Rugby: Slade McFarland set for 200th club rugby cap

By Campbell Burnes

North Harbour Hooker Slade McFarland. Photo / Peter Meecham.
North Harbour Hooker Slade McFarland. Photo / Peter Meecham.

When Slade McFarland made his first intrepid foray into senior club rugby, the game was amateur, tries were worth four points, the North Harbour union was just six years old, and the two packs dictated the scrum engagement.

Now the durable front-rower is on the verge of bringing up 200 premier games for his beloved East Coast Bays in a senior career spanning an astonishing 25 years. That is in excess of 400 trainings and countless scrums and rucks. Not bad for a 43-year-old.

Many of his teammates were not even born when he first donned the black and green of Bays against Northcote in 1991.

Bays kick off their 2016 season with a fixture in Helensville against the Western Pioneers.

McFarland will likely feature as an impact player off the bench. Then he is keen to hang up the boots and assume a technical advisor role for the latest crop of Bays front-rowers, though new Bays premier coach Mark Beale - who played First XV rugby with McFarland at Rangitoto and in many premier games for Bays - does not think he will get away with pulling the pin that easily, especially if there are injuries.

"I think its closing time now. 200 games is enough," says McFarland. "Ideally we're looking to blood other players and it'll be about the teaching aspect."

He is already doing that - he is the North Harbour scrum coach - and has done so for some time, having coached the premiers in the past, as occasional player/coach, but in 2015 he appeared in all bar one of the club's matches.

East Coast Bays will honour McFarland on May 7 after the home Windsor Park match against Massey in which he will receive his second black blazer. The first is for reaching the century. The man himself, characteristically, would rather it was all low-key, but his respect within the club is massive.

"It's been a long ride, but when you take into account he went overseas for a few years too, it's amazing," says Beale, who wears two hats in 2016, the other being that of club chairman.

"He was the baby of the team when he first came into it. He had an outstanding career and then went into coaching and stayed involved as a player. I've lent on him heavily this year around scrums, lineouts and set-ups. He's your clubman that every club wants.

"He's a man of few words, but when he speaks, everyone shuts up. The respect he is held in around the club, the union and the country is testament to the guy. He's a giver," adds Beale.

The premiers are even naming moves after him, unheard of for a current player.

It all started in 1991, when McFarland was an 18-year-old raw bundle of power fresh out of Rangitoto College entering a world full of gnarly club veterans like Kevin Boreovich, Ron Williams and Graham Dowd. Bays coach Mark Anscombe, himself not long out of his playing days as a rugged loose forward, gave him the break.

Things went rather well that year in a Bays side packed full of experience, and they set their seal as the dominant club of the early years of North Harbour by beating Takapuna in the final for their third championship. It remains McFarland's on-field highlight of his club rugby time.

That 1991 Bays side included men of the ilk of Liam Barry, Nigel Blake, Mike Te Paa, Dave Thomas, Rob Grindlay, Nick Moen, Cliff Mytton, Allan Pollock, Bevan Murray, Teina Clarke and Bill Wigglesworth, Harbour reps all. The latter, who appeared on some 165 occasions for Bays, now works with McFarland at the North Harbour union and coaches the women's rep team. Wing Wayne Hill was still playing for Bays in 1991, one of three double centurions after flankers Ian Coley (close to 250), and Anscombe himself (220), with McFarland to join as the fourth of this exclusive club.

In his time, the likes of Paul Vegar (North Shore) and Lance Fitzpatrick (Silverdale) plus 2015 entries Haden Kose (Mahurangi) and Jeremy Hikuroa (Glenfield) have all raised the double ton, but all played their games in a tighter time frame. No one can match a 25-year premier club career. If McFarland had not been on Super Rugby duty or taken his talents overseas for some seasons, he might be nearer 400 matches by now.

The changes in the front-row have been marked since 1991.

"When I first started, it looked like three rams in the front-row almost butting heads. We went from technical to power scrums. Now it's technical with safety in mind. A lot of the dark arts have come back into scrummaging, but there are few of us that are still teaching it," McFarland says.

In 1991 club rugby was king, and Bays were always contenders. McFarland recalls how nervous he was before his debut against Northcote, who had All Black Ron Williams staring him down from half a metre.

"It was quite mind-blowing. I'm 18, sitting amongst guys in their late 20s and early 30s. You had a whole lot of experienced guys who told you how to conduct yourself. That set me up for when I made the Harbour side in 1993 under Brad Meurant. Now the numbers of older players is diminishing. If you do well you can go overseas."

McFarland did just that, spending several seasons in France and the UK before heading home and giving back.

"My philosophy is that knowledge needs to be shared. It's not something that should be locked away."

He is proud of the fact he stuck around in 1997-98 after being cold-shouldered, inexplicably, by the Super Rugby franchises. Bays reaped the reward, and he produced two of his best club seasons, winning the union's club best and fairest gong in 1998 while helping Bays into the semifinals. They have only cracked the top four once since then.

"Not many get a second chance at Super Rugby. So I enjoyed it the second time round."
At his best as a powerful scrummaging hooker, accurate thrower into the lineout and direct and physical around the field, McFarland would not have looked out of place in the All Blacks. But he had to select for being an automatic selection in NZ Maori side and an asset to the Blues and Crusaders.

Only Williams and Walter Little, with 145, topped his caps tally for North Harbour, a figure that may stand for all time given the current rugby landscape.

So what has allowed McFarland to keeping going in recent times when rugby seems to be all about aerobic capacity and running your tail off for 80 minutes?

"My boxing and its training has played a huge part in getting to 200. I don't do road running. I also said 'Don't expect me to play 80 minutes just to get to 200.' It's just the game we love and enjoy but it's taken up more than half my life. It takes its toll on the body.

"When you play, though, you just have that natural competitiveness that comes out."
Throw in McFarland's games for overseas clubs with his 224 first-class games and now 200 club games, and you have a man who has played well over 500 rugby matches of consequence. That qualifies for legend status.

Slade McFarland fact file

Born: August 31, 1972
Position: Hooker, prop
Premier club games: 199 (East Coast Bays 1991-2015, ranked fourth in club)
First-class career: 1993-2004, 224 games, 35 tries
North Harbour games: 128 (1993-2004, ranked third in union)
Super Rugby games: 51 (1996-2004, Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders)
NZ Maori games: 26 (1994-2003)

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