OPINION: Jamie Mackay, host of New Zealand's flagship rural radio show The Country, writes a monthly column looking at the big issues facing the sector.
This column was destined to be about rural mental health and about a rugby-playing knight who's made it okay to not be okay. That was until destiny intervened and an old piece of rugby memorabilia landed on my doorstep.
The knight is Sir John Kirwan. Our paths have crossed twice recently. Firstly at the NZ Rural Sports Awards in Palmerston North, where he presented former world champion shot putter Tom Walsh with the Sir Brian Lochore Memorial Award for outstanding sportsperson from a rural background.
Both Kirwan and Walsh spoke passionately and openly, and at times humorously, about their own mental health battles while competing as international sportsmen.
My second connection with Kirwan was last week on my radio show, The Country, when he was generous enough to give me an extended (by commercial radio standards) interview about his work around mental health, and more particularly in the rural space, where the stats are damning. The raw, cold, harsh reality is if you're a male farmer you're 50 per cent more likely to commit suicide than your urban mate.
The reasons for this are numerous; isolation, the inability to control factors such as the weather, which can destroy your livelihood overnight; and, tragically, the ease of access to firearms. And to directly quote Kirwan, "there's also cultural pressures - once upon a time you were the backbone of the country, now you're the assholes that pollute it, which is completely untrue."
But back to the rugby memorabilia that has stopped this column in its tracks – a bit like the Ever Given wedged in the Suez Canal.
Because I'm a trainspotter from way back, I'm a receptacle for everyone's rugby paraphernalia and junk that's looking for a home when an ageing relative of theirs passes away.
So a friend dropped off a commemorative mug which featured the late great D B (Don) Clarke. Known affectionately as "The Boot", Clarke was a colossus of a man. At a massive 110kg, he was the heaviest member of the 1963/64 All Blacks to Britain and France - no mean feat for a fullback. Along with Colin Meads, he dominated his era, just as Richie McCaw and Dan Carter did theirs.
I filled the said mug with coffee and set about writing this column about Sir John Kirwan and rural mental health. But as I sipped from the well, the more I got to thinking about my wonderful day out with Don Clarke, the one and only time I met him. And this tale has a John Kirwan connection.
It was in Auckland in 1994. Back then you could buy a house in the City of Sails for $100,000 and back then the All Blacks were hosting the Springboks at Eden Park for the first time since the infamous "flour bomb" test of 1981.
And back then an outspoken former school teacher by the name of Murray Deaker was starting to make a name for himself on 1ZB as a pull-no-punches sports broadcaster.
Also in 1994, I became an accidental radio broadcaster, when Lee Piper and I bought Gore-based 4ZG off the government. Long story short, we were heading to Auckland for the third Springbok test when Deaker, who we'd developed a radio friendship with, invited us to a swanky Friday pre-test luncheon he was hosting at the Hyatt Hotel. Generously he said just front up, he had the tickets sorted.
So, like bumpkins in the big smoke, our touring party of four sauntered up, slightly the worse for wear, expecting to be out the back in the cheap seats. Imagine then, our astonishment when we were ushered right up to sit at the top table with Deaker, Clarke the legendary "Snow" White and their respective partners.
While it was the stuff dreams are made of, the afternoon wasn't without cost. Deaker mercilessly took the mickey out of his hayseed mates, as he affectionately called us, and we were at one stage paraded in front of the 500 plus-strong crowd. Our photo even made the society page of the then Sunday newspaper. We had truly arrived.
However, my lasting memory of the luncheon was not getting to sit at the top table with rugby royalty, it was as we mingled afterwards with the Auckland glitterati. A diamond-encrusted middle-aged woman approached me (I was 34 at the time and dressed in my finest) and asked me if I was really from Gore? When I indeed replied in the affirmative, her response stunned me. "But you look so normal," she enthusiastically gushed!
That comment has never left me. I've spent the ensuing 27 years in radio hoping to convince urbanites just how "normal" rural folk from the likes of Gore, Geraldine, Greymouth and Gisborne are. Frankly, without them, our economy would be buggered. That's why it's so important we look after them and their mental health.
And the Sir John Kirwan connection? The uninspiring 18-all draw against Springboks was to be his 63rd and final test. But in the ensuing 27 years he has made it okay to not be okay. And that is his greatest achievement.
Tune into The Country on GOLD AM, Newstalk ZB, Hokonui & online via iHeartRadio for more rural news.
Where to get help
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
• Parent Help: 0800 568 856
• Alcohol and Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797
• Shine - domestic abuse helpline: 0508 744 633
• Women's Refuge Crisisline: 0800 733 843
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.