Tank Lanning

RIP you great rugby man

2009-10-15 23:24
Tank Lanning
Tank Lanning

Leo Gerard Williams died today, taking a little of me with him at the same time.

A truly great man, he will be remembered as the creator of SANZAR, who, together with our own Louis Luyt and Richie Guy from New Zealand, was one of the three signatories to the broadcasting contract with News Limited, which heralded the move of rugby into the professional era.

Publicly that is  … Me, I just count myself extraordinarily lucky to have been able to get to know the man. We met in 1995 …I was a UCT student at the time, and the Rugby World Cup was imminent.

The Australian rugby union had contacted the Western Province rugby union to ask if any of the young contracted players were available to drive their Chairman during the World Cup. Rob Brink, always keen to make a few extra bucks, was duly nominated. This before he began playing the best rugby of his life which got him selected into Kitch Christie’s Bok squad. As a housemate of Rob’s and also a contracted WP player, I was asked if I would replace Brink …Hence me spending RWC ’95 in the company of one Leo Williams!

Leo played prop for Queensland in his day, went on to be president of Queensland University rugby club, president of Queensland rugby union, chairman of the Australian rugby union, was a director at RWC ’95 and chairman of RWC ’99! He was well known for his close affinity and rapport with the players and officials he worked with at the national, state and club level of the game. A true rugby man …

We went on to become great friends, hooking up at both the 1999 World Cup in Wales and 2003 World Cup in his home country, Australia. I went out to Brisbane for his 60th birthday, and he and his lovely wife Nancye, came out for my wedding in 2004.

My only regret? Turning down his invite to have a beer with him after his monumental meeting with Ross Turnbull and his Kerry Packer backed World Rugby Championship, where he, Luyt and Guy changed the game of rugby forever after the ’95 Ellis Park final.

Understandably, he had kept everything to himself during the negotiations that preceded that meeting, and being a beer guzzling, party chasing 24 year old, it was only really after reading Peter Fitzsimons “The Rugby War” that I realised what Leo and his team of negotiators had been through. They really saved rugby and made it the professional game that it is today. Not that he was in love with the product seen today, but that is another story! But not knowing all this at the time, when he phoned and asked me to go for a celebratory beer with him, I said I could not make it, and chose instead to celebrate Stransky’s winning drop goal with mates. It was only a few years later that Nancye told me how disappointed he had been at the time.

We just seemed to connect from minute one … Who says you need to share more than the enjoyment of a speedy beer, the ability to talk right shoulders, and a passion for rugby to be friends?

One of the reasons he needed a driver was his poor night vision, brought on by diabetes, the disease that eventually took his life. But this did lead to my favourite Leo story of all time – and there have been many!

I was turning out for the Ikeys one evening and I left Leo to drive from a function at the Newlands Holiday Inn up to the UCT rugby club, where I said we should meet for a few post match beers. An eyewitness reports that Leo, having not seen the boom across the hotel exit, promptly drove straight into it! Spotting the vehicle careering toward the boom at an unreasonable pace, the security guard had decided to hang onto the end of the boom, no doubt in an attempt to fortify said boom. Bad move! The boom shot up on impact with Leo’s car, catapulting the poor security guard into the air! At least two meters, according to the witness …He did get away with not a single injury - and a large tip from Leo for his trouble, hence me being happy to laugh about it now!

Basil Bey once said to me that you learn a lot about people when playing rugby with them – it is a team game where all fifteen people depend on each other. Character, be it good or bad, is exposed – those that that go it alone or think that they are bigger than the game, do not last long! At the time of his passing, Leo still had good mates from school rugby teams he had played in more than 50 years previously!

I consider myself seriously lucky to have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know and befriend Leo Williams. Rugby is about much more than just which team wins. It is about the people you meet along the way – bring on rugby men like Leo Williams!

Leo is survived by an amazing family who have always made me feel part of their team - his widow Nancye, and his four children Nicky, Paul, Tony and Julienne. Be strong, guys.

Tank is a former WP prop, now editor of Sport24, and author of the Front Row Grunt

Disclaimer: Sport24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on Sport24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Sport24.


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