Sunday, 14 August 2011

The Rugby Heartland

The 2011 Rugby World Cup is almost upon us in New Zealand and the hype has already reached fever pitch in the local media.

Those of us who last played the game some forty plus years ago have fond memories of the then amateur code.  No doubt they too have, from time to time, rummaged in their stored possessions chancing upon memories of teams past.

Coming from a strong rugby secondary school (New Plymouth Boys High) where I played well enough to make some of the top junior school teams in Taranaki, I was keen to continue this sporting passion during my Teachers College days in Palmerston North.
Two us, Dave Bullot and myself, represented the province of Manawatu as rugby reps in our first year at the college which was quite an honour.  I played prop and Dave, who also happened to be my childhood neighbour for Waitara, was fullback and had a prodigious 'boot'.  The thrill of running from under the stands in Palmerston North, wearing the green and white striped Manawatu jersey is with me still.

Our Manawatu 3rd grade team beat all comers that year.  I also recall a bus trip through the Manawatu Gorge to play a rep team from Hawke's Bay who were playing a grade higher than we were.  Their side was made up of rough-whiskered young farmers and the inside of the scrum smelt like a brewery.  No wonder we thrashed them.

It was in this cauldron that I learn the 'dark arts' of forward play.  Brought up on the idea of fair play I was somewhat surprised when our rep. coach instructed me to stand on the foot of the opposing jumper in the lineout.  It certainly worked but I can't say I enjoyed doing so; the referee never spotted my deviousness so I guess I performed up to the coach's expectation.

After the Teacher's College games we would adjoin to the Grand Hotel on the corner of the Square and Church Street in Palmerston North.  They served a nice pub meal and we shared a jug of beer.  Being under age on licensed premises made one rather nervous and eventually the police raided the hotel and caught several of us.

My first and last court appearance resulted in a fine on $19 for drinking under age, much to the chagrin of my parents, as my father happened to be a Judge of the Maori Land Court.

The magistrate who conducted my case had been dining with our family the week before and clearly wanted to make an example of me so that I never darkened the doors of the Grand again, which I never did.
The next year I made the 1st Xv which played in the Senior B competition.  I was probably a little too light in build to play against the older men who made up these sides but nevertheless we won the competition.

Players who I remember from this time were our fullback, John Brebner, who was studying art and got me interested in doing likewise. John Watson I had known from my school days in New Plymouth. He went on to become one of New Zealand's finest actors. Manasi Vaka was a Tongan studying in New Zealand and Peter Potaka was one of three brothers who went to Teachers College. His family came from a potato growing area called Rama.

This was the last team that I seriously played for. The following year I was transferred to the town of Turangi in the centre of the North Island to undertake my Probationary Assistant year. I played one social game in Turangi but was no longer fit enough to enjoy it.

So this year, as others squabble over the price of All Black replica jerseys, I shall be remembering a time when raking boot sprigs on one's back was a feeling set aside and the gladiatorial crunch of the front row engaging brought on a primeval sense of satisfaction.
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