A band of brothers dubbed 'The Movement' has shaken up Hawke's Bay club rugby, showing age is no barrier to success. Neil Reid meets Clive Rugby & Sports Club's star-studded third-grade team, who are about much more than what happens on the field
By day, Robert Whaitiri is a sharp-looking 60-year-old holding down a top job for the Ministry of Māori Development, Te Puni Kōkiri.
But every Thursday night at the Clive Rugby & Sports Club's flood-lit home ground alongside busy SH51, south of Napier - or at other Hawke's Bay grassroots venues on a Saturday, the formalities of his business persona as a community funder are dropped.
When he dons his playing gear, Whaitiri – whose sister is Customs Minister Meka Whaitiri – becomes "The Rocket", the oldest member of Clive's third-grade team.
The team – which includes players who have represented New Zealand Māori, New Zealand Sevens, New Zealand Divisional XV, Tonga, Samoa, the Blues, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, East Coast, Hawke's Bay and Manawatu - last year stunned their much-younger rivals by winning the division title in the Hawke's Bay Rugby Union's club competition.
And their winning start to this year's campaign has seen them post more than 50 points in back-to-back games.
"I do this for the camaraderie and for whatever [time] I have got left on this earth to impart and inspire these guys that life doesn't end at 60," Whaitiri told the Herald on Sunday.
"I said last year when I turned 60 that I would be hanging my boots up. But I just enjoy it so much. Playing keeps me healthy, it's a stress release and I think I have something to offer the team . . . it's a privilege."
As well as being the oldest player in the squad - which has an average age of 41 – he is also the side's kaumatua.
The Movement's co-founder, and now coach, Mano Flutey, describes his oldest player as "an absolutely awesome member of our squad".
"He is a huge gift to us and sets the pathway for us and our younger fellas," Flutey says. "He also does a karakia for most of the activities and events we do."
Whaitiri, humbly, rates himself as a "last resort" for selection. But last year he still lined up for eight matches in the competitive club competition.
"It took me a few days to be able to walk around and get the body back in synch," he laughs.
"I have a grease up and oil change with my doctor every three months, I check my cholesterol level, I go to the gym twice a week. My passion [to keep fit] is so I can see my grandkids. I have eight grandkids and I like being around for them."
He jokes that if he keeps playing for a further five seasons, he might be able to play alongside one of his grandsons.
A team of champions
Whaitiri's name is well-known in Hawke's Bay rugby circles. At the Clive Rugby & Sports Club – which he joined in 1985 after leaving his boarding school Te Aute College - he is a bona fide legend.
And plenty of The Movement's members are household rugby names around New Zealand – and beyond. The rugby CV of prop Orcades Crawford, 55, includes playing for New Zealand Māori, the New Zealand Colts, the New Zealand Divisional XV, the Blues, Hurricanes, East Coast, Hawke's Bay, Manawatu and Central Vikings.
Flutey, 48, previously starred for the New Zealand Secondary Schools, New Zealand Divisional XV, East Coast and Hawke's Bay.
In 2000, he won the Third Division player of the year award after inspiring East Coast to the NPC title. One of his provincial teammates from that year, Simon Christie, is a key member of the club side.
The Clive Thirds also include 40-year-old former New Zealand Sevens star Tafai Ioasa, who won a gold medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, 37-year-old former Hurricanes, Junior All Black and Hawke's Bay flanker Karl Lowe and 39-year-old ex-Tongan international, Hawke's Bay and Chiefs star Sona Taumalolo.
Winning is great, they say, but just having the opportunity to still play the game they love is their main motivation.
"We play rugby for the fun and enjoyment, just like when we first put our boots on as a 5- or 6-year-old. That fun still runs through our veins," Flutey says.
"There is a huge culture in this team and it is about fun and enjoyment. Everything is for the love of it."
The strong culture means all the members of The Movement- which includes truck drivers, builders, digger operators, health clinicians, business owners and board members - are equally respected, be they be former top players, those who didn't go as far in their younger playing days, or new recruits.
"Everyone has a place and a purpose in this team," Flutey says. "And with the new guys coming here we welcome them so much, their seed is planted here. It is up to us senior guys to water that seed and watch them grow.
"Those new players bring excitement and energy and they add value to the foundations that have been created."
The team was founded in 2020 after brainstorming between Flutey, Christie and Lowe to offer some of Clive's older players, who Flutey says "probably had another five or six years rugby left in them", an outlet to keep playing.
The Movement is now about 90-strong. As well as rugby, members also have a cricket team in the summer, take part in golf and tennis championships, have a diving and fishing crew, and host a range of fundraising initiatives.
They are seen as an inspiration by members of the wider Clive community.
"Mano was the catalyst," Whaitiri says. "He had this dream: 'Hey I know you guys have a bit of petrol left in your tank'.
"It is not about reliving the old days. Most importantly, it is about including our families and making sure they are part of this."
A Band of Brothers – on and off the field
The Movement prides itself on supporting its members in all walks of life. That shone through for Flutey earlier this year when they rallied around him and his family when the former star first-five almost died after suffering a cardiac arrest.
His mates "got right behind" the Flutey family financially and spiritually as he first battled for his life in hospital, then started the recovery process from heart surgery.
"They supported me right from day one," Flutey says. "It [his heart issue] was something that I never thought would happen to myself, but it did. I was flown to Wellington and had three stents put into my heart . . . it was quite serious."
Family is at the forefront of the ethos behind the side. Players' wives, partners, parents, children and even grandchildren make up a vocal supporters' club each Saturday.
An honour guard made up of children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren welcomed them on to Napier's McLean Park before last year's third grade final against Taradale.
"Before, when we were at our peak, you just focused on yourself as a player," Whaitiri says. "This time, it is an extension of 'how do we include the rest of our family to be part of the wider movement?'."
Adds Flutey: "We are a whānau-based team. We have the support of all our wives and partners, our kids, our mokopuna. There is a family behind every man and we welcome the man here, and their families as well."
And there has been no shortage of whānau supporting them as they kicked off their 2022 campaign with successive hammerings dished out to Maraenui (52-15) and Napier Old Boys Marist (65-7).
The strong family links within the team have seen several father-and-son playing combinations over the past three seasons, something Flutey says brings immense pride to the group.
"To play with your father or your son is an absolute highlight of a man's career."
How to beat the youngsters
CLIVE'S clubrooms are a shrine to its halcyon days of success in the Hawke's Bay club competition. Walls are lined with photos of championship-winning teams, as well as jerseys gifted by players who went on to make the Junior All Blacks, New Zealand Māori, New Zealand Divisional XV and other representative sides.
And the building – which Whaitiri says is a "marae" for its proud players – was packed last July when The Movement returned with the Big Barrel Ron Parker Memorial Cup after their grand final triumph over Taradale.
"You couldn't move in the clubrooms afterwards," Whaitiri proudly recalls.
"Even though I sometimes think I go through a bit of Alzheimer's or a few senior moments, the memory is vivid in my mind," he laughs. "The memories come flooding back."
So how does a team stacked with players who are either middle-aged, or close to it, beat teams half their age?
Aside from sheer determination, it harks back to the old sporting mantra that class is permanent.
"We are not as fit as we used to be," Flutey says. "We are not as fast . . as you get older your legs slow down a little bit. But the hands are still quick and the mind is eager and ready to go."
Though he was a foundation member of the playing roster, Flutey knew when it was time for him to hang up his playing boots and concentrate on coaching.
"The body just wasn't keeping up. The mind was saying 'Go', but the body was saying 'No'."
It isn't just traditional playing values that The Movement are keeping alive.
Other elements include post-match hosting of opponents regardless of the result.
"We really try to keep some of the old school values going," Whaitiri says. "You go into the opposition's dressing room and drop off a crate of beer after a game, and invite them to an after-match function. And hopefully the younger generations will keep that going."
Flutey's rugby career took him around the world; wearing national colours and involving a successful stint in South Africa.
But he has no hesitation in nominating The Movement as being a "huge highlight" of his footy career.
"I have been through many different teams . . . but this is special," he says. "It's a home club for us, somewhere where we feel welcome. And as I say with these new players coming in, I am here to water their seed and watch them grow."