Zinzan Valentine Brooke made his name as one of the most adaptable, agile and skilful players the game of Rugby Union has ever seen.
Born Murray Zinzan Brooke, before a change of name by deed poll, Brooke was educated at the Mahurangi College, where through playing for the Colts’ national side, he made a strong impression on the world of rugby. However, it was his debut into international territory, playing for the All Blacks in 1987, and his subsequent illustrious career with them, that firmly established him as a legend of Rugby Union.
Brooke’s outstanding career saw him play 58 tests for New Zealand, score three drop kick goals and (setting a world record at the time for a forward) score 17 tries in test matches. Recognised for his agility and skill, Brooke made the perfect candidate for a No. 8 player, combining the build and physical strength of a forward with the mobility and flair of a back, and it was his appearances in this position that established him as one of the greats of his generation.
Brooke debuted for New Zealand at the age of 22, the injury of Mike Brewer leaving an opening for Brooke to be selected for the 1987 World Cup. During his first game, against Argentina in a pool match, Brooke claimed the first of his 41 tries and helped bring the All Blacks to victory, winning 46-15.
Through the end of 1987 and into 1988 Brooke toured Japan and Australia but didn’t play another test until 1989 where he replaced Michael Hones. Brooke’s appearances were sporadic, due to injury and selection choices and he remained in second place to captain Wayne Shelford as No.8.
He battled through the French tour in 1990 with a broken ankle, and consistently had to battle with coaches to prove himself deserving of the place. After Shelford was dropped in 1990, after two test series against Scotland, Brooke eventually got the break he needed, becoming first choice for No. 8 and having the opportunity to demonstrate his exceptional play.
The next few years saw him at his best, both in the 1992 test against South Africa and scoring 4 tries against the South of Scotland in 1993, playing as a flanker.
The 1993 season also showed glimpses of his best – notably on the tour of the UK – although this time as flanker as Pene took over as first choice No 8. Against the South of Scotland he scored 4 tries and was described by Scottish legend John Rutherford as "the most skillful forward in the world".
Brooke’s allegiance to rugby union has occasionally been cast into doubt. In the early 90’s it was reported that he had signed a contract to play rugby league for the Manly club, and later being close to going to play in Japan. Fortunately for the future of the All Blacks Brooke changed his mind, remaining to make his mark on rugby union.
Brooke represented New Zealand as part of a winning combination at the next two Rugby World Cups in 1991 and 1995, the All Blacks consistently finishing within the top three. The 1995 World Cup also saw him show off his incomparable skills, calmly drop kicking a 47m goal, the first of three in his career.
The second followed in 1996, bringing the All Blacks a historic win in South Africa and cementing his reputation as an exceptional player and one of the best No. 8’s to ever grace the pitch. This win was an important one, the All Blacks win on South Africa soil providing revenge after having been beaten in the World Cup the previous year.
In 1994 he received recognition of his outstanding performances being named All Blacks player of the year.
While continuing to play internationally, Brooke took over as captain of the Auckland Blues, after Sean Fitzpatrick’s departure to become All Blacks captain. Showing his adaptability and all round knowledge of the game he led them to victory in 1996 and 1997 in the Super 12 championships.
Brooke continued to play well through 1997, in the 50th test match against Australia he scored two tries, and in a match against Wales at Wembley yet again showed off with his third drop goal. Brooke’s career seemed to have reached its peak however and his 58th and final cap for the All Blacks came on the 6th December 1997 where they faced England at Twickenham. The game ended in a draw at 26-all, ending a winning streak for the side, and shortly after Brooke made his departure from the international scene.
After the All Blacks
1997 saw Brooke retire from international rugby union and move to England to play for the Harlequins. He later tried his hand at coaching them to little success.
In 2000 the All Blacks toured England and Ireland and this seemed to be the cue for Brooke to take a step back, retiring from professional rugby. His status as an outstanding player firmly established, Brooke retired setting a high standard for future players to follow. On his retirement John Hart, All Black coach, commented “There will never be another player like him”.
Brooke continued to play, in 2002/3 appearing for Coventry in National Division One, and now playing at an amateur level for Windsor Rugby Club. In another display of his adaptability Brooke has also appeared playing for the Gaelic football side St. Brendan’s of London, a sport he was originally introduced to at Auckland Gaels Gaelic Football Club by Bernie McCahill, a fellow All Black.
Putting his knowledge of sport and the game to good use Brooke also works as a media commentator and write for BBC Online. He is married to TV presenter Alison Brooke. Brooke’s outstanding career saw him follow the path of many sporting greats writing his biography. ‘Zinny: The Zinzan Brooke story’, written in collaboration with Alex Veysey, was published in 1995.
In May 2007, while coaching the yearly tour of the Barbarians, a team of 25 players from seven different nations, it was reported Brooke had suffered a head injury after falling out of a taxi while in Spain. He underwent head surgery to remove a blood clot and fortunately went on to make a full recovery.
With 100 appearances for the All Blacks, 58 of which were test matches, Brooke is consistently recognised for his all round ability. Voted by Rugby World magazine the second best No. 8 ever, below only Mervyn Davies, Zinzan raised the level of the game and became an unforgettable icon of rugby union.