ITM Cup: Final cross as Bills bids farewell to Bay

By Shane Hurndell

Long-serving Hawke's Bay rugby radio commentator Mike Bills will call his last game when the Magpies host Otago at Napier's McLean Park on Saturday night.

"Things could get a bit emotional towards the end of the game," Bills said as he pondered his last assignment for Newstalk ZB and Radio Sport.

The former Hastings Celtic premier first five-eighth will leave his fulltime job as Hawke's Bay trade development manager for Tumu ITM to take up a role alongside his Hawke's Bay Evergreens softball teammate Brian Casey at a precast concrete factory in Brisbane on October 8.

Bills, 50, first got involved in rugby radio commentating in 1986.

"Those were the days when the station had one of us based at McLean Park, another at the old Nelson Park in Hastings and another two travelling around the other parks in the province ... and that was just for club rugby games," Bills recalled.

Bills called his first Magpies game in 1994 when he was scheduled to be a comments man for the then main commentator Richard Carrell.

"Richard's car broke down on the way to McLean Park and I ended up being the main man without any preparation. Richard arrived 10 minutes into the second half," Bills explained.

"In 1995 I took over the Magpies home games and I've been doing them ever since. There have also been the odd away games to places where there weren't a Radio Network station like Ashburton and Tologa Bay."

His three best Magpies matches were predictable - the 1993 win against the Lions, the 1994 win against France and the 2007 Air New Zealand Cup quarter-final win against Waikato secured through a late try by Sam Giddens. "I remember shortly after Sam's try telling listeners we're off to the Garden of Eden because we booked a semifinal against Auckland at Eden Park," Bills recalled.

Bills will never forget that quarter-final date, October 7 2007. "It was the day after the All Blacks lost their World Cup quarter-final to France and walking through the crowd at McLean Park before the quarter-final was like walking through a morgue ... everyone was so quiet and disappointed. But 80 minutes later everyone was in party mode again."

Equally as predictable were Bills choices as the most disappointing Magpies matches; the 1999 losses to Thames Valley and King Country and the last two Ranfurly Shield challenges against Taranaki.

"I went to last year's challenge because I was really confident. I didn't go this year but we should have been 20 points ahead by halftime."

Former All Black Blair Furlong, current Magpies manager and former Magpies halfback Neil Weber, the late Nick Tichborne, current Magpies player Andrew Horrell, Kevin Smith, Ross Holden and Stu Gourdie have been among Bills co-commentators over the years. Even when Bills worked in Masterton in 2007 he would travel to the Bay to commentate.

He has missed four Magpies home games since 1994 including this season's win against the Counties-Manukau Steelers. His replacement for that game, Graham Sole, will do the October 10 match against Canterbury.

Although Bills will be Aussie-based, he will still retain his berth on Softball New Zealand's board of directors. He recently began his second third year term on the board.

The former Hawke's Bay outfielder and infielder still intends to play for the Hawke's Bay Evergreens as well as attend next year's North Harbour-hosted World Series providing his Brisbane work commitments allow him to.

Your's truly couldn't let Billzee (Bills nickname) leave the country without naming his best Magpies XV, a paper only side containing what he regards as the best Magpies to play during his time as a commentator.

There's a couple of surprises, with Davis Norman getting the nod ahead of his Havelock North teammate and former New Zealand Maori representative Murdoch Paewai at second five-eighth and Dustin Watts earning the blindside flanker's berth ahead of Michael Johnson. Bills had a tough time deciding on the halfback with Stu Forster sneaking in ahead of another former All Black and current Magpies assistant coach Danny Lee.

Here is Bills Magpies XV: Jarrod Cunningham, Israel Dagg, George Konia, Davis Norman, Zac Guildford, Matt Berquist, Stu Forster, Gordon Falcon, Karl Lowe, Dustin Watts, Bryn Evans, Brodie Retallick, Orcades Crawford, Norm Hewitt, Sona Taumalolo.

Here are Bills predictions for Saturday night's match: The Magpies by 12 if it's fine and the Magpies by two points if wet.

- Hawkes Bay Today

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