One of the grand servants of Wairarapa-Bush and New Zealand rugby, Lane Penn, died on Friday.
Coach of the Wairarapa-Bush side during the halycon days of the early to mid-1980’s when they competed so successfully in the national first division competition, Penn went to hold two of the highest offices in the sport, All Blacks selector and president of the New Zealand union.
But while those distinctions guaranteed him a special niche within the rugby fraternity, Penn will be equally remembered for his friendly, approachable manner and willingness to front anything which might help progress the game, be it at club, provincial, national or international level. He was a truly outstanding contributor in every sense of the words.
Lane Penn was born in Stratford and received his secondary education at New Plymouth Boys High School. Usually a winger, he made such a huge impression as a youngster that he was chosen to play for the Taranaki senior provincial side while still at school and ending up playing more than 50 games for them from 1957-1963.
He then moved to the Wairarapa union and after joining the Gladstone club made a dozen appearances for them in 1965-66.
Lane then turned his hand to coaching and took the Gladstone club’s premier side to a club championship title before taking over from Sir Brian Lochore as coach of the Wairarapa-Bush side in 1983. This was a huge challenge as under Sir Brian Wairarapa-Bush had achieved what seemed mission impossible for a union of their size, promotion into what was then known as the national first division competition.
The general feeling of the wider rugby community – especially those in the metropolitan centres -was that the bubble would quickly burst without the input of a man with the mana and rugby knowledge of Sir Brian but Penn did outstandingly well in his four seasons in the job, his team regularly hitting the headlines as they went toe-to-toe with the best provincial sides this country had to offer, and comfortably maintained their first division status in the process.
The 1985 season was particularly notable. The Wairarapa-Bush record then was played 11, won six and they finished fourth on the first division points table, having beaten along the way Canterbury in Masterton, Otago in Dunedin and Wellington in Wellington. In that side were players who went on to wear the All Blacks jersey, Marty Berry, Brett Harvey, and Brent Anderson while Charlie Kaka, Carl Baker and Chris Kapene became leading lights in Maori rugby.
Current Wairarapa-Bush Rugby Union president Rex Playle was himself involved in the Penn era as a player and remembers Lane Penn as having huge respect amongst those who played under him.
“He was an excellent manager of people, he knew how to get the best out of players,” Playle said.
Those sentiments were echoed by Brent Anderson, these days community and provincial manager for the NZRFU.
“Lane always managed to inspire self belief, he was always very positive even when we were taking on the top sides, everything was about how we were going to win not if we were going to win,” Anderson said.
“I remember being in a divisional side where he had just a brief time to mould a lot of players from various unions before we headed off to the Islands, he did brilliantly there. We didn’t lose a game.”
If following the footsteps of Sir Brian once wasn’t a daunting enough challenge for Penn he continued that trend in 1988 when Sir Brian retired as a national selector. Lane was nominated as his replacement and was duly elected and he remained as member of that selection panel until 1991. Over that period he also coached a number of national sides, including a New Zealand development squad, divisional teams, New Zealand Marist and the under-19s and no national side under his charge ever tasted defeat. He was also an assistant coach to Alex Wyllie with the All Blacks and later a member of the selection panel which chose John Hart as All Blacks coach.
His days of being an All Blacks selector over, Penn continued to play an active role in rugby, often being called upon to run or assist with various coaching courses around the Wairarapa-Bush region and further afield, and after being elected vice-president of the NZRFU in 1999 he became the president of the national body for the usual two terms, starting in 2001 and he won huge plaudits for his ambassadorship in the role.
It would be remiss in any profile of Penn not to also mention the huge contribution made not only to rugby but also to other sporting and community pursuits of his wife Jill, who survives him. They were a remarkable team.
By Gary Caffell – WAIRARAPA TIMES-AGE