Most of this tribute was penned for the new book, Passion and Pride Continues. But with the announcement of the New Year knighthood for Sir Bryan Williams, the ending changed a bit.
Writing about Bryan Williams is an unavoidable part of writing about Ponsonby, and also an enjoyable feature. Anyone who has ever spent time at the club will have seen Williams there, probably had a chance to have a chat, and most likely has felt the urge to buy the legendary ‘Beegee’ a beer. You doubt anyone ever emerged from those encounters disappointed, and certainly many a young player will have been given sound advice about both rugby and life - delivered in such a way that it will never be resented, and never forgotten.
Williams was, deservedly, given a chapter to himself in Passion and Pride and the claim was made then that if he hadn’t been around, the club most likely wouldn’t have had a 125th Jubilee. I have never heard a single person argue to the contrary – almost unique in a rugby club environment, where opposing opinions are almost mandatory on any topic.
Since that book was written Williams virtually doubled what was already a colossal service to the game of rugby. He has been an international coach, a coach in the professional environment in this country, a coach involved at club and school level for years, a trustee of the club who was heavily involved in its financial restructuring, the Director of Rugby at Ponsonby, involved with Mt Albert Grammar’s rugby programme, no doubt a whole bunch of other things at school, club, provincial and national level, a Trustee on several other rugby bodies including the New Zealand Rugby Foundation that does so much for seriously injured players, a tour leader, a sought-after speaker, a man who was often contacted for a quote, and one who has a deserved if unofficial ranking as one of the game’s wise men. That standing was only reinforced when he was asked to stand Patron of the Barbarians Club, an esteemed position with a club that he has had a great deal to do with for 50 years or so and which does a great deal for rugby in Auckland.
Eventually forgiven (although he had nothing to be forgiven for) by the administration that had cold-shouldered him a dozen years earlier when he was coaching Manu Samoa, Williams reached the highest off-field pinnacle available to any rugby man in this country – the Presidency of the New Zealand Union. Many felt there could be no more appropriate figure to head the national body in the World Cup year of 2011 than Williams, whose service to the game was, after all, international. By any measurable criteria, Ponsonby’s favourite son was also as good a candidate as there was available anywhere in New Zealand. Needless to say, he did the job proud and proudly.
Because he’s given so much to the game, trying to decide which of those contributions was the most significant is extremely difficult. Different people will look at different things. But any Ponsonby person will argue long into the night that it has been the dedication he showed to his one and only club for half a century and more that tops the rest.
No-one, except perhaps Lesley Williams, would have any idea how many thousands of hours Bryan has poured into the club. He was paid for some, but most were donated. He could have earned many times whatever the club paid him by putting his services on the open market, but he never showed any interest in going down that route. For an international star of the first magnitude, he always remained a quintessential club man at heart.
You will often hear people say, ‘We’ll never see another like him / her / that again,’ even if the claim sounds exaggerated when it’s made, but in this case it will, most likely, prove to be true. There weren’t many club stalwarts like Bryan Williams even in the days when the local rugby club was a big thing in the community, far bigger than most are now. To have a man of Williams’ playing accomplishments give so much for so little to a club is a throwback to a different, simpler time. Not necessarily a better time, but a different time. The world keeps changing, and the rugby world with it. But Bryan Williams’ loyalty to Ponsonby never flickered, not even for a second.
For his many and varied rugby services, Williams is deservedly famous. Playing skill became coaching skill, and he became famous to another generation. All the legal work that was done on the club’s behalf – and plenty of it was arduous – was welcomed and greatly appreciated. But both those things, rugby and law, were what he had trained for since he was a boy in the first case and a young man in the second.
Therefore I’m going to exercise a writer’s privilege and push forward those hours of agonising over the books, staring at frighteningly large figures in red ink and wishing they would go away, trying to find ways of exercising some magical transformation that would change red into black, trying to squeeze another day or two out of an increasingly dry bank account in the 1990s and time spent on the club’s behalf as a Trustee of the funds realised by the almost-too-late sale of Blake Street as his greatest achievement.
That was not something he had trained for; it was something he learned on the fly and it was never less that exceptionally difficult – a task to make a trained money man head for the hills. It was also a task that couldn’t contain mistakes, for there was no time to recover from them. It had to be done right, first time, every time. The fact Ponsonby is still here and on the downhill run to its 150th Jubilee is testament to how well that incredibly onerous task was carried out. It wasn’t Bryan alone, of course, but his name is the one that crops up most often, on most committees, wherever the fight to survive was at its toughest. He was the rallying point for the whole club.
It’s fitting that one of the most prized trophies in the club, for the Premier team Player of the Year, should be the Beegee Williams Cup. And it’s appropriately named, too – not the Bryan Williams Cup, or the B.G. Williams Cup, but as it is, since that’s how everyone at the club knows him.
Williams must have come mighty close to a knighthood in 2013, especially as a number of leading players, coaches and administrators were being recognised around that time in the wake of the World Cup success, but a CNZM (which he was awarded) is not to be sniffed at no matter that people may have felt it was still one step down from what was really merited.
Now that ending changes. Many people felt the ultimate recognition still needed to be made and, in the New Year List for 2018, it was. A lot of people around the world will feel satisfaction that justice has been seen to be done. Among them will be rugby people, the Pacific community, New Zealanders in general and everyone who likes to see good guys get what they deserve.
The Ponsonby Club offers its sincerest congratulations to Sir Bryan and Lady Lesley on this well-deserved honour. To us you’ll always be Beegee, but we’re mighty proud of Sir Bryan.
Sir Bryan is the tenth All Black to be knighted; the list is:
Henry Braddon (NZ 1884) for services to Australia during World War I
Harcourt Caughey (NZ 1932-37) for services to health administration
Wilson Whineray (NZ 1957-65) for services to sport and business management
Brian Lochore (NZ 1963-71) for services to sport and the community
Colin Meads (NZ 1957-71) for services to rugby and the community
Fred Allen (NZ 1946-49) for services to rugby
John Graham (NZ 1958-64) for services to education and sport
John Kirwan (NZ 1984-94) for services to mental health and rugby
Michael Jones (NZ 1987-98) for services to the Pasifika community and youth
Bryan Williams (NZ 1970-78) for services to rugby