David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Greatest NZ Stories: Rugby a path in a vast landscape

David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell travelled the country looking for the greatest Kiwi yarns. Follow their journey in this series.

Reporter David Fisher and photographer Mark Mitchell meet a typical Southern Man in Omarama

Day 23: Omarama

Sam Forsyth is an everyday, garden variety, hard-boiled, heart-of-gold, rugby-playing and sheep-shearing Southern Man.

It is big country, out the back of Omarama where Sam manages a sheep farm, and those who don't want to vanish into it need to find a way to fill out the landscape.

There was a rugby match this year that says it all - not just about Sam, but the 29 others who were on the field, too.

Sam, 25, from Blenheim, has always had rugby in his life.

His dad Mike played, as did his uncles. "It was a game everyone played. It's what you do."

He went to Marlborough Boys High, playing for the school, then for representative and senior teams.

"I started off playing as fullback when I was younger," he says. "As I got older, I got slower as everyone else seemed to get faster, so I gradually moved towards the forwards."

Rugby provided avenues to other opportunities. As head of a farming family, Mike Forsyth had a few rules that governed the three boys' ability to get in on the business.

"We weren't allowed to leave school and go straight into farming," says Sam. He says his dad wanted his sons to know there were other options. His brothers went off to get trades. Rugby offered Sam his alternative.

Sam Forsyth says his father forbade his sons from moving directly into farming from school. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Sam Forsyth says his father forbade his sons from moving directly into farming from school. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Back home at Awatere, near Blenheim, he played for Awatere Rugby Football Club. The club there has a relationship with a club at Port Douglas in north Queensland. "They asked if we wanted to go over and play. So me and a mate went over."

The host club found them an apartment, work and, of course, a place in the team for the weekend. For strangers in a new town, "it's a game you can turn up and instantly meet about 30 people in a community".

Rugby provides, and it was great. He came back, travelled and enriched for it, worked briefly at his parents' farm and then moved to Tekapo. Sam did well, working as a shepherd and playing rugby for Mackenzie.

He was starting to wonder what he should do next. "My boss turned up and told me I needed to apply for a job. He thought I needed to make a step in the right direction."

And so he's here, just outside Omarama, living with girlfriend Katey Hill on a 2600ha farm with 5000 ewes and 4800 lambs.

That was fine, but it makes it hard to get to rugby practice. "A huge portion of the year is taken up with rugby. I did seriously think about not playing for a season but I really enjoyed playing and enjoyed going back to that club. They are so welcoming."

The club has a van, left at Twizel.

On practice night, Sam finishes work at 4.30pm, drives to the van in Twizel then heads on to collect teammates.

The distance from Omarama is about 120km. It's 90 minutes' drive normally but he picks up 10 teammates on the way in, he reckons, and that stretches the travelling time out to a couple of hours.

Normally, practice starts at 7pm. By 8.30pm, most nights, they're finished.

"Then we go to the pub, have a feed, a couple of beers and then drive home."

No, he didn't get to every practice, although he tried. "There'd be some days when you'd have things to do and couldn't finish by 5pm."

Coach Colin Jordan understands. They're all farmers, says Sam, and all know what takes precedence.

There are the games, which steal scarce hours out of the winter afternoons. To compensate, he rises early and starts spreading winter feed for stock about 5am. "It's good they have lights on tractors." He gets away about 11am for the afternoon game.

One game, played late in June, was memorable for almost everything except the rugby.

The league table was keenly balanced - Mackenzie and Waimate were constantly threatening to edge each other out for the fourth spot in the competition. When the draw saw Waimate playing Mackenzie at home, in Fairlie, there was more riding on it than simply winning a match. It was the game that could affect their entire season. "It came down to the very last week," says Mitch Taylor, Mackenzie club president.

A game a few weeks before had been shifted because there was too much snow.

It wouldn't happen again, says Mitch. "It was trying to get the home advantage and make it uncomfortable for the other team."

The snow was thick on the ground in Fairlie and took a plough to clear. The plough was followed by a troupe of volunteers. First there were barrows and spades, scraping the ice and snow from the field, then salt - all so rugby could have its place.

The day dawned clear but cold, with the pitch clear but frozen. The plough and shovels had stripped the field markings. Spray paint was sought, with Mitch remembering orange and pink, among other colours, sketching out the field of play on a slab of frozen mud and ice.

Really, he says, it was little more than a couple of centimetres of mud sitting atop a slab of solid ground.

The snow pushed up at the side of the field was a couple of metres high. A large crowd turned out to watch and the snow bank became a grandstand.

Sam: "I thought it was a joke when everyone rang me and said there was snow on the ground."

The senior side always tries to be there for the B-side's kick-off, says Sam, so he was there early to see it was no joke. "They broke the ice for everyone. And then it froze again for us by the end of it."

By the time Mackenzie and Waimate were set to face off, it was heading towards freezing.

Kick off! Up went the ball and over went almost everyone chasing it. "It was quite entertaining watching everyone slipping around and a ball that wouldn't bounce when it normally would. It [the ground] was pretty much like a slushie that you get at McDonald's."

The ball became a sodden, muddy lump which stodged its way around the park. Mitch says players who would normally thump it 60m couldn't get half that. "It wasn't a huge spectacle. There wasn't a lot of running rugby," he says. "It was hard enough to stand up let alone do a sidestep."

The men playing became increasingly soaked as the temperature dropped. Images from the game show the ball flying loose from hands as often as it was caught. The anguish is clear on the faces of some, wreathed in mist from warm breath in the cold air.

"At half time, everyone jogged on the spot trying to keep warm. I don't think the halftime break was anywhere near as long as they normally are. Once both sides agreed that's long enough, we got back into it.

"By half time it had started freezing again. All the stuff that had melted started freezing again."

The mud hardened and the ice took on an edge, slicing at any exposed skin. There was plenty - the Omarama pub on a Friday night shows more kneecaps than a primary school class photograph and freezing temperatures hadn't winkled the players out of their shorts.

Sam: "You'd get tackled and would come up and your elbows and knees had started to bleed from all the cuts from the ice. Little cuts all over them ... and you couldn't feel your fingers or toes," he says. "It was well below zero by the time we had finished."

They came off at the end, losing 3-0 to Waimate, who went into fourth place on the league table. The players went to the showers.

As it turned out, Mackenzie got ahead of Waimate.

"We won a couple of games that they lost. We ended up pushing Waimate out of it."

Mackenzie's plan for the year was to make the final four, which they did. It didn't end as well as they hoped. There are eight teams in the competition, so they finished in the top half but got knocked out in the semi-finals by the South Canterbury Harlequins.

"We didn't quite fare how we liked. Everyone was pretty disappointed after the game. And it got around after the game that everyone was keen to come back for another season."

So they will, and Sam will again drive two hours to practice.

Omarama was named "Place of Light" by Maori for its clear skies. A glider pilot, All Black captain Richie McCaw regularly flies here.

Far below the heights he reaches are some Southern Men. And some of them, like Sam, play rugby.

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