A MEMORABLE RWC2015 SAVED ITS BEST UNTIL LAST AND – ARGUABLY – ITS VERY BEST UNTIL AFTER THE FINAL’S FINAL WHISTLE. SONNY BILL WILLIAMS? TAKE A BOW.
He gave the kid his medal. Can you believe that? No, nor can I and I’ve watched it twenty times on ‘YouTube’. The kid falls from the sky and lands at his feet, he picks him up, he dusts him down, he escorts him back to his kith and kin in the one and ninepennies and then – inexplicably, heart-warmingly – Sonny Bill Williams lifts the ribbon from his shoulders – the one holding the gold World Cup Winners’ medal presented to him not ten minutes previously – and drapes it over Charlie’s head. He. Gave. The. Kid. His. Medal.
I confess that when I watched this for the first time I welled up a little. In itself, this isn’t unusual; indeed I am still roundly derided at my own breakfast table for moistening badly at the end of ‘Nanny McPhee’. But this was as exceptional, as humble, as spontaneously human a gesture as the sport has ever seen: not quite as momentous, perhaps, as Mandela and Pienaar twenty years before at the end of another World Cup Final but special nonetheless.
Have you ever seen anyone look quite so deliciously gob-smacked as fourteen-year-old Charlie Lines? Plucked from the grasp of the long arm of the law by ‘Superman’ no less and suddenly handed a perfect circle of kryptonite, his eyes were hubcaps and his mouth a silent sphere of astonishment. For someone so transparently speechless his face spoke a thousand words.
Let’s face it, SBW could have stepped around the kid and carried on chatting to NM-S. He could have picked him up and handed him back to the security guy who’d just – somewhat harshly – leveled him for jaywalking. He could have steered him back to his family and given him an autograph, his shin-pads or a handshake. But he didn’t. He gave him what any other rugby player on the planet would kill to have hanging in his hallway. Effectively, he gave a kid he’d never met and didn’t know from Adam the last four years of his life.
Sportsmen are always each-to-their-own but, generally, gold medals are heirlooms. Back in 1992 we made a film with the Searle brothers – Greg and Jonny – who’d won the coxed pairs with Gary Herbert at the Barcelona Olympics. Gary had famously sobbed his heart out on the podium at the medal ceremony and a couple of weeks later, just after dawn on the Thames at Hampton ahead of the boys’ first session back on the water, we reminisced about his golden hour. ‘And where do you keep the medal now?’ I asked and, blow me, Gary reached into the pocket of his saggy tracksuit and pulled it out; no box, no trappings or wrappings, just the Olympic gold medal and its ribbon, handsome, heavy and glistening in the sunrise. ‘Hasn’t left me in a fortnight,’ he said. ‘Sleep with it, eat with it, go to the toilet with it. I don’t think I’ll ever let it out of my sight.’ Charlie, I hope you’re listening.
And I hope you’re not tuning in to too much social media. Briefly, I scanned some of the public feedback, only to find one curmudgeon wondering why a boy who was ‘trespassing’ was so lavishly rewarded for his ‘crime’ and another noting that Jimmy Greaves recently sold his 1966 World Cup Winners’ medal for £44,000, proving that SBW’s astonishing gift might one day prove ‘a nice little earner’. God, preserve us from knaves who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Humility and empathy on this scale and at this altitude are rare in a competitive sporting world, which is why such moments are treasured for years to come. Golf still speaks fondly – almost reverently – of Nicklaus and Jacklin on the eighteenth at Royal Birkdale in the final match of the 1969 Ryder Cup and Nicklaus’s famous concession of Jacklin’s knee-trembling two footer to tie not just their match but the matches as a whole. ‘I don’t think you would have missed that putt’, said the great man, as he holed his own five-footer and bent down to pick up Jacklin’s marker, ‘but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.’
As the holders, the USA still retained the cup but Nicklaus copped a heap of flak for that most remarkable of sporting gestures, not least from his own captain, Sam Snead, who snorted that ‘we’d gone over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.’ Fortunately most took a less grasping view and certainly it was a moment which said as much about the majesty of Jack Nicklaus than any of his eighteen majors.
But Williams’ kindness was a stupendously selfless and very rugby thing, one which – without wishing to get too pompous about it – instantly made anyone associated with the sport proud to be associated with the sport. No question it was a gesture which proved just how well-grounded the game is, not uniquely so but, in this day and age, unusually so. Equally heartening were reports that Charlie and his family had offered to return the medal lest their benefactor was having second thoughts. Needless to say, he wasn’t.
Comparing the best memories of England 2015 will be a welcome diversion this week as we tuck into the cold turkey and desperately try to rediscover the tingle of the past two months. Carter? McCaw? Pocock? Argentina? Japan? My own favourite moment was the bloke standing on a jam-packed train out of Cardiff who, legend has it, sent a fiver down the heaving aisle with a note attached which read: ‘Stuck in Carriage ’D’. Would you mind buying me a beer from the buffet car, please?’ Ten minutes later, a bottle of Budweiser arrived together with 50p change. Or at least that was my best memory until Sonny Bill Williams gave his winners’ medal to a kid he’d never clapped eyes on before and, in so doing, enriched us all.
World Rugby have since come up with a spare – who has the key to that cupboard, I wonder – which was presented to Williams amid a standing ovation at their gala dinner the other night so Sonny Bill and Charlie now both have a souvenir of their big day. Intriguingly, Liam Messam also chipped in last Saturday jamming his All Black beanie onto Charlie’s head as he passed by. Hopefully World Rugby will oblige him with a replacement too.
03 NOVEMBER 2015