Touch rugby: Sports stars stay in touch

By Todd Nicholls

Kiwis captain Benji Marshall and All Black Piri Weepu turned out for the Baa Baaz in Whakatane yesterday. Photo / Ben Fraser
Kiwis captain Benji Marshall and All Black Piri Weepu turned out for the Baa Baaz in Whakatane yesterday. Photo / Ben Fraser

If you weren't in the know about the Baa Baaz touch rugby team at Whakatane, you could be forgiven for doing a giant double-take seeing Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen, Benji Marshall, Piri Weepu, Junior Tonu'u and others turning out in what must be New Zealand's most prestigious touch team.

For 14 years, the star-studded Baa Baaz have participated in the Whakatane one-day touch competition.

Founded by the likes of Carlos Spencer, Tonu'u and Umaga in 1997-98 to maintain old friendships, the Baa Baaz pride themselves on being the touch equivalent of the15-man British Barbarians team.

The side this year was a mix of talents. As well as containing former and current All Blacks (Sonny Bill Williams, Ma'a Nonu and Weepu were on the team sheet though Williams and Nonu did not play, the former possibly because of injury; the latter is in Japan), league royalty Marshall also took the field alongside squad stalwarts Umaga, Christian Cullen and Frano Botica.

Organiser Winston Su'a says his side harks back to the days when the country's best talent would jump on a bus, travel down country and play.

"As we normally do, we met up in Auckland on Friday, played some touch, had a barbecue and then travelled down to the Bay.

"Such is the nature of the team that those living outside the city paid their own fares to get here."

Once on the bus, the squad (regardless of status) come under manager Martin Stanley.

"My role stops when the boys jump on the bus," Su'a explains.

What happens on the bus remains within the team, although it undoubtedly involves plenty of chat and beer.

"It's a great way for the lads, who are of course not all playing together during the season, to catch up with each other and to share stories. The guys just love hitting the road."

Former All Black Botica has played for the Baa Baaz for "seven or eight years". He says that despite having virtually no cartilage in his knee, he loves turning out.

"It's just great fun. We have a few beers, a laugh, play some touch and then have a few more beers. We catch up with each other, which is just lovely."

This is the 26th year of the Whakatane Touch Tournament - the largest club tournament in the country, attracting over 72 entries each year from all over New Zealand and abroad. It's wrong to say, given the friendly nature of the tournament, that professional athletes don't like to win. Yet there are other objectives for the Baa Baaz in playing in Whakatane. One of the most important is distributing around $15,000 of product (obtained though the squad's generous sponsors) to young people at the event.

"A lot of these kids don't often see the stars of the game up close and so this is a terrific way of making that happen," Su'a says of the team's goals. The Baa Baaz are sponsored by a variety of companies that make the distribution of product possible.

"The guys in the side are constantly giving back and that makes this whole weekend very special," Su'a says.

Then there is the touch. Despite the bevy of stars, the Baa Baaz have won the tournament only once, in spite of making the semifinals regularly.

"There are some terrific sides that take part in this tournament and so winning it is not easy," Su'a says. "Galaxy Touch are the Crusaders of the competition.

"Liam Messam and Hosea Gear also bring good sides with them."

As it turned out, the Baa Baaz lost the plate final 5-4 to Freezin Hot yesterday, playing five games in the process.

With Weepu and Marshall in fine form, the Baa Baaz managed to juggle promotional activities and the expectations of the big crowd.

Marshall showed his blisering speed, sleight of hand and his trademark sidestep.

He said it was good to play alongside Weepu: "I had to teach him a few moves.

"It looks like he's been eating heaps since the World Cup and was a bit down on pace today," he joked.

Says Su'a: "It's great pre-season training for those guys playing at Super level, while it is terrific fitness for those who have recently retired.

"Most importantly, it is fun. The results are not the most crucial thing for us."

Botica agrees, saying that it is an ideal way for some of the experienced All Blacks past and present to mix with players of the next generation.

"Last season, we took on a side made of young blokes weighing around 60kg. They were incredibly speedy and I think they enjoyed taking on us old fellas."

Botica had an important role in the side this year: he was the judge on the bus, meaning he had ultimate control of team discipline.

"I was the oldest and so that was my role," he laughs.

Today the Baa Baaz will bus back to Auckland.

The talk may not be as constant as it was on the way down (there are good reasons for this) but there will remain a sense that the very essence of sport is the camaraderie associated with simply taking part.

- Additional reporting by Greg Taipari

- Herald on Sunday

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