Last plane out: Jet fighter escort for Kiwi rugby team after war declared

Former All Black physiotherapist Malcolm Hood shares some remarkable stories from his long career with Neil Reid

When Counties travelled to South America in 1982 their mission was to spread the gospel of rugby.

But the tour ended up being abruptly cut short when the United Kingdom took military action against Argentina over the ownership of the Falkland Islands.

Almost 40 years on from the dramatic end to the tour in the face of a war, team physio Malcolm Hood has opened up on the side’s rapid escape; which saw them depart on the final commercial flight out of Argentina with their plane being escorted out of the country’s airspace by several fighter planes.

But there was more drama before they finally departed, with Hood now believing it was lucky he wasn’t detained due to his travelling on a British passport, and also fears within the whole squad that they might be held back after a high-profile player lost his passport.

“It became very apparent in a matter of an hour or so that it became debatable whether we would be allowed to leave Argentina,” Hood said of the aftermath of Britain confirming military action against Argentina.

“There was no animosity, it was just a matter of fact that we were told ‘We may detain you here’.”

“Hard negotiations” between the local tour organiser and Argentine authorities continued before the side was told they could depart on “the last plane leaving”.

Further drama occurred when Counties first-five and New Zealand Sevens star Lindsay Raki lost his passport which meant for a while it was feared “the whole team could have been held back”.

It was only later that Hood – who was also the All Blacks’ physio – realised his own place on the departure flight could have been at risk due to him using a British passport.

“I realise I was very lucky when I look back,” he said. “It would have made a great story for the Argentinians to hold back a rugby person [who had used a British passport]. It could have been quite good propaganda.”

The side was eventually allowed to leave on the last commercial international flight out of Argentina, with Hood revealing it was “escorted by jet planes on either side” until it left the South American country’s airspace.

“We had a stopover further down the coast where the Argentine troops were also gathering,” he said.

“The airport was covered with young 18-year-old boys and we thought it was quite funny because here were these kids that really didn’t know the butt end of their weapon from the barrel, and these were the people who were meant to be defending and protecting the airport.

“It came to pass that most of the Argentinians who fought against the British were conscripts that really didn’t know what they were doing against hardened special forces.”

More than 10,300km away, the wives and partners of Counties team members – including Hood’s wife Susan – were shocked at the start of the Falklands War while their men were stuck in Argentina.

Poor communication networks meant phone calls between loved ones weren’t possible.

“On a Saturday morning . . . I pulled the Herald out of the letterbox and in big, black bold was: ‘United Kingdom at war with Argentina’,” Susan said.

“I was a little stunned, I had no idea at what was going on. I remember walking all the way back and trying to calm down before I got to the house where the children were.”

She added there were emotional scenes when players were finally reunited with their loved ones at Auckland Airport.

The Falklands War lasted 10 weeks.

Warfare included ground, air and sea forces. Argentina’s defence force loss of life is estimated at 649, while 255 members of the British forces died.

While the All Blacks had previously toured Argentina in 1976, Counties was the first New Zealand provincial team to visit. The tour also saw them play in Chile and Uruguay.

Numerous aspects of life in South America proved to be a culture shock for the squad.

One match in La Paz, Argentina, was scheduled for an 8.30pm kick-off.

But opposition players, and fans didn’t start arriving for another hour, with the match finally getting underway two hours behind schedule.

“We were sitting around for a couple of hours thinking they had forgotten about us,” Hood laughed.

Due to the long kick-off, and a lengthy after match function where every speech was translated, Counties didn’t get back to their hotel until 5.53am.

“One of the things I told all of the teams I was involved in, if mum brings you breakfast in bed at 8am every day and you have a vegemite sandwich for morning tea, if you are expecting that when you tour a foreign country, don’t bother coming,” Hood said of life on the road.

“The second thing is that everything that goes wrong is everything that you will talk about and laugh about with your team-mates forever. I would tell players to make sure that nothing is a disaster, that everything is fun.

“But in Argentina I could have become unstuck, that we could have got caught and left there for the duration of the Falklands War.”

Off the (tour) route: Visit to abduction site of Nazi war criminal

A cheeky game adopted by members of the Counties rugby team to while away long bus trips ended up with an expected visit to the site where Israeli secret service agents kidnapped a notorious Nazi war criminal in Argentina.

For 10 years Adolf Eichmann – one of the leading Nazi figures behind the Holocaust which resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews – evaded capture from those hunting World War II criminals by living in Argentina.

But in 1960, while working as a department head for Mercedes Benz – his location was confirmed by Israeli officials, who sent a squad of crack Mossad agents to try to capture him, smuggle him out of Argentina and bring him to Israel to face justice.

The unscheduled stop came after Hood had peppered the guide on the side’s bus with questions about the location – which was definitely not on the tourist map – as part of the team’s bus travelling challenge to ask the stupidest question.

“I asked what we were looking at today. She said anything that we wanted to see, so I responded: ‘OK then, where is the house that Eichmann was abducted from’?,” Hood said.

“There was silence from her and then she went back into her speech. I waited for a few minutes and when it was time for more questions I again asked about where the house that Eichmann had been abducted from was.”

Too much amusement from his team-mates, Hood asked a third and then a fourth time. Each time, the guide stayed silent.

“But as we got off the bus at a certain spot, she said ‘Señor, you come with me’.

“We walked a very short road with pretty-coloured painted houses, then she just stood and looked at this certain house. I said, ‘What is this?’. She didn’t answer, simply didn’t answer.

“Then I finally realised where she had taken me, she had taken me to the house of where the Israelis had abducted Eichmann from.”

That location was a house on Garibaldi Street, in an industrial suburb about 20km from the heart of Buenos Aires.

On May 11, 1960, Eichmann was bundled into a car as he walked to his house after catching a bus from work.

Nine days later he was sedated by agents and smuggled out of Argentina on a plane bound for Israel.

He eventually went to trial where he was found guilty of war crimes, and then executed by hanging in 1962.

Hood toured the world during his time as physio with the All Blacks, and then went to South Africa with the 1986 Cavaliers.

His tours with Counties included two trips to South America.

Bus travel was a constant, he said, hence the Counties team making up a game to see “who could ask the most stupid question and get away with it”.

“You spend more time on buses when you are travelling with a rugby team overseas than what you do training,” he said.

“From going from the plane to the hotel is on a bus, from the hotel to training and back again is on a bus . . . wherever you go it is more bus than training and game time. So, you have to think of little games to help keep yourself amused.”

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