A trio of Rotorua touch players were an integral part of the New Zealand 40 Men's team who won gold in their age group at the Touch World Cup in Kuala Lumpur recently. Steven Wall, Shamos Hunter and Ben Page helped fight off a late comeback by their trans-Tasman rivals Australia in the final to finish unbeaten and in first place. It is a tournament in which Australia has been the dominant force for decades and Rotorua Daily Post sports reporter David Beck caught up with the three local players to see how they did it.
In 2014, the New Zealand 40 Men's touch team relinquished a 6-3 lead before losing in a drop-off to Australia in the Touch World Cup final.
Fast-forward to the 2019 World Cup and the two rival nations met in the final again. New Zealand raced out to an early 7-1 lead and looked odds-on to claim victory, but Rotorua's Ben Page had been there before.
"They came flying back and it was 7-6 but we managed to hold on and win 8-6. There were four of us that had played in the World Cup four years ago when they came back and we got silver.
"We were further ahead this year. I was worried but at the same time confident we could get across the line. It helped that we had guys who have played a huge amount of touch over the years, we had a very experienced team."
For Shamos Hunter, the gold medal win means he has a 100 per cent record at international level as it was his first time representing New Zealand.
"It was awesome - an awesome experience, awesome team, awesome event. It's the pinnacle of our sport.
"[Winning the final] was a big relief. We knew we had the team that could do it but it was just playing that last game really. Australia are a very good team, they have a few superstars of touch in there."
Wall, who has previously won World Cup gold with mixed teams, said the win was overwhelming but the highlight of the tournament was the bond between him and his teammates.
"It was a long time between drinks, it was 12 years since the last one. For me, playing men's was a bit different but it was the experience of the group that pulled through. We knew as a team what was expected at that level.
"It was more off the field than anything, that camaraderie, a bit of banter and the respect within the group. That is a gold medal in itself and we're a user-paid sport so we're paying a lot of money and if we come out of it with great friends in the end that's a bonus and success in itself.
"The medal is the icing on the cake and to beat Australia - there are a lot of high-class opponents in that team who have won World Cups before, for some of them it was their first loss ever."
The 40 Men's were one of three New Zealand teams to win gold at the tournament, with the 50 Men's and 27 Women's also triumphant. Page said he and his teammates were well aware of what an achievement it was.
"There were guys in that 50 Men's team who have been to seven World Cups and this is the first one they've won, it's a pretty big hurdle."
The second greatest challenge to New Zealand's title hopes, behind Australia, was the heat in Kuala Lumpur.
"Our semifinal (a 12-4 win over France) was literally just before the temperature hit 51.9C and they had to suspend play for a few hours. It's very humid, you're dripping within about five minutes of running around. We probably drank about four litres of water each game," Page said.
New Zealand gold medallists at the Touch World Cup
50 Men's, 40 Men's, 27 Women's.
New Zealand silver medallists at the Touch World Cup
Open Men's, Open Women's, Open Mixed, 35 Men's, 35 Women's, 45 Men's.
New Zealand bronze medallists at the Touch World Cup
New Zealand 40 Men's Touch World Cup Results
Beat Japan 17-1
Beat Malaysia 19-0
Beat Ireland 22-1
Beat England 12-2
Beat United States 19-1
Beat France 12-4
Beat Australia 8-6