Rugby: Pride born of isolation sets 'Naki apart

By Adrian Hyland

New Plymouth's Lachlan Bunn (right) breaks a tackle during a match against Francis Douglas Memorial College.
Photo / Jay Rodger
New Plymouth's Lachlan Bunn (right) breaks a tackle during a match against Francis Douglas Memorial College. Photo / Jay Rodger

I'm about half an hour out of New Plymouth on State Highway 3 when the soft red and blue pulse of police lights becomes visible through the rain that is pounding my windshield. There's been an accident, and as I pull over someone in a fluorescent vest comes up to inform me that I'll need to detour inland before rejoining the highway further south. He advises me to be careful as the road gets a "bit windy up there".

Twenty minutes later and I'm in the longest, blackest tunnel of all time, making my way through the middle of one of the massive skyward-jutting pieces of rock that make up the Taranaki backcountry. There's no rational reason for the nerves I'm feeling - it's just inevitable when you find yourself high up on a dirt road, in the middle of a landscape this beautiful and desolate, with torrential rain blocking out the sun and with the car slewing around on a surface that is more clay than gravel.

When I get to New Plymouth it's still pouring down, and I wonder if the game I've come to see may actually be called off.

Naive, I know - as soon as I get out of the car I can hear the sounds of game day, and walking up the hill towards the school I begin to make out the black and white hoops of the New Plymouth Boys' High School 1st XV. My detour has made me late and I've missed the first 10 minutes. The pitch is already a mudbath, with the ball sticking when it should bounce, and most of the spectators are sheltering themselves under the awnings of the clubhouse.

Inhibitions have been left on the sidelines and the boys are slaloming around the pitch in what looks like an early-Victorian version of rugby football. The ball is mostly nowhere to be seen, and whenever it does appear the temptation is too great - it gets flung about with wildly misplaced ambition before lodging in the mud where it soon disappears again. There's a steady on/off procession of bloodied teenagers, none of them looking particularly bothered by their wounds, and by halftime both teams appear to be wearing the same chocolate brown strip, streaked with red. I have no idea what the score is.

After the break the pattern of slapstick comedy interrupted by gruesome injury continues, until suddenly, without warning, the rain stops and the ground is immediately bathed in glorious sunshine. At this point the visiting team, Tauranga Boys', start to take control of the set-pieces and string some phases together. They have a conspicuously destructive young tighthead prop who is disabling the New Plymouth scrum, and their lineout forwards are whipping ball off the top to their halfback with languid ease. New Plymouth continue in the dry to make the handling errors they were making in the wet, and by the time of the final whistle it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the outbreak of fine weather has allowed the better team to show their superiority. The score: Tauranga Boys' 19, New Plymouth Boys' 10.

Remove New Plymouth Boys' High School from the story of New Zealand schools rugby and the whole narrative would unravel. They, along with schools like Auckland Grammar, Te Aute and Palmerston North Boys' were the progenitors of the Moascar Cup tradition, and New Plymouth Boys' held the Cup - schools rugby's equivalent of the Ranfurly Shield - between 1923 and 1927. This unbeaten run wasn't to be the last: 1st XV coach JJ Stewart, later to become a revered figure in All Black rugby, took his boys to 55 games without defeat in the late 1950s. During his tenure, which lasted from 1950 until 1964, the dormitories of this most traditional boys' boarding school were so well stocked with Taranaki farmboys that there were at one point 32 rugby teams running out every week.

When Stewart left to take over the Taranaki provincial team Max Carroll took control of the 1st XV, and another lengthy golden era ensued, with two Moascar Cup reigns, the second including 15 successful defences. Former All Black captain Graham Mourie played under Carroll at New Plymouth Boys'. "It was slightly more traditional in those days, there was a lot less interaction between the schools because the roads weren't as good. Most of the boarders were from pretty isolated rural areas, but our isolation did develop a sense of pride in the region. We didn't play the South Island teams, so there wasn't as much to compare with as there is now, but in my two years we only lost one game, and then the team that followed the one I played in produced Mark Donaldson and Geoff Old, who went on to become All Blacks."

The school has produced other more recent internationals, most notably another All Black captain in Reuben Thorne, but there's no doubt that the escalation and re-stratification of NZ schools rugby in the last 30 years has seen New Plymouth get left behind. Since the introduction of the national first XV championship in 1982 the school has failed to make the top 4, and North Island rivals Rotorua, Hamilton and Gisborne have dominated the Super 8 competition that was launched in 1998. The presence of former New Plymouth Boys' student Heiden Bedwell-Curtis in this year's world champion Baby Blacks squad shows that the school can still turn out top young rugby players, but it's not exactly a production line.

In a way it's the factors that used to make New Plymouth so dominant - its proud history and its isolation - that prevent it competing in the "brave new world". For Glen Hannah, 1st XV coach, there is a tradition to uphold. "Sometimes I arrive at other schools and talk to the younger fellas about their 1st XV, and they say 'we don't support the 1st XV, we support the "2nds" because that's the team we are likely to make. They import the 1st XV.' My concern is that here we are, a traditional school, with the history and the honours board ... would importing players start to eat away at that? Are they New Plymouth boys or are they shopped in? So with our philosophy we have to accept that there is going to be a bit of a rollercoaster ride, and we just have to do our best with what we've got."

The school is spectacularly located, on an outcrop looking past the city to the distant black surf beaches of the Taranaki coastline, but rugby manager Darryl Leath admits that the logistics of operating out of New Plymouth can provide financial headaches. "Every time we go to Auckland it's a $2500 coach trip. Without sponsorship the cost to run our 1st XV would stretch to about $1000 per kid, just with the fact that we have to travel."

Hannah tells me that this year's boot camp was cancelled.

"We've gone away on things before but this year we were worried about the money issue. We were going to head down to Wellington, but it was going to be too expensive, too much to ask of the boys, so we canned that."

This year has seen the initiation of a development programme aimed at restoring the competitiveness of this famous 1st XV. "That's a big move for us," says Leath. "A lot of schools now look at the importing model, which is buy what you need at all costs. We've gone for a local model of taking kids at year 9 and talent ID'ing them, giving them skill-specific training, and we're getting in a lot of help from the Taranaki rugby union. Hopefully it's the winning model, time will tell. It's going to take three or four years to get it through."

In a town like New Plymouth even the most sophisticated development programme is unlikely to uncover a rich seam of Polynesian talent. Of the school's 1200-strong roll, just 24 boys are of Pacific Island origin. Hannah is philosophical. "There's an element of luck in terms of the physical specimens in front of you. You need the x-factor. That extra 2 metres of electric speed, offloading ... game-breakers. You can't coach that into a boy, he's either got it or he hasn't."

For Mourie, his old school stands apart. "There's a distinctive character there, it's a little bit different to an Auckland or a Wellington where there's very much a single-focus environment for the people that play the sport there. It's the rural nature of the area, the hinterland. New Plymouth Boys aren't in the position where they can recruit from a large population, but from time to time they'll still put out very good teams. There's still a lot of pride there."

Roll of honour

1 Alfred Bayly
1893-97, 20 matches
2 Walter Bayly
1894, 1 match
3 Jack Stohr
1910-13, 3 tests, 12 matches
4 Jimmy Sinclair
1923, 2 matches
5 Handley Brown
1924-26, 20 matches
6 Jack Walter
1925, 7 matches
7 James Mackay
1928, 2 matches
8 Henry Brown
1935-36, 8 matches
9 Jim Wynyard
1935-38, 13 matches
10 Roy Roper
1949-50, 5 tests
11 George Beatty
1950, 1 test
12 Ponty Reid
1951-57, 5 tests, 12 matches
13 John Graham
1958-64, 22 tests, 31 matches
14 Roger Urbahn
1959-60, 3 tests, 12 matches
15 Kevin Briscoe
1959-64, 9 tests, 34 matches
16 Neil Wolfe
1961-68, 6 tests, 8 matches
17 Peter Johns
1968, 6 matches
18 Graeme Crossman
1974-76, 19 matches
19 Ash Gardiner
1974, 1 test, 10 matches
20 John McEldowney
1976-77, 2 tests, 8 matches
21 Graham Mourie
1976-82, 21 tests, 40 matches
22 Mark Donaldson
1977-81, 13 tests, 22 matches
23 Geoff Old
1980-83, 3 tests, 14 matches
24 Bryce Robins
1985, 4 matches
25 Gordon Slater
1997-2000, 3 tests, 3 matches
26 Greg Feek
1999-2001, 10 tests
27 Reuben Thorne
1999-2007, 50 tests
28 Carl Hayman
2001-2007, 45 tests

- NZ Herald

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