Heartbeat of a nation's game

By Kelly Exelby

Has rugby lost its soul? It's a question I ponder as my trusty Toyota winds through the black depths of the Waioeka Gorge on the way to Gisborne.

Inundated by the hype and careful packaging of the Rugby World Cup and over-run by reports of an All Black injury crisis and a quavering nation, it was time to seek out the fabled grassroots of the game.

I'm running for cover seeking shelter from the Cup cacophony, so a Heartland match in Tolaga Bay between East Coast and Poverty Bay seems the perfect place to search for an answer.

But this was a personal journey as well. After 14 years covering rugby I was a burned-out cynic sick to death of seemingly endless Super 15 seasons and a superfluity of meaningless All Black matches.

Where was the excitement I'd felt as a kid, cheering John Kirwan's inexorable gallop down the sideline against the French in the 1987 World Cup final? I'd screamed myself hoarse that day, and many since, but covering the game for a living had gradually eroded that fervour.

When a mate mentioned Tolaga Bay's big day it seemed like the perfect recipe to bring back some meaning to how I felt about our national game.

It came sooner than I thought. Stopping at a farm in the backblocks of Gisborne, 10 members of the Namibian World Cup team lurched out of the bush and into Guy Allan's home.

Hosted by the Poverty Bay union, the Namibians have spent the afternoon chasing deer and pigs around the steep hillsides, hanging on to quad bikes while local cockies show them the best hunting spots.

They return with two deer and two live, screaming piglets, quickly deposited in Allan's pigpen.

Over in a corner, a hardy few watch the All Blacks trounce Japan on television but most of the burly Afrikaners are more concerned about who'd shot what and how much training is going to sting in the morning after all those hills.

From vastly different backgrounds, sheep farmers from Matawai joke with dentists from Windhoek, the conversation easy with rugby as a linguistic tool.

In the thick of it, Poverty Bay Rugby chief executive Mark Weatherall stands grinning, casually picking at a plateful of pavlova and absorbing the bonhomie. For the 35-year-old, just three months into the job, it's a relaxing end to a tough week.

As well as hosting the Namibian team and preparing for the East Coast clash, he's dealt with the aftermath of an under-16 player who'd broken his neck in a representative game the previous Saturday.

Heartland rugby has different priorities. Weatherall subsequently spent hours liaising with the Rugby Union and Rugby Foundation and somehow found time to visit the family of the injured player.

Getting home from the Namibian barbecue around midnight, Weatherall is also up early the next morning, packing sponsored beer into his car for the trip up to Tolaga Bay, stopping en route to see how his province's B team is faring against the visiting Wellington Maori side.

About 50km north of Gisborne, Tolaga Bay is at the end of a stunning, surf-drenched drive up the coast.

Featuring a golden stretch of beach and the longest jetty in New Zealand, the

picturesque settlement is usually quiet and unassuming.

It's not often East Coast plays there, however, so on game day, it's fizzing. Blue and white balloons bathed in gentle spring sunshine adorn all eight of Tolaga Bay's main street shops. Utes loaded with chairs and cheerful people on horseback mingle and a big crowd of 1500 descends on the Uawa Domain.

The match is part of the real New Zealand festival, showcasing special cultural events to overseas visitors, with a big screen adding a good touch to proceedings.

But apart from a campervan full of enterprising Frenchmen, who spent too long at the Tolaga Bay pub the night before and watched the match through drooping lids, it's a day for the locals.

As a breezy westerly kicks up dust, school kids demonstrate Ki o Rahi - a traditional pre-European Maori ball game - while the smell of hangi wafts across the grass banks.

It's a celebration of rugby without crass commercial trappings and a clean corporate stadium, a triumph of community, confirming that the national game still resonates strongly in parts of the country.

And for good measure the home side wins an enthralling match, upsetting the Poverty Bay visitors 30-29. It's a result that keeps their semifinal chances alive but, more importantly, adds further lustre to an East Coast revival a decade after winning the NPC third division.

"Rugby's a vehicle that mobilises our people. You can see that with the World Cup but you can see that on a smaller scale up here on the Coast," East Coast No8 Mutu Ngarimu, the former Hawke's Bay and New Zealand Maori star, muses.

"Hopefully it gives our people something to cheer for and it was awesome seeing all the kids and families turn out. The support's here now so it's just about building that momentum."

Inside the Uawa Rugby Club, photos adorn the wall. There's one of the 1978 championship-winning Uawa team, featuring a decidedly svelte Parakura Horomia as captain.

The Labour MP is here, tucking into the after-match hangi.

Speeches flow like warm spring rain, the Poverty Bay manager thanks the ladies in the kitchen. It's said without a trace of irony or cliche - and the said ladies in the kitchen smile back at him and nod.

There's a string of songs, a few more speeches, then the Poverty Bay team jump back into the bus and leave the locals to it. Weatherall should be gutted for his troops but after half an hour kicking the dusty ground he wins a major raffle, a hand-carved coffee table. Such is life and luck on the Coast.

The next morning, a dawn surf under my belt, I'm heading home from Gisborne when the Matawai Hotel looms ahead for coffee, bacon and eggs and a stretch. Inside staff are still chatting about the big game. Australia's upset loss to Ireland in Wellington? Nope, East Coast's mighty win, of course.

The sun streams in as I climb back into the Toyota; my stomach full and my soul nourished once more with our national game.

- The Aucklander

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