Wanganui rugby veteran Peter Rowe takes on the British & Irish Lions in two weeks. He sat down with Zaryd Wilson to talk about the long career he thought had ended, and preparing for 'one more lap around the track'.
Peter Rowe still remembers when his parents first said he could play rugby.
"One of the teams was short and they'd rung to see if I could play.
"I remember not sleeping. I was lying in bed listening to the rain. It was pouring that night and the next day the game was cancelled so I missed out. I just remember being shattered."
It was a false start, but the Hunterville-born Rowe has gone on to be one of New Zealand's greatest amateur players in the professional era.
He's won five Heartland Championship titles, was two times Heartland player of the year and captained the New Zealand Heartland team.
In a 14-year provincial career he pulled on the Wanganui jersey 119 times, many as captain, before retiring after lifting the Meads Cup at Cooks Gardens last year.
But then earlier this year the phone went.
Did he want to play for a provincial Barbarians side against the British & Irish Lions in June?
"Mate, how do you say no to that?
"I think it'd be one of those things when you got older you'd really regret, so yeah, I'm pretty old but I'll go for one last lap around the track and we'll see how we go."
So Rowe is back on the paddock, playing club rugby for Ruapehu, and preparing for the game of his life.
At 35, it will be a fitting end to a career for which the seed was sown early; backyard games on the lawn and Bledisloe Cup matches on TV.
A young Rowe, who idolised Michael Jones and Buck Shelford, was 12 when he finally took the field.
He was being home-schooled in the 18 months before starting high school and his mum got him playing rugby as a way of interacting with other children.
"The night before games, getting my boots ready, having them clean and polishing them up; I loved it," Rowe says.
"Maybe that's been why I've been able to carry on for so long."
School wasn't for Rowe and he left Feilding High School at the end of fifth form.
"I wanted to do well with agriculture and rugby and I think that was summed up in my fifth form when I won an award for agriculture and I got the rugby cup for the First XV," he says.
"To me, I'd achieved my goals."
He left to work on the family farm and joined the Taihape Pirates club playing under-21s as a 17-year-old.
The following season was the first after the merger between Pirates and Huia and Rowe graduated to premier club rugby.
"It was awesome," Rowe says. "I had a good year. I was quite a cheeky young fulla and probably started a lot of things that were taken care of by the older guys.
"I owe a lot to the Taihape Rugby Club. As a 17-year-old they gave me an opportunity and I had some great guys around me like [Wanganui centurion and current Taihape coach] Kerry Whale and guys like that. They really encouraged me and taught me a lot."
Rowe's farming career also blossomed around this time.
His parents moved away to a farm they'd bought near Raetihi and Rowe took over the Taihape operation.
"Yeah, hard case. Normally it's your parents kicking you out of home but I kicked Mum and Dad out."
A few years later Rowe got his first call up to the Wanganui team, debuting in 2003 against neighbours Manawatu in the traditional Bruce Steel Cup game.
"I came on in the last 10 minutes. I was pretty amped to get on there and I remember the first ruck I went charging off and their halfback threw a dummy and opened us up. It was my fault."
Then he was yellow carded after collapsing a maul.
"First cap and you're sitting on the bench watching it."
In that first year he was spending a lot of time travelling to training and games, only to be on the fringes of the squad.
"So I had to make a decision," Rowe says.
"Was I going to give up my work that was my income to focus on rugby? I just thought, I love playing club footy but maybe Wanganui's not the thing for me so I pulled out and focused on work.
"It was Kerry Whale who actually had a good yarn to me one night at training and encouraged me to give it another crack.
"I always remember that. There's guys who encourage you in different ways and I'm so thankful that he did because it's been a ball and a real privilege to play for Wanganui."
From 2004 he's been a fixture in the Wanganui line-up and his achievements are well documented.
"Winning championships is good but my highlight is the friendships I've made," Rowe says. "The ones that in years to come you can go and see someone and know you can pick up where you left off.
"When you pull on that blue, black and white it's a real honour, you know, and I guess that's the thing you want to see kept.
"If I've played my last game for them I'll never turn away. Once you've played for them you never want to see them do poorly."
Rowe is coy about the potential he had to play at a higher level.
"This thing came in the mail one day. I can't even remember what it was. I know they'd been talking about academies and all that sort of stuff."
Many would argue he had the ability to play professionally.
"Maybe. Who knows? But I've got no regrets. I'm happy with what I've done and happy to have done the best where I've been and for what I think I could do.
But Rowe was just never interested.
"I remember being away at a New Zealand under-19 trial and they were so worried about everything they ate and their training. That wasn't me.
"It wasn't going to be my god, you know. I wanted to be able to have bacon and eggs for breakfast.
"For me rugby is something I love. But I love what I do on the land and I love putting my boots on in the morning and going to work," he says.
"Rugby fits into that but it's down the list for me. I've got a family and that was always a priority of mine. I'd give up everything I've done with rugby to have my family and to have what I do."
Rowe met his wife Emma when they were teenagers and they married when he was in his early 20s.
"We were pretty serious about committing to a life together and that's what we've done."
Together they have three children, Grace, Samuel and Harry, and now run a sheep and beef farm just south of Raetihi alongside his parents and brothers.
He says he owes a lot to his family who have helped him juggle playing for Wanganui during the provincial season alongside work and family commitments.
"You've gotta knock off work and leave at half past four to be in Whanganui for training in time, twice a week and then for your game on Saturday," Rowe says.
"Often we're staying down after training on Thursday so you're away all day Friday, flying and travelling and getting home late Sunday evening, so yeah, it can be taxing but it's one of those things you do.
"But we're actually the lucky ones really because in that travelling time you get the banter. It's really enjoyable and I think that's what's made it really.
"I've been really fortunate over the years that the family have really encouraged me and are all supportive of it because when you have that much time away from work it would wear thin with a lot of employers.
"I get a fair bit of stick about it but they are always supportive."
At the end of last season Rowe called time on his career.
"You don't want to be that old dog in a team letting people down so you're better to finish when things are in your favour," he says.
"You see the likes of Jamie Hughes - and I've watched him over the years - he's always been a fulla who's pushing you. You see in the final last year, the way he came on and played was great.
"I always believe I want that jersey to be mine until there's someone else and I think that time had come. When there's someone that's coming on that's going to play better, I'm all for making way."
But now, in extraordinary circumstances, he's back. Playing club rugby for Ruapehu and preparing to take on the Lions.
"It's just about turning up and getting into it," he says.
"For a guy like me, you only get one of these opportunities. It's just about going and enjoying it and trying to do it justice. It's a big honour and one that probably won't sink in until a few years down the track.
"At the moment I'm preparing for a game of rugby and trying to get fit and I don't really want to think about that too much. You don't want to let the occasion become the main thing.
"It's about performing in the occasion and we'll let that other stuff happen afterwards."
And Rowe appreciates being able to share it with his mates.
"There's a few guys from the rugby club up here that have been coming along and training with me. It's awesome having a group of guys that are there pushing you along.
"It can be tough getting up and pushing yourself to just about vomiting each Monday and Wednesday to get ready. It's good having mates who want to be part of it with you.
"There's been quite a few guys from up here who have played against the Lions in years gone by. You think of when King Country and Wanganui used to combine.
"They just say 'make sure you do it justice. You know, they're only men, eh? Go and get into it'."
So in two weeks Rowe will head to Whangarei, run out on Toll Stadium and play against the world's greatest and most famous touring rugby team.
The following day he'll come back to Raetihi and carry on with his dream; being a father, farmer and husband.
Last weekend his boys started playing rugby. And like that night Rowe lay in bed listening to the rain, he sat with his kids and talked about the next morning's game.
"I guess they're just the same as what I was. They come home from school and are out on the lawn with a rugby ball.
"It's just neat watching it all start again."
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