Tom E Willis
For most of his near decade, in New Zealand in first class rugby, between 1999 and 2008, Tom Willis always rated among the country’s top half dozen hookers. But while he gained plenty of honours, including captaining the All Blacks, Willis never quite won the recognition he perhaps deserved.
He suffered from two misfortunes. He had an appalling run with injuries and either missed or gained only limited game time in several crucial seasons: in 2002 with Otago, in 2004-05 with Waikato and the entire 2005 Super 12 with the Chiefs.
Willis also played in an era in which New Zealand possessed considerable depth in the hooking position. Anton Oliver, Mark Hammett, Kevin Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Derren Witcombe and Corey Flynn were among his contemporaries. Indeed, before he and Hore both moved north, there were a number of seasons in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when they and Oliver were all based in Otago.
Still, for all the competition he faced and his injury setbacks, Wills compiled an excellent record for all the teams for which he appeared: Otago, the Highlanders, Waikato and the Chiefs. He also had the distinction of playing in the Waikato side which won the inaugural Air New Zealand provincial premiership in 2006, then in 2007 he led Waikato to a Ranfurly Shield success over North Harbour.
When fully fit and injury-free, Willis was a vigorous forward. He was top value in both loose and tight, and an extremely accurate lineout thrower, probably the country’s best.
A product of King’s High School in Dunedin and the celebrated Southern club, Willis showed promise at an early age, having a solid rugby pedigree. His father, Eion, also a hooker, was a Southern stalwart who played twice for Otago B in 1980, then in 1983, his club-mate Laurie Mains, having become Otago’s coach, made him captain in his one and only A representative appearance.
At King’s Tom Willis was captain of an outstanding first XV, which also contained Carl Hayman as his propping partner. Both were in the 1997 national secondary schools side and Willis in 1998 captained the national under 19s. He had previously played for New Zealand under 16 in 1995.
Oliver’s absence in 1999 because of All Black and World Cup commitments gave Willis his first chance at Otago representative level when as first choice he was preferred to Hore, older by just a few months and who had been a schoolboy rival.
In 2000 Willis was Oliver’s understudy with the Highlanders and in that same season he was in a strong national colts side, sharing the hooking duties with Mealamu. Despite the presence of Oliver, Willis played sufficiently well for Otago and the Highlanders to win a place in the All Black side to tour Ireland, Scotland and Argentina as Oliver’s deputy in late 2001.
An intelligent young man who successfully fitted his rugby career into university studies for a law degree, Willis showed impressive qualities and had the distinction of being the captain when he made his All Black debut against Ireland A. He continued in this role against Scotland A
With Oliver injured during the 2002 Super 12, then falling out of favour with new All Black coach John Mitchell, Willis looked to have a chance of securing an international position, sharing the hooker berth in the season’s domestic and tri-nations tests with Hammett. Willis played Italy, Fiji, came on as a replacement against the Springboks in Wellington then started tests against the Springboks in Durban and the Wallabies in Sydney.
But those five tests proved to be the last of his seven All Black games. He was injured during the 2002 NPC and missed the end of season tour, with Mealamu and Hore both moving ahead of him in the national pecking order.
Between 1999 and 2003 Willis played 43 games for Otago and 23 for the Highlanders. Moving to Hamilton in 2004 to gain more regular games, Willis found further frustration with injuries. But he played 26 Waikato games and 39 for the Chiefs and when he took up an overseas contract in Wales in 2008 had made 145 first class appearances, an imposing tally considering his many periods on the sideline.
Profile by Lindsay Knight
for the New Zealand Rugby Museum…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
ALL BLACK DEBUT
Tuesday, 13 November 2001
v Ireland ‘A’ at Belfast
aged 22 years, 207 days
Saturday, 8 June 2002
v Italy at Hamilton
aged 23 years, 49 days
Saturday, 10 August 2002
v South Africa at Durban
aged 23 years, 112 days
ALL BLACK TESTS
5 (1 as a substitute) 5
ALL BLACK GAMES
TOTAL ALL BLACK MATCHES
7 (1 as a substitute) 7
ALL BLACK CAPTAINCY
2 as Captain
ALL BLACK TEST POINTS
ALL BLACK GAME POINTS
TOTAL ALL BLACK POINTS
ALL BLACK NUMBER
ALL BLACK GAMES THAT WILLIS PLAYED
(+) = substitute; (-) = replaced
Click on the date below to view the Match Card
13 Nov vs Ireland ‘A’ at Belfast 43-30 (Captain)
20 Nov vs Scotland ‘A’ at Perth 35-13 (Captain)
8 Jun vs Italy at Hamilton 64-10 (-)
29 Jun vs Fiji at Wellington 68-18
20 Jul vs South Africa at Wellington 41-20 (+)
3 Aug vs Australia at Sydney 14-16
10 Aug vs South Africa at Durban 30-23 (-)
Willis did not score any points for the All Blacks.