Lisa Wilkinson: Despite Being Married To A Former Wallaby, My Fave Rugby Story Involves Princess Diana
I know, I know.
To the uninitiated, rugby can look a lot like a bunch of boofheads running into each other at great speed for reasons best known to themselves.
And true, as a spectator sport, it doesn’t have the (ahem) superbly athletic form of Aussie Rules, the rawness of rugby league or the full-on global grandeur of soccer.
But it has something, I tell you, and there will be an awful lot of it over the next six weeks as the Rugby World Cup gets underway in Japan.
And I, for one, am really excited.
Because rugby has always been in my family’s blood -- even if it took a little while to get into mine, too.
You see, my Dad was President of the local rugby club where I grew up in Sydney’s west. My two brothers played for that team. My Mum headed up the sausage sizzle fundraisers for them every Saturday.
Heck, even my girlfriends dated guys in the team.
The dog and I? We stayed home. This was much to the disappointment of my Dad... but hey, a girl has to have her own interests. And beyond watching the occasional Wallaby Test on the TV at home, my interest didn’t extend much beyond that.
That was, until the day in late 1991 when I started dating a particularly large one of those Wallabies by the name of Peter FitzSimons (possibly under the guiding hand and rugby-loving spirit of my, by-then, late Dad), and then married that same man nine months later.
Suddenly, I was interested.
Pete proudly played seven Tests for Australia in that gold jersey and, for reasons I have never quite understood, is prouder still of having been the only Wallaby ever sent from the field in a match against the All Blacks, for violence against them! (I mean, have you seen those guys during their legendary pre-match haka performances? And the ref was worried about Pete hurting THEM???)
But for me, from previously having only a vague awareness of who the Wallabies were, I suddenly found myself regularly answering the door to two World Cup winning Wallaby captains Nick Farr-Jones and John Eales.
I have got to know them, and Pete’s other teammates over the years, and it has given me an appreciation for what my father first realised all those decades ago -- rugby people, by and large, are good people.
If you think of the qualities you might most admire in a person -- courage, intelligence, resilience, honesty and the capacity to put others ahead of yourself, even when bathed in mud -- then those are the very qualities that tend to prosper in rugby, and you don’t get to the highest levels without having them in spades.
I get now, more than ever, just why my fine father so loved the game all those years ago, and why he gave so much of himself to it.
As a family, we are incredibly proud that the Ray Wilkinson Stand now has pride of place at the rugby ground of the Campbelltown Harlequins. And the Beryl Wilkinson Memorial Trophy for Player Of The Day is handed out each year. Dad was neither a prop, second-rower, five-eighth or try-scorer for that team, but he was a pillar of that rugby community and loved the game with a passion. I often think how much he would have loved to hear the many stories I have heard around our dinner table over the years of the glories of World Cups past.
One of the best? Well, bizarrely, it involves Princess Diana... not well known for her rugby prowess, I know, but stay with me...
It was 2 November 1991, and the Wallabies had just triumphed over the English in the World Cup Final. And there in the corner of the team’s dressing room, strangely not joining in on any of the festivities is one old man sucking on not one, but – at least so the story goes – two Marlboro cigarettes.
It is the beloved President of Australian Rugby at the time, an irascible old Queenslander known as “Smokin’ Joe” French. His nickname comes from the fact that in his whole adult life, if he’s awake, Joe has a Marlboro in his mouth, with the exception of this World Cup Final.
You see Smokin’ Joe had been placed for the entire game in the Royal Box. Right beside him? Princess Diana herself. The most talked-about, admired and desired woman in the world.
Royal Protocol demanded he not be allowed to smoke for the entirety of the game, and whilst he enjoyed the privilege of this rarefied royal company, the absence of nicotine had damn nigh killed him!
So here is Smokin’ Joe. In the dressing room corner. Catching up.
When asked by the Assistant Coach Jake Howard on behalf of everyone in that dressing room that day, what the Princess Of Wales -- this beautiful, intriguing woman of whom, despite the world’s ongoing fascination we really knew so little -- was actually like, Smokin’ Joe takes a deep drag on his two cigarettes and replies through the half-lidded slits of his eyes: “She knows f**k-all about rugby!”
And so, on that note, I say bring on the World Cup, and GO YOU WALLABIES!
Network 10 is the FTA broadcasting partner for the Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan, airing from Friday 20 September.
We'll be showing all Wallabies matches, starting with their opener against Fiji this Saturday afternoon, September 21.
Main image: Bruce Palme/Getty.