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Personality of the month

Mad in Auckland ANDY WILSON reports from the lounge room of New Zealand’s best known league character

Mark Eastbrook

So who’s the highest profile rugby league personality in New Zealand? Not the national captain Benji Marshall, not the new Warriors coach Matthew Elliott, not even returning prodigal Sonny Bill at least not in the run-up to Christmas, which admittedly represents the depths of the off-season, in Auckland as these days in England.

The one bloke you just can’t escape, even at the height of the Kiwi summer, is Peter Leitch, or the Mad Butcher as he is better known in pockets of New South Wales, Queensland and northern England as well as New Zealand. There is a Mad Butcher shop on most suburban parades of shops, and his adverts are regularly on the radio. “You just can’t beat the Mad Butcher’s meat.”

Yet what, precisely, is the Mad Butcher’s background in rugby league? It isn’t easy to explain. Sir Peter Charles Leitch KNZM, QSM, to give him the full name that appears on his business card (he received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1991, and was made a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010, for his services to a range of charities as well as rugby league) has been everywhere, done everything in the decades since he stumbled on the game by chance.

“I’d just opened my first shop in Mangere, and I was asked to provide some meat for a raffle by the local club, the mighty Mangere Hawks,” Leitch reflected in the large and light lounge of his property on a quiet inland harbour of Waiheke, the island in the Hauraki Gulf where Auckland’s great, good or just bloody lucky spend their summer. His own journey to Waiheke from Wellington, where he was born the youngest of seven in 1944, is fairytale stuff - he left school at 15, with undiagnosed dyslexia, to become a paper boy, then did some gravedigging before moving north to Auckland and starting work as a butcher’s apprentice.

After buying that first shop in Mangere, a tough neighbourhood well to the south of the city, he became hooked on league, or perhaps more accurately on the game’s place in Kiwi society and the people involved - honest grafters, like himself - to such an extent that he started ploughing his Mad Butcher choice cuts back into the game,

whether through sponsorship or buying airtime on the radio. By 1990, he was sufficiently influential for the Great Britain tour manager Maurice Lindsay to turn first to the Butcher, rather than the official New Zealand Rugby League authorities, when Bobby [sic] Goulding needed to be rescued from some legal difficulties. More happily, by 2005 Leitch was working alongside Brian McClennan, another true blue hero of New Zealand league, as the official tour manager when the Kiwis stunned Australia 24-0 in that unforgettable Tri-Nations final at Elland Road.

“That was a great night,” he confirmed. Actually I’ve deleted a couple of f-words from that short sentence, as the knighthood doesn’t appear to have changed the Butcher’s famously earthy conversational style. He remains close to most players from that tour and to numerous other Kiwis and Warriors of the more distant past - Ali Lauitiiti’s Indian summer at Wakefield, and Lance Hohaia’s wedding in Hawaii, featured in the latest edition of the Mad Butcher’s rugby league newsletter (self-published and funded, like the vast majority of his previous promotional ventures).

He even has a Warriors squad number, 19, to reflect the support he has provided since their entry to the Winfield Cup in 1995 - watching a match from his corporate box at Mount Smart Stadium sounds like a unique experience. He was surprised and disappointed that things turned sour so quickly for his old mate

McClennan last season. “Maybe he needed a bloody good manager,” Leitch joked.

From a British viewpoint, Elliott’s appointment would seem to offer hopes of a much-needed revival for arguably world rugby league’s most important club in 2013. “I hope you’re right, mate, but I’ve been around long enough to wait for the points on the board,” Leitch chuckles.

He no longer has an official role with the Warriors, the Kiwis, or even the Mad Butcher, having sold out to his chief executive in 2007 - which accounts for the majority of a personal fortune which is usually, and perhaps conservatively, estimated at $15m. He made a conscious decision to wind down after losing one of his brothers to one form of cancer, and then being diagnosed with another, having already been diagnosed with diabetes and requiring major heart surgery although as he drives around Waiheke in a huge Toyota decorated by reindeer antlers and Warriors flags, waving to builders and chatting to parking attendants (“a lesson to you, boy, always pays to keep them sweet”), Leitch doesn’t really seem to be taking things easy.

“As the iconic New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary said, hopefully I can knock the bastard off and stay living,” he has explained. “Life is very important, my friend - and I hope to be around for a few years yet.”

It would be good to think that the World Cup authorities are already making arrangements with the NZRL to ensure that Leitch is in England this autumn to lift the profile of the Kiwis’ title defence, and the competition in general. Business, society and sport are obviously very different in Britain, and it is hard to think of any equivalent of Leitch the bookmaker Fred Done, perhaps? But how league could use someone of his profile, energy and resources in London, for example - although he has always been disappointed at the lack of a Mad Butcher equivalent even in the north. “Mate, I went to Wigan thinking I’d be in rugby league heaven, but I had to go to three newsagents before I could find the league paper,” he said. “If you Poms think league is big there, you’re kidding yourselves.”

Good call:

“The RFL has renewed its commitment to standardising the laws across all nations and competitions and noted that this process is underway within the RLIF...” LawsCommittee secretaryBlakeSolly reflectsonnoUKban forshouldercharges

Big call:

“Rugby league is not afraid to put its neck on the line and be a bit innovative. I’m all for that...” - Wakefield coachRichardAgaron rulechangetrials.But whendoesinnovation becomefiddlingfor thesakeofit?

Poor call:

“KEVIN WHO? KEVIN WHO? KEVIN WHO? KEVIN WHO? KEVIN WHO? KEVIN WHO? etc etc #FARCE...’ Sportseditorofthe Daily Telegraph in Sydney,PhilWho?, throwshistoysout ofthepramwhen KevinSinfieldwins 2012GoldenBoot

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