JOHN McNAMEE TALKS TO A UNIQUE RUGBY COMMENTATOR WHO’S ALWAYS ON THE BALL….
HE quotes obscure fourth-century BC Chinese military stratetgists; he plays the violin for relaxation; he’s a Master of Arts in history and he’s written books on politics on both sides of the Tasman Sea.
Not the usual qualifications you would think for a footy writer !!!
He also boosts an exotic name which would indicate he would know more about soccer than rugby union football.
He’s New Zealand-born to Greek parents but has lived in Australia for most of his life.
For those who don’t follow The Game They Play in Heaven, Spiro Zavos, 73, is the doyen of rugby union columnists.
In fact, his column in the Sydney Morning Herald is almost as old as a Greek column on the Acropolis!
Well, it’s been going for 20 years, and believe me, that’s a long time for anything to survive in the newspaper game these days. He claims another record too…that of writing the editorial leader articles for the SMH for more than 30 years…that’s alot of opinions over alot of years!!
But the feisty veteran scribe has plenty of those…
Some say his rugby column is one of the most famous in the world..it’s true his learned opinions have been sought by international coaches and players, both home grown and overseas.
At one stage he almost had an on-field move named after him by the NSW Waratahs to whom he once offered some trenchant advice about where and when not to kick the football.
Yet when he first asked his editors if he could write a football column for the SMH more than 20 years ago, they told him they had enough soccer writers already on staff.
“They didn’t believe me, with my name, that I wanted to write about rugby union,” Spiro laughs.
Yet there was no doubting his qualifications.
He was educated at one of New Zealand’s most famous rugby nurseries, St Patrick’ Catholic College, Silverstream, near Wellington.
One of his schoolmates was the legendary All Black captain Earle Kirton.
“Around the walls of the college were all these pictures of old boys who had become priests but there were alot of other bigger ones of the old boys who had become All Blacks,” Spiro remembers.
“I did play rugby alot at school of course, I was a fullback for a while but I was dreadfully, dreadfully slow I’m afraid. I kept getting caught.
“But I’m pleased to say that I was a much better cricketer and in fact opened the batting for Wellington against the touring MCC side with Colin Cowdrey.
“I had to face Fiery Freddy Trueman and Frank Typhoon Tyson… I made three in the first innings and five in the second against them but when I came on to bowl, I only had 15 taken off me by Cowdrey who went on to make a hundred that day,” Spiro says proudly.
Despite his strong intellectual background, and his fondness for using historical allegories in his popular Tuesday columns, Spiro’s style has struck a strong nerve with rugger buggers around the country.
In fact, he admits that as his newspaper column has always carried his picture byline, his “distinctive” features including the signature drooping moustache, are instantly recognisable.
“I’m always being stopped in the bus or on the street by people who read the column and just want to have a chat. It’s wonderful.”
Spiro’s appeal lies in his ability to strip back the wooly articfice of some rugby reporting, sprinkle it with a few classical allusions, and all the while homing ruthlessly in on the truths and myths of the game.
Here’s an example of the wonderful symmetry the former history teacher used in one of his extraordinarily colourful columns.
‘An aphorism taken from The Art of War, a textbook of tactics and theories on how to wage war successfully written by Sun Tzu, a fourth-century BC military strategist, reads: “All battles are won before they are fought.” On Saturday, the Queensland Reds coach Ewen McKenzie produced a game plan to defeat the front-running Bulls straight out of the Sun Tzu manual.’
It’s no wonder his weekly writings appeal to such a broad spectrum of the rugger-mad community.
Knowing his proud NZ heritage, we avid readers keep waiting for him to slip up and start boasting about how good New Zealand rugby is compared to Australia’s.
But he never does. He’s always scrupulously fair in his commentary and analyses each game on its merits “without fear or favour” so to speak.
“Look, I’m proud of being here in Australia, it’s been so welcoming to me and my family for all that time and despite being born in New Zealand, I never cram it down anyone’s throat or hint that I’m being patronising or that any one country’s rugby is superior to the other.
“I regard myself as a commentator on the game and I’m equally as analytical to everyone.”
It might even upset some of Spiro’s more outspoken Kiwi ex-compatriots to find out that his favourite player of all time, is not one of them.
“Well, as far as I’m concerned, the best player I have ever seen is without doubt Mark Ella. It was amazing for me to just go down to Coogee Oval (in Sydney’s eastern suburbs) to watch Randwick and see Mark, and the other Ella boys plus David Campese playing for the Galloping Greens.
“Mark Ella was a truly amazing player and also to this day, a wonderful man to know,” he says.
If he was to name his favourite All Blacks, the famous 1940s “bare foot kicker” Bob Scott springs to his mind as does winger Ron Jardin who scored a try in the first 10 seconds of a game against the Wallabies in 1951, and of course, the great Colin “Pinetree” Meads and more recently, talented Kiwi flyhalf Dan Carter.
Spiro admits that some of the most heated abuse he had hurled at him was during his on-going campaign against the then long-term Wallaby scrum half incumbent, George Gregan.
“Back then, I wrote quite a few columns suggesting that it was time George gave it away, well that caused a storm, especially at the Brumbies where I was confronted by many angry fans,” Spiro says.
But if he polarised some fans, he also was the confidante of coaches.
“I had a particularly good relationship with then Wallaby coach Rod McQueen who masterminded the 1999 World Cup victory. Rod used to ring me up and run things by me, purely on a journalist/coach basis and most of the stuff he told me anyway he asked me not to write,” he says.
There was also the much publicised meetings with the notoriously arrogant former England rugby mentor, Clive Woodward, who earned his knighthood on the strength of Jonny Wilkinson’s freakish last-minute drop goal against the Wallabies in the 2003 World Cup final.
When Woodward was coaching the touring British and Irish Lions in 2005, he made special arrangements to meet up with Spiro saying he had read and admired his writing for years, originally discovering the quirky columnist’s work during his stint playing for Manly in the Sydney competition.
As for the game itself, Spiro says that since his days covering the World Cups for the SMH from the 1991 Wallaby victory in the UK, the standard of play has improved.
Looking back on this year’s Super 14 competition for example, he admits it produced the best rugby he’s seen at that level thanks mainly to the “Use it or Lose it “ ruling for rolling mauls and the tackle laws at the breakdowns.
“I still have a big bugbear about teams, especially the Waratahs, who overdo the box kicks (where the attacking scrum half hoicks the pill up and over the opposing scrum trying to land it downfield ) simply because they are throwing away valuable possession and I hate to see that,” he moans.
As well as his enormously popular Tuesday column and his learned rugby books, Spiro has been a major contributor for the past few years to the Roar sports website, which is run by his two sons, Zachary and Zolton.
Why all the “zzzs?” we ask the Zavos patriarch.
“We just love the alliteration,” he laughs.
Spiro and his enchanting wife Judy have been married for 39 years and live in a cosy book-crammed terrace house in a tree-lined Bondi Junction cul de sac.
Sharing a musical bond with fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Spiro loves relaxing between his frenetic writing duties by playing his beloved violin.
“I first started playing it as a child and then gave it away for 40 years but I’ve since taken it back up again and I’m pleased to say I can play it much better today than I could back then.
“Although if you ask my relatives or grand-children for whom I play Happy Birthday at family get-togethers, they might have a different opinion of my musical talent, “ Spiro laughs.