Keith Nelson - dentist and All Black

Local identity, Keith Nelson, is best known for his family dental practice in Franklin Road, Ponsonby. There he is in partnership with his two daughters, Vikki and Deanna.

But it is as a successful rugby player that Keith Nelson is not quite so well known. He became All Black number 631 in 1962.

Jack Nelson, Keith’s dad, had a menswear shop at 175 Ponsonby Road. He had played for Auckland and followed Keith’s career very closely. Keith was one of four children, only Keith and brother Bruce, an accountant who played for Ponsonby, survive.

Keith had expected to go to Mt Albert Grammar School, but Jack got him in to Auckland Grammar. There, Keith shone academically, but also by his last year was captain of the first fifteen rugby team. He was invited to join the Auckland squad just out of school, but went off to Dunedin to study dentistry. The great Fred Allen had seen his potential at Auckland Grammar and gave him an introduction to the equally great Charlie Saxton in Dunedin.

In his first year at dental school, Keith Nelson was selected to play for Otago and his career took off.

Keith played for Otago in 1959 against the Lions. Otago famously won that game 26-8 and Keith scored a try, one of many the young 20 year old lock forward would score over the next couple of years. Keith also played as a lock for the Junior All Blacks against the Lions in 1959.

In 1960, Keith Nelson toured Australia with the unbeaten NZ Universities team and was the top try scorer (from lock).

During those Dunedin years Keith captained Otago University and also the South Island to two victories over the North Island in 1962 and 1963. He also played for the North Island in 1964, beating the South Island.

But it was 1962 that Keith Nelson remembers as his greatest year. He graduated in dentistry, he was selected for the All Blacks as a loose forward and he married Aldyth Lloyd, Dunedin Festival Queen beauty. Aldyth passed away nine years ago.

The crowning glory for Keith was his selection to tour the British Isles with the famous Wilson Whineray team in 1963.

This team was chock full of famous players and Keith was a relatively new boy. His team mates included Kel Tremain, John Graham (later headmaster at Auckland Grammar), Waka Nathan, Mac Herewini, Pat Walsh, Don Clarke, Malcolm Dick, the incomparable Colin Meads, Chris Laidlaw and Earl Kirton.

Keith told me that Whineray was a wonderful leader and man, and had the respect of all players. Unfortunately, Keith Nelson didn’t make the test team on that tour, but played some great rugby in other tour matches.

The 1963 team to Britain was the first to fly. Previous teams had sailed by ship, and Keith says his team arrived two stone lighter than previous teams who had travelled by ship.

Keith was first a lock forward and later a loose forward, (it usually goes the other way around) and he retained his explosive speed. He was 6 feet 2 ½ inches tall, weighing 14 stone 12 pounds, and proud to be one of the quickest players over 15 yards. It was this speed off the mark that allowed Keith to score so many tries, unusual for a forward. He didn’t play for the All Blacks again after that British tour.

After his All Black days, Keith, who by then was a dentist in Auckland, became a Ponsonby Clubs and Auckland stalwart. He captained both Ponsonby and Auckland for a number of years, finally retiring in 1975. He is currently patron of the Ponsonby Club.

I asked Keith about rugby knocks. He had only one concussion, in the club final against Manukau. He woke up in hospital and does not remember what happened. Apparently, one not-to-be-named Manukau player hit him with a haymaker and knocked him out. He does have cranky knees and joints, however, probably a legacy of those rugby days. Both shoulders, both knees, both hips, and one ankle are now replaced with titanium. Thank goodness for
modern medicine!

Keith still follows rugby religiously and is disappointed at the Blues' lack of success in recent years but he is extremely proud of Ponsonby Club’s success over the years. He follows his 11-year-old grandson Liam’s rugby too. Liam, of course, plays for Ponsonby.

Like 1962, 2018 will be a huge year for Keith Nelson. He will retire after more than 50 years in dentistry.

I told him he should be writing a book, but he is not keen. He does have copious articles and photos in huge scrapbooks, which I’m sure will provide many hours of pleasant reading for his grandchildren and their children. Keith’s is a wonderful legacy to hand down to his descendents. (JOHN ELLIOTT)