For King and Country

Neil Reid
Written by
Neil Reid

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

The King Country Rugby Football Union is celebrating its centenary –a proud history which has generated eight All Blacks. The most recent of those, uncompromising prop Phil Coffin, told Neil Reid about his call-up and what his beloved grassroots province means to him.

As the minutes counted down until kick-off in a key King Country club match, local legend Phil Coffin’s full focus was on leading his troops from the front in his beloved Otorohanga club jersey.

But with just five minutes to go before taking on rivals Waitete –the club he had previously played for –Coffin’s focus was shattered by an urgent message. An important phone call was awaiting for him at the Waitete clubrooms. It was a call that changed the almost 32 year-old’s life.

"I had to go right over to the Waitete clubrooms and wait for this freaking call,” Coffin recalls, with a laugh, almost 26 years on. “The game started without me.” Waiting for him was All Blacks coach John Hart, ready to tell him he’d picked the veteran prop in the 36-man squad to tour South Africa.

“I said to John Hart, ‘F*** you are kidding me’,” Coffin said. I said, ‘You tell me what to do and I will jump over the moon for you’.

“I ended up running back over the field, kicking the other guy off and playing the game.”

Nobody could have blamed Coffin for his initial four-letter word response to his call-up.

For a start he was set to make his All Blacks’ debut –following in footsteps of King Country’s other men in black in Sir Colin Meads, Stan Meads, Bill Phillips, Jack McLean, Ron Bryers, Graham Whiting and Kevin Boroevich –in the same year that he was overlooked by the Chiefs for selection in their 1996 Super 12 squad. The sheer excitement of Coffin’s stunned reaction has remained with Hart ever since.

"He got quite a shock, I have to say, when I rang him,” Hart said. "It was a very excited reaction which in itself is fantastic, when a guy that age feels that feeling about the All Blacks. It was obviously the pinnacle of his career. He was one of those guys who everyone appreciated, but no one thought would go any further.”

Coffin said he was well aware he was coming to the end of his playing career when he received his All Black call-up.

It came 11 years after he made his first-class debut for King Country; a province he would play 143 games, second only on the union’s all-time game list behind hooker Paul Mitchell who played 147 matches. Aside from representing King Country, his childhood dream had been to follow in his uncles’ footsteps by playing for New Zealand Māori; something he went on to do from 1992-97.

"To go one step further, I could never have imagined that,” Coffin said. While his selection surprised many, he had played in the All Black trial earlier in 1996, just as he’d done in 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992 and 1993, without success. “You were on the brink, but I was just thankful to be a part of it,” he said. “My name was sort of mentioned and I had to keep my nose clean and keep out of pubs.”

Continue this story in our Jun/ July issue.

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Neil Reid
Written by
Neil Reid

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