Man fighting for his life helps inspire winless team to victory.

He's fighting for his life - yet thought nothing of answering an SOS to help coach a school 1st XV rugby team eight years without a win.

The coach, 49-year-old Hastings logging truck driver Ritchie Williams, is battling blood cancer and is waiting to undergo a third course of radiation treatment in five years.

But, together with his wife Rochelle who took on the job as team manager, Williams was happy to step in last year to try and find a way to stop the winless streak endured for so long by St Johns College in Hastings. Their work got quick results, the school's top team soon earning wins over arch-rivals Te Aute College and Wanganui Collegiate.

For their efforts, the husband and wife team have been named ASB Good as Gold recipients, the bank giving them $10,000 to spend as they wish.


Clues to how they transformed the team into winners are contained in the endearing words used to describe them by some of the parents; Rochelle 'aunty' to the team, the pair 'friends' and 'mentors'.

There are also clues in Williams's own story. A dyed-in-the-wool rugby man since he was a wee fella growing up in Masterton, he was diagnosed with blood cancer five years ago. Although he has been in remission, the disease is back and he needs further radiation treatment.

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However Williams is not one to let it hold him back: "I know it (the cancer) is there, but I carry on as if it isn't," he says.

Rochelle says the ASB award will be a "lifesaver" when Williams takes time off for his treatment. "He will have to take a month, maybe longer, off work. He's used all his sick leave, so the money means we won't have to worry about finances so much.

"He has been diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma for the third time in five years and the odds are stacked against you when you are fighting something like this for a third time."

ASB Bays & lower North Island regional manager Barry Coffey says he hopes winning the award will take some of the stress off the Williams family during a tough time.

"Having to go through radiation treatment once would be hard enough, but to be facing a third round and to still have the spirit and attitude Ritchie does is humbling," says Coffey.


"Through his coaching he has had a huge impact not only on the kids, but on their family and friends. This is evidenced by their nominating him and Rochelle for ASB Good as Gold – it's a special kind of person who can unite a community this way."

Williams needs a bone marrow transplant - one he received two years ago has now failed - but no current matches are available to him. He also has his name down to take part in an American trial for CAR T-cell therapy (this involves re-directing the immune system to impart protection against cancer) but when, and if, this might happen is uncertain.

"In the meantime he needs radiation to slow it down," says Rochelle. "But typical of him, he's hoping he doesn't have to do it until the rep rugby season finishes in September."

Williams still turns out occasionally for the Napier Old Boys Marist club's second XV and recently answered an SOS from them when they were short of players, putting in a solid 20 minutes in the front row.

He says doctors have told him he shouldn't be on the field because his bones are too brittle to take the knocks: "My bones are fine, so I keep on going," he says. "I've been playing since I was little, way back in the seventies. I enjoy playing, always have done."

He inspires in his work ethic too. He starts every day at 2am and last year shook off the effects of an accident in his truck when the vehicle slammed into a tree in Gisborne after a pin dropped from the steering column.

"He was shook up more than anything else," says Rochelle. "Luckily the truck was empty at the time and he was only doing 60kmh. It happened the day before we played Te Aute, but he made it to the game."

The success at St Johns came after a weekend camp: "We stayed on a marae and got to know the boys better," Williams says. "We tried to get out of their heads they hadn't won in eight years telling them 'whatever happened in the past let it go'. When they did win it was the best day ever for them."

The team also went on to beat another of their arch-rivals, St Johns College in Hamilton, for the first time in years and to win all but one of their games on a trip to Chile earlier this year.

Although his stint with the St Johns team lasted only the one season, he still helps out when he can (Rochelle has continued as manager this year) and is kept busy coaching three other age-group teams. At the same time he follows his two sons, Elliot (14) and Finley-Sam (10) who both play.

The couple were nominated for the award by Sarah Ireland and Kelly Harvey, both of whom who have sons playing in the St Johns team.

"Ritchie and Rochelle are true super heroes," says Ireland. "Our boys were a little down and out after many years of failures on the field and, all of a sudden, this dynamic duo stepped into their rugby lives with the belief the boys had lost.

"Every single one of our boys gained an aunty, mentors, coach, manager and friends. We want to pull together and show them how much they mean to us and hopefully we can ease things for them while Ritchie has his treatment."