By Wynne Gray

Goldberg is a tacky little plastic toy which Waikato loose forward Nick Holten loves carrying round in his gearbag.

It is a sign of his contribution to the Ranfurly Shield-holders, recognition from his rugby peers.

In previous seasons, Waikato's hitmen used to compete for Bluey, a figurine someone found in a junkshop in Cairns. Duane Monkley was a regular recipient, then the late Aaron Hopa, but when he died late last year in a diving accident, Bluey was buried in his casket.


However the tackling tradition could not die. One of Waikato's practical jokers and new World Cup halfback, Rhys Duggan, latched on to Goldberg, a plastic copy of one of television's wrestling characters.

Holten, the rugged 26-year-old blindside flanker, has been a consistent and appreciative winner of the award this year.

"It does mean something because a lot of the time we may not get recognised elsewhere for what we do," he said before today's Ranfurly Shield defence against Taranaki.

"The defensive side of my game is my strong point. I am coming to grips with playing blindside flanker as my role with the team is to run our defence at rucks and mauls."

The job description fits the guy his team-mates have also called the Dutch Marauder.

Holten grew up on a dairy farm at Orini, on the outskirts of Hamilton, one of 14 children of Dutch immigrant parents. He has seven brothers and six sisters and comes in at No 12 in the birth order. All the children except two brothers still live in New Zealand.

It was a blissful, carefree and different lifestyle shown by the world record his father set for pigeon-racing when the Guinness Book of Records noted he had a bird which raced for 25,000km during a five-year stretch.

"Looking back, it was a great time on the land," Holten said. "It used to be pretty interesting at Christmas time and the family would eat a cow every two weeks.

"But it was a neat childhood as we always had plenty of kids to play with."

Most of his early sport was soccer and it was not until he went to Fairfield High School that Holten and rugby discovered they suited each other.

He was going well after school too, until one day in 1994, when his drainlaying career stalled and his provincial rugby career almost stopped before it started.

Holten was helping to join concrete pipes when he noticed a stone in one of the joints. As he went to flick the stone away one of the digger operators shunted the pipes together and four fingers on Holten's right hand were mangled.

"I thought I was going to lose them," he recalled. "All the skin was peeled off and they were right down to the bone. Luckily the doctors saved them. Somehow, though, the two middle fingers don't work properly."

Holten later found out that the Waikato coach, Kevin Greene, had been down to his work that same day to tell him he had made the provincial team for the first time.

His debut had to wait until the year after, but much of that season was wrecked too, as the flanker needed a knee reconnstruction.

Add that to surgery last year on a prolapsed disc in his back, which allowed Holten to play in only the semifinal and final of the NPC, and it is clear injuries have chewed into his game time.

"There is a joke going round that I am really three years younger than my mates [Michael Collins and Greg Smith] because of my time out from rugby," he said.

Holten's lack of swift progress as he watched those mates graduate quickly into the provincial scene and saw the loose forward opposition he faced within the Waikato side, had him eyeing other possibilties.

In 1997 he had a look at rugby league with the Canterbury Bankstown club in Sydney.

"I found I just did not understand the game," he recalled. "It did not suit me. I did not know what I was doing. Instead of running up in a straight line I was trying to tackle everyone like a rugby breakaway. I was knackered after 10 minutes."

Late last year his Dutch ancestry sent him off to play for Holland in the World Cup qualifying. Under former All Black Geoff Old, they won the warm-up games before being well beaten by England and Italy.

"I just figured I would never make it any higher than Super 12 in New Zealand, so thought I would go over and give it a crack and I could say I had been a test player."

Holten has brought that sort of mental hardness to the Waikato side under new coach Kiwi Searancke. He demands more each game after what he called a soft start against North Harbour.

"We don't want to lose our momentum now after two good forward slogs against Counties and Canterbury. No doubt Taranaki will take us on up front and we have to be on our game there," said Holten.

"Our scrum is not as good as it can get and when we get that sorted we can help our backs more. We have had two night games and a mudbath so with some luck, this weekend should be fine and our rugby can match the conditions."