Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: 'Bushman' Ranger back where he belongs

"I think it's a funny look," says Rene Ranger. "The bushman look, I guess." Photo / Getty
"I think it's a funny look," says Rene Ranger. "The bushman look, I guess." Photo / Getty

Rene Ranger found his happy place at Bell Park in Pakuranga last week.

Before taking the field in the second half of his Blues team's pre-season Super Rugby match against the Melbourne Rebels, Ranger, in his first game back from neck surgery, turned to wing Tevita Li and said he would have an early crack with the ball to put any doubts about his ability to handle a collision to rest.

He was true to his word. Receiving the ball, the midfielder - as is his wont - went over the top of (rather than around) a would-be defender and got an offload away. The statement had been made, the stage set. For the rest of the match, in a performance which should gladden the hearts of success-starved Blues supporters everywhere, the long-haired and bearded Ranger crashed and bashed like a furry wrecking ball, scoring a try and creating his own brand of mayhem at the modest suburban home of the Pakuranga United Rugby Club.

Skipper Jerome Kaino had said beforehand that the 29-year-old had fitted back in at the Blues after his two years at Montpellier like a hand to a glove.

"Rene's Rene," Kaino said with a smile. "He's still loud and the clown of the team, but it's good to have him back."

And this was further proof that Ranger is back where he belongs.

The six-test All Black said he enjoyed elements of his time at Montpellier, and in particular his experiences playing at home at Altrad Stadium in front of a capacity crowd of 16,000 people, but his relief at being back at Auckland and now playing again after surgery ruled him out of North Harbour's season last year is palpable. The homesick Ranger was granted an early release from Montpellier on compassionate grounds and his return is a huge positive, not just for himself but for the Blues and new coach Tana Umaga.

"I'm really enjoying being back home," he said. "I'm close to friends and family and with that enjoyment being back with the family, hopefully that helps with my rugby." He added by way of reinforcement: "It's real good being back home."

Ranger's power running and defence on the left wing at Montepellier made him a crowd favourite and it's that interaction which he might miss the most.

"Playing in New Zealand, we get some good crowds, but in France it was just the next level up," he said. "I think the stadium held 15,000-16,000 and it was full every home game. It was awesome to play in front of. The fans really got into it."

However, the rugby at the Top 14 club wasn't always as fun, he said. "It was enjoyable when the backs got a bit of ball. It can be frustrating at times with the old 'tennis' rugby. They seem to do a lot of kicking and it's very forward oriented. Earlier in that first year I was there we played a lot of good, running rugby. That's why I went to the club because they played that way."

In these professional rugby days of GPS monitors, almost constant instructions from coaches and - in New Zealand at least - a fairly homogenised style of play, Ranger's willingness to attack, to throw himself into collisions with or without the ball, to be a free spirit, marks the Northlander as a man apart.

As Kaino alluded to, Ranger possesses a mischievous streak and that's how he likes to express himself on the field. There is a feeling that when he is out there anything could happen.

In these days of rugby giants, Ranger is relatively small at 1.82m and 96kg but plays far above his size due to his strength and, more importantly, his attitude.

It will be fascinating to see how he combines with George Moala in the Blues' midfield this season, a bigger player with similar power who, like Ranger, will be attempting to force his way into an All Blacks midfield frame missing Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Moala made his test debut last year in Apia, his appearance a just reward for an outstanding season at a poorly-performing franchise.

"In the early years when I was playing at the Blues he was on the wing," Ranger said of Moala, a player who lifts weights like a tight forward. "I guess he's found his feet at No12. It was the first time I played with George as a midfield pairing. It's quite pleasing to play with someone with that ability to bust tackles - I suppose it makes my job a bit easier as I can just run off him. I'm looking forward to playing alongside him if we get the chance to pair up during the season.

"For me to do that I've got to get my confidence up at the Blues," he said of his All Black ambitions. "If I do my job here and contribute to the team, hopefully I can get those higher honours."

His last test was against France in New Plymouth in 2010, when his form as a substitute in the first two tests of the series propelled him to a starting position in the third. Eager to make a similar impact, Ranger couldn't quite get going, but there was a feeling when he announced his departure to France that he was leaving too soon, that there was unfinished business.

Well, now he is back and his early form will hopefully be a sign of things to come for him and his team. The hair and the beard, meanwhile, will remain - another statement from a man willing to follow his own path.

"I might just let it go for the season, I think.

"I'm not that fussed about cutting it. It's a different look I guess - from the afro of past years.

"I might just tie the front up so the hair stays out of the eyes. I think it's a funny look - the bushman look, I guess."

- NZ Herald

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