Andrew Alderson

Andrew Alderson is a sport writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Rugby: Club choose hangi over a hangover

Henare O'Keefe. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
Henare O'Keefe. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

If ever there was a New Zealand oxymoron, it's 'booze-free rugby club'. Yet the Maori Agricultural College Old Boys club at Flaxmere in Hawke's Bay say their only bar is the salad bar.

A 'no alcohol' policy was part of the MAC's Mormon heritage but was not strictly observed until about six years ago, according to club captain and local councillor Henare O'Keefe.

"Past regimes have deviated from that but we re-ignited it. What's a couple of hours post-match without the booze? Visiting clubs also seem to enjoy the environment. They have a lovely meal, share a word and bring their families without fear of alcohol-related problems.

"To anyone who might be partial to intoxicating liquor we say 'no, no, here, have an ice cold lemon or orange juice, it goes down a treat, and eat anything you like'. We mightn't drink, but members are encouraged to bring a plate for a big feed. We eat plenty of meat, fry bread and enjoy hangi."

O'Keefe says they see it as a viable alternative which promotes their motto 'he oranga mo te whanau', which translates as 'families are forever'.

The club operates under the MAC Sports Association which also caters to netball, league, basketball and volleyball teams.

"Our origins were in the Mormon Church but not all members are religious. I'm Christian but some have no denomination. Given this country's inclination to court alcohol, here's something different. We're not advocating total abstinence elsewhere, just when we're at club activities. I know it goes against the national grain but I think it's revolutionary, ground-breaking, brave, courageous and gutsy. It's quite sexy not to drink really," O'Keefe chuckles.

"We want our rugby players to be warriors on the field and gentlemen off it. They'll chew you up and spit you out during the game but you'll find them cuddling babies afterwards with their wives and girlfriends. We believe we're increasing the calibre of our men by exposing them to this environment. You only need to go to any A & E on Friday or Saturday night to see the damage alcohol can do."

Not drinking hasn't done the club any damage. They finished fifth out of 10 teams in the local competition last year and ahead of Taradale, one of the stellar names in Hawke's Bay club rugby (the new season opens next weekend).

"We're building our club on sober thinking," president and premier coach Anthony Morley says. "We like to keep it real rather than engage in alcohol-fuelled discussions. We want to set a successful example without boozing mummies and daddies. We joke that our only bar is the salad bar."

The original college was established in 1913 but destroyed by the 1931 earthquake. It was the rugby home of All Black legend George Nepia and the youngest All Black, Lui Paewai. The current old boys club was formed in 1934. Former All Black captain Taine Randell played there before studying at Otago University.

The club will have a new home next month, moving from Ron Giorgi Park across town to Flaxmere Park near the Age Concern building where they host after-match functions. The nearby Flaxmere community centre will officially re-open to the public this Friday after a $1.5 million refurbishment and O'Keefe wants to instigate a similar venture to fundraise for permanent clubrooms.

"If the government want to positively impact on social ills, throw us some money to develop an alternative booze-free lifestyle for sportspeople. Where would parents prefer their children played sport? At an alcohol-endorsed establishment or not?

"There wouldn't be much change out of $2 million but it'd be something for all eternity."

- Herald on Sunday

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