week.
Victoria and I moved to Omaha five years ago, at that time it was us and one other couple at the golf club on a Friday night. We went because we felt sorry for the caterers! It’s changed so much since then, but we love it even more now. I managed to get a job selling real estate with Bayleys and now have a great work and life balance. In summer I have a swim twice a day and work in partnership with my wife. It’s great because it allows us more time with our daughters Casey, 2, and Jessica, 6.