Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Heartland Roadtrip: As much a family as a rugby club

The Super 15 triumph was not the only pleasant surprise in Chiefs country this year, as Wynne Gray discovered in Otorohanga.

Manager and co-coach Steve Wilshier played about 400 games for Otorohanga as a lock. Photo / Christine Cornege.
Manager and co-coach Steve Wilshier played about 400 games for Otorohanga as a lock. Photo / Christine Cornege.

Rubbish clings to the lonely lampposts as the wind dances around the Island Reserve. The grass is a touch long on the field and there is one car outside the deserted clubrooms.

Welcome to the Otorohanga Rugby Club, HQ of the Waikato club rugby champions.

King Country diehards will squirm and those in the Waikato will shake their pints in disbelief that a country sidekick has claimed the title. This club, in the small rural town which prides itself on its Kiwiana content, is the kingpin of rugby in the Waikato. They are loving it.

In 1998, the Otorohanga club broke away from King Country and then battled that union for another three years until the NZRU agreed it could stay in the Waikato competition.

In late July, seniors' captain Zac Hohneck lifted the Waikato Breweries Shield as 2000 club supporters went into celebration overdrive. The next day, most of the side had to work - although they were given afternoon shifts and lighter duties at the Otorohanga Timber Company.

The town is still buzzing.

The club has had two All Blacks. The most recent, Phil Coffin, was a prop in the group that claimed an historic series win in South Africa in 1996. He played for King Country then, but these days he'd be vying for a place in the Mooloo squad.

That administrative wrangle brought the town and its club into an unwanted spotlight. Now it occupies that position through its sporting excellence.

There's nothing that hints at that achievement at the Island Reserve, which is tucked in off the main drag at town's southern limits.

This is the club, where the efforts of management, members and players have forged a team spirit and ethos which spilled into delirium this year.

Locals will tell you how appropriate it is that the Wiltshier family was still involved, with Steve the team manager/co-coach after estimates that he played about 400 games as a lock for the club.

"It's funny how these things go," he said. "I remember being involved till we got in the top eight a few years ago with promotion-relegation and those things.

"We thought that was great but now to win the title, that's something else.

"When we got to the premiers we began to think about why we shouldn't give the title a good crack."

No one coaches or plays and goes straight home in Otorohanga. The rugby club is a family. They know each other well, they work or socialise together.

They have used coaches from outside the area and while that raised some of the skills, some of the esprit de corps lapsed.

"Here we know what people are doing. We have to be flexible. Like trainings in the city can be at set times but that does not always suit us here in the country because guys are on shift work or doing other things."

If men at OTC are rostered on for night shift, on Tuesdays they work and then on Thursday they can use an elongated dinner break to attend rugby practice.

"It is our club, we are part of it. We are the coaches and the employers so we have to be flexible. We have 75 people here and you can't treat the rugby boys here any different otherwise there will be grumbling," Wiltshier said.

When rugby went professional in the mid-90s the number of club teams in the King Country halved.

Everyone thought they would be professional and there was an over-emphasis on 1st XV rugby. Schools made a grab for talent and places like Otorohanga suffered as talented teenagers transferred to Hamilton. Technical institutes claimed teenagers in the cities instead of them serving traditional apprenticeships.

But that cycle is changing; players are not happy to be in third XVs because of the talent congestion.

Jackson Willison started high school in Otorohanga then transferred to Hamilton and club rugby and the Chiefs.

The urban drift and cars did not help. People shifted their shopping to the cities too and Otorohanga needed to be part of that and part of the rugby scene too.

"When I was a kid you got sent to boarding school if you were bad but then they went for the footy," Wiltshier said. "Numbers here went down so we said we needed to play in the Waikato.

"We fought the law and the law didn't win. The power of the submission won; we won our fight to play rugby in our town as part of Waikato."

In 1988, when Wiltshier started, players were subsidised much more than they are now. Companies learned they couldn't afford to carry rugby players.

They encouraged their staff to play but they had to work equal shifts to their colleagues.

Otorohanga had shown others they could compete with Hamilton clubs. They signalled the pathway to Waikato or the Chiefs was not the prerogative of city clubs.

"Kids also need to realise only a certain amount make it as professional rugby players. The rest do so for enjoyment and the love of the game," Wiltshier said.

Ted Tauroa works and has a balanced life in Otorohanga. The prop trains three times a day with Waikato from May, plays for the local club, then from June to October earns his coin with Waikato before returning to work after the ITM Cup. His employers can give him that leeway in Otorohanga.

Others find they get swallowed up in city clubs and are better off showcasing their talents elsewhere.

Willison had come home. He wondered whether everyone would expect too much of him. He played only one club game this year but he was at every training he could be and helped coach the backs.

"The tide is turning - just and at last," Wiltshier said.

The club had about 10 players in Waikato rep sides.

"That is usually the domain of Old Boys and Tech and Marist but that is what Jackson helps bring to us. He is on the cutting line of Wayne Smith's coaching and he is bringing that back to us.

"Some players complained about getting penalised too much at rucks but Willison just said to them, 'don't blame the ref, get clear of the ball just do it, get the hell out of it'.

"It is that influence, getting away from contact area and conceding penalties, that sort of coaching and advice which helps."

League has eaten into the town's third-grade side, taking the guys who just want to have a run around and then get into the beer.

Rugby training has changed. They try to get the players to warm up so they are ready to get into it half an hour later but sometimes that is difficult with work. There have to be compromises, unlike city clubs who are running themselves like a mini-Chiefs side. They needed to ease up, let these guys play rugby, breathe it, enjoy it.

"We tap into enjoyment, that's why I stay involved," Wiltshier said.

"Rugby is about your mates, spending time with each other and helping each other.

"The boys do not leave the clubrooms until after speeches and that's the same when we go away. In the city, teams often don't go into each other's clubs but that's not for us."

Otorohanga have brought back Thursday night meals.

For $10 players got a roast meal, pudding and a drink whereas that would just cut out a feed at the local burger bar. Afterwards, players did the dishes and it was the same after matches. Everyone had a turn, that was the way Oto worked.

Wiltshier's father washes the jerseys, the manager does the socks and shorts. They encouraged the club comradeship. There was an annual $20 club membership fee for which the players got a T-shirt, shorts, socks and their dress shirt.

"This is rugby reality and it buys ownership.

"Once you wash the dishes you own the club. Once you own the club you play for the club. Mateship and camaraderie, that is unity, that is rugby's secret.

"We used to sit around and drink beer and be mates. They don't, so they play, eat food and do dishes together. Kids come along, they are in the huddle.

"We might do 40-50 meals for mums and kids who come along and Grassroots is on TV. It is a neat time."

Wiltshier agrees there could be problems when his family is no longer involved.

This season's success will carry the club through the next two years, but sports like skiing, hockey and soccer attracted kids. That showed with the Tech and Marist clubs in Hamilton having solitary under-21 sides. That was life. If clubs started fighting their demise it would cost a lot of money. It was not an NZRU problem, it was a reflection of society.

Otorohanga College did not have a 1st XV these days. That's how it is. It was hard to crack. Rugby was not scaring guys away.

Franchises were luring young men to their city academies, provinces were contracting guys who were two years short of competing. They might go to the Warriors or elsewhere.

The Otorohanga club looked after locals because schools did not do that any more. Those school kids looked up to the senior team for their inspiration and that had been the greatest reward in this 2012 season.

Otorohanga rugby

New Zealand may look a lot different than it did in the 1950s and 60s when the mantra of rugby, racing and beer was axiomatic.

We are less likely to look to the Mother Country for spiritual and cultural guidance, our reliance on the land has arguably lessened as the population has drifted from the country to the cities.

We are indisputably more urbanised but this roadtrip through Chiefs heartland demonstrates that the essence of rugby is still found in small-town New Zealand.

In towns such as Otorohanga, which a few years ago was playing in the King Country union but this year did the unthinkable and won the Waikato premier club rugby championship.

And towns such as Tokoroa, which has churned out a disproportionate amount of talent in recent years, including Keven Mealamu, Richard Kahui and (quietly) Quade Cooper.

The favourite sons of Te Kuiti, or Meadsville, need no introduction, while Reporoa has welcomed an All Black into its midst in Richie McCaw's heir apparent Sam Cane.

One of the men charged with harnessing this talent, Chiefs assistant Wayne Smith, is himself a product of Putaruru, a small South Waikato farming service centre.

It is in these sorts of towns that rugby remains a hub of the community. Today we meet one of the men behind Otorohanga's stunning success and find that C.E. and S.T. Meads are not the only big personalities to be found at Waitete Rugby Club.

Heartland roadtrip

Tomorrow: Off to Taupo, the lakeside tourist trap that has been bit of a rugby no-man's land and then north to Reporoa, home of the latest in a long line of outstanding openside flankers.

Thursday: To the mill town of Tokoroa, where breeding internationals is par for the course, and we catch up with a man who once called Putaruru home.

- NZ Herald

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