After the tears, a time to rejoice

By Steve Deane

Since the Pike River mine disaster claimed 29 men in 2010, the West Coast has struggled under a burden of grief. As the third anniversary nears, Steve Deane finds a story that brought a smile to Coasters' faces

Bernie Monk says his son Michael would be pleased for his brother Alan. Picture / The Press
Bernie Monk says his son Michael would be pleased for his brother Alan. Picture / The Press

It was a four-paragraph press release doomed to go unnoticed by most of the nation.

But to a family, a rugby club and a good chunk of a district that hasn't had much to smile about in recent times, the information in the New Zealand Rugby Union's brief statement meant plenty. A wiry flanker who plays above his weight, West Coast veteran Alan Monk, was on Wednesday drafted into the Heartland XV - the representative side of provincial rugby's second-tier unions - as an injury replacement.

For the Coast - a union with a sprawling geographical area but a population of only 30,000 - Monk's call-up alongside teammates Tim Priest and Troy Tauwhare meant that for the first time, three of its players had been rewarded with a place among Heartland rugby's elite.

For the Blaketown Rugby Club, the promotion of a loyal servant was another step into the future after a crushing loss. And for the Monk family, Alan's success is a nod to a brother, son and nephew who was denied the chance to find out how far he could have gone in the game he loved.

Alan Monk is the oldest son of Bernie Monk, the man for whom fate has detailed the never-ending task of being the public face of many of the families of the 29 men killed when the Pike River coal mine exploded on November 19, 2010. The body of Bernie's youngest son, Michael, Alan's kid brother, is among those still in the mine.

"He would have been just rapt for me making this team, without a doubt," Alan says of his brother.

Michael Monk loved rugby. He could play three positions in the forwards, and had followed the family tradition of firmly establishing himself in the West Coast rep side before the mine disaster.

"Michael was passionate about rugby and was never taken lightly on the field," a family statement released shortly after the second, unsurvivable explosion five days after the first blast read. "He will always be remembered by his local Blaketown club as a man who never gave up without a fight."

That fighting spirit was embodied in the Coast team of 2013, which bucked the weight of history and an economic downturn driven by the mining industry's collapse to come within a whisker of making the Meads Cup final. Playing away against top-seed Mid Canterbury, the Coast scored a try with 90 seconds remaining to take the lead in a match they were given little hope of winning.

The fairytale didn't last - the Cantabrians hit back with a match-winning try in the game's final act, to end the Coast's season.

A losing semifinal effort might not sound all that flash, but all things are relevant. West Coast once went three seasons without winning a match. "We've had a few dark years," admits union chief executive Mike Connors.

On the Coast, sporting fortunes tend to mirror economic fortunes. It was a mining bust in the 1990s that precipitated those victory-less years on the rugby paddock.

"The young people decided to take off," says Connors. "There was no work here, so we got really bad in that period. Now, dare I say it, we are in the same situation again."

With Solid Energy mothballing its Spring Creek mine not long after the Pike River tragedy, it's no wonder Connors' outlook is gloomy. A vast network of downstream business feel the pain when the mining industry tanks. Sponsorship dollars for frivolities such as rugby soon dry up.

The dairy industry has not been as badly affected, but large tracts of the Coast are experiencing severe economic depression, says Connors. "It has just been a disaster from hell and back."

For Greymouth's Blaketown Rugby Club, moving on from the hell of Pike River has not been easy. The club lost three players when the mine blew. Blair Sims, who was also a representative league player, and Riki Keane played alongside Michael Monk. Their deaths were a crushing blow to a club with a senior player base of fewer than 30 people.

"To lose three players like that was quite unbelievable, really," says club president John Pfeifer.

"It certainly had its toll on the team and the players. It took a long time to get over it. It has been quite a grieving process."

Blaketown held its 90th jubilee celebrations over Labour weekend. When Pfeifer addressed the members, he told them the time had come to move on and begin a new chapter in the club's proud history.

"The whole town thinks along the same lines now," he says. "We will certainly never forget it. And there are enough bits and pieces around the town now that others will never forget it. But no matter what we do now isn't going to bring those jokers back."

Blaketown has never had an All Black. Alan Monk accepted a decade ago that he wasn't going to break that streak. But that realisation didn't dim the now 28-year-old's enthusiasm for rugby, which he channelled into his beloved club and province.

This year, he helped Blaketown claim its 24th championship, while the Coast's Heartland Championship campaign will go down as one of its finest. With the team chalking up a run of victories in traditional fixtures that filled a trophy cabinet not often pressed for storage space, Coasters got in behind their team.

"It lifted the community," says Monk. "It's just a shame we couldn't carry on."

If you play rugby on the Coast most games involve a fair journey, and memories of Michael are never too far away when Alan embarks on his.

Mainly a front rower described as "more of a toiler than a thinker" on the field, the younger Monk brother's legacy exists in footy yarns shared over beers at post-match functions up and down the Coast.

"It's quite a good feeling knowing that the other rugby communities are sharing my brother's loss," says Alan.

"A few of the boys watching us playing Mid Canterbury were talking about how proud Michael would have been of us."

That pride would have extended to his brother's selection in the Heartland squad.

"He would have been rapt for me making this team, without a doubt. He would have been coming over to watch. It's a tough thing. He would have been right there."

Bernie Monk might not be there when the Heartland XV take on the New Zealand Defence Force in Methven on Tuesday and New Zealand Marist in Timaru next Saturday.

With the effort to recover the miners' bodies now in progress, Bernie will be hard pressed finding time to get away. He spends two to three hours a day, seven days a week on projects related to the disaster. There's another memorial coming up and a book to launch.

"It just goes on and on and on," says Bernie. "It has taken over my life. In some respects the whole thing has helped me move on. It has made me a lot stronger. I don't break down as much as I used to."

But he does still break down. He chokes up talking about how proud Michael would have been of his brother.

"Michael, he just loved his rugby. He'd die for it. This has just capped off something really nice. I know Michael would be really proud of what Alan has achieved. He would have been striving for the same thing himself."

Bernie's campaigning isn't unanimously backed. He receives letters and phone calls from people telling him to let it go, and there have been ructions over which families he speaks for. But he isn't about to be dissuaded. His belief that at least some of the miners' bodies can and will be recovered is unshakeable.

"You've just got to take the hit on the chin," he says of the flak.

"New Zealand needs to know what actually happened here. A lot of people are over Pike River. I understand that. But they haven't got anyone down there and they don't know the ins and outs of what's happened.

"I know I am right."

Bernie's oldest son isn't much one for blowing his own trumpet. He doesn't mention the fundraising boxing event he organised after Pike River or the role he played on and off the field in the Warriors' visit in 2011.

He couldn't even bring himself to tell the people who drink in the family pub that he made the Heartland squad. "But dad is there blabbing it around the pub so I don't have to go telling anyone - he is just rapt."

Bernie is not alone. When news of Alan's selection was posted on the Coast's Facebook page it attracted more than 250 likes almost instantly.

That three of their players made the team is a tremendous source of pride to the region, says Bernie.

"It's something the Coast needed, that wee bit of a boost.

"The Coast is hurting from the mining situation. How these companies have just walked away and left our town in wreck and ruins - it's unforgivable what has gone on here."

Surveying a rugby union consisting of six clubs, each boasting just a single senior team, stretched over the equivalent distance of Wellington to Pukekohe, and a community with its primary industry in tatters, WCRU chief Connors understandably struggles to muster much optimism.

"It's in the lap of the gods," he says. Those gods have proven their cruelty. So when a publican from Greymouth, a plumber/drainlayer from Hokitika and a rural bank manager from the Grey Valley club in Ikamatua receive due recognition for their toil, it's no wonder it put a smile on a few faces.

"We've been talking all this week about how excited we are," says Alan Monk. "It's going to be great."

- NZ Herald

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