Two Aussies, three games - a beer fuelled roadtrip through New Zealand provincial rugby
Jay Staunton and Ricky Blanch have been mates since they were 13-year old freshies at Brisbane Grammar School. They’re footy mad boys from the heart of Brisvegas, stalwarts of the Wests Bulldogs, where they make up two thirds of the front row and three quarters of the after-match carnage. On the final weekend of the provincial rugby season, they came to New Zealand. It was the best four days of the rugby year.
I first met Jay Staunton at Baker Field, the Columbia College Sporting complex at the top of New York’s Manhattan Island, where the Old Blue Rugby Club trains and plays on artificial turf while the rattler shunts past on its way to the Bronx. It was my first visit to the Big Apple, but not Jay’s. He had played for the club and was there that weekend, as was I, to attend the club’s old boys’ reunion weekend. He wore: a camouflage baseball cap, horn rim spectacles, a beard that would make a hipster mixologist swoon, a button down maroon cardigan, blue footy shorts and sneakers.
That evening, along with mutual friend and former North Harbour Captain Chris Smith, we made our way into Midtown, drank copious amounts of American diesel, endured an intense conversation with a strange man in a linen suit who was convinced we were Russian mobsters trying to track down some missing Cayman Island funds, and later licked our wounds in a Times Square Starbucks at 5am. As I have learned from every subsequent visit to New York, there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about that scenario.
It is fair to say I loved the bloke from the get go. Everyone needs a spirit animal, and Jay – as far as I can ascertain – fulfils that role for approximately ninety-nine percent of his friends. He is just that kind of guy. He is Jaybor, the King of the Brown Snake, Brisbane’s most beloved Uber Driver, Chief Meme maker of upstart clothing label YP Threads, Doer of deeds that for others remain mere thoughts. On the final weekend of the provincial rugby season, he arrived in New Zealand with Ricky Blanch.
The concept was simple: Jay and Ricky were to land in Auckland on Thursday, drive to Wellington on Friday to watch the Championship final between the Lions and the Steamers; fly to Christchurch on Saturday to watch the Premiership final between Canterbury and Tasman, and then head to Methven for the Lochore Cup final on Sunday. A simple concept; an ambitious plan. By the end of it, the boys would have covered 6,412 kilometres to watch 260 minutes of rugby.
I met them on Thursday night at Depot, an Auckland eatery that specialises in dishing up the kind of food that would be welcome on any death row last meal list. I had never met Ricky. He was nicknamed ‘Chips’, had a fulsome beard and a prop forward’s appetite and was tonsils deep in a plate of skirt steak served with habanero onions and a wedge of iceberg lettuce. I wondered how he had got his nickname.
“I was eating a bag of chips one day, and someone yelled out ‘Chips!’”
With that he shovelled a forkful of medium rare beef into his mouth and smiled. As I would come to realise, it was a perfect backstory for a guy like Ricky Blanch: no nonsense. He was the yin to Jay’s yang, a big old bear of a bloke who laughed easily and often, a man you would trust with your credit card and your children. You wouldn’t trust Jay with your credit card.
Ricky and Jay settled into more beers and more meat. We talked about the weekend ahead, about the drive the next day. We talked about rugby, mostly, about their love for the game at club level in Australia, and the disconnect they knew existed between the corporate administrators and the lifelong battlers who spent Saturday afternoons trying to score at Ballymore, on the field and off it. I eventually left them wandering back to their Queen Street backpackers. Jay had dibs on the top bunk.
The following day, the first message read: “It’s fucked how green this joint is. Holy shit mate.”
Jay and Chips were in Tirau, the gateway to Putaruru, which in turn is the gateway to Tokoroa, which is the gateway to Taupo. I was happy to get the message from Jay. The boys had said they were leaving early, but I had feared the prior evening’s excesses may have somewhat delayed their proposed departure time. I needn’t have worried. They were here for the footy and there was no damn way they were going to miss that evening’s match in the capital.
“That’s because it’s always raining,” I had responded. As would have any self-respecting Kiwi with a semi-apologetic approach to our nation’s moisture level. I take the same drive every year, for summer holidays, when the fields are browning off and the grass is growing tall in anticipation of the haymaker’s scythe. It’s a glorious journey on a sunny day, but it’s no fun in the rain. I felt disappointed for them.
Fortunately, the sun came out as the two intrepid travellers were nearing the Great Lake. You cannot appreciate the scale of Lake Taupo on a grey, wet day – you don’t get to view the mountains in the distance, or look through the water on the shore and see right to the bottom, so I was glad the skies had cleared. I had earlier informed Jay that Lake Taupo, at a respectable 616 square kilometres, was the caldera of a massive volcano.
“That’s given me a big science stiffy,” came the response. I was glad that a low-level volcanology fact had warranted such a cerebral erection.
For the next hour, they would later report, the two men took turns picking their jaws off the floor as they passed along the edge of the lake and wound their way up the hairpin turns to the long straights of the Desert Road, with the peaks of Ngauruhoe, Tongariro and Ruapehu rising above the tussock wilderness, only obscured by the high tension pylons that march through that world heritage sight like a invading mechanical army.
I smiled with each update from the road, envious of their journey as I boarded a flight to Wellington. There is only one true way to see New Zealand, which is of course by road. With every text message I received came a fresh pang of jealousy, and the recurring realisation that so many of us take the genuine beauty of this nation for granted. Not the two boys from Brisbane, though. They spent the day taking in the scenery of the north island, all set to a hard house soundtrack and shitty banter.
Wellington is a big old tease of a town that at least four days a year has you convinced that it is, in direct defiance of its reputation, a windless charm of a place, clinging to the edge of a calm blue bay upon which recreational paddlers and rowers enjoy perfect conditions. It was just such a day as the boys finally swept through the Ngauranga Gorge and into the city.
They had tickets waiting at the gates of Westpac Stadium and an unlimited bar tab in the member’s lounge where they would be entertained for the evening by an affable chap named Chad Johnston, who plies his managerial trade at the delightful Rydge’s Hotel. A born and raised Wellingtonian, Chad would prove to be the perfect host for the evening: no fans in New Zealand rugby watch finals like Wellington fans – with equal parts exhilaration and exasperation – and no final in New Zealand provincial rugby history had as many twists and turns as the one at the Caketin that night.
It is a matter of public record that Wellington would go on to claim their first national title since 2000 thanks to a three-try overtime blitz that ended Bay of Plenty’s brave resistance. I quipped later to Rugby Pass writer and long-suffering Wellington fan, Jamie Wall, that the style of victory was the most Wellington thing I had ever seen.
“No, it wasn’t,” he replied. “Wellington losing that final would have been the most Wellington thing you’d ever seen.”
He had a point. It was, after all, the Lions’ first victory in ten finals appearances since the turn of the century. Any other team in world sport with a record like that would have long ago called in a priest to exorcise the demons.
Jay and Chips had enjoyed the game from their perch behind the posts, alternating cider and beer and wondering whether defence was an optional extra in Mitre 10 Cup games. I had sat with them for a time in the first half as they pondered what they were witnessing. “This game is off it’s fucken head,” Jay ventured. It was hard to find a better way to describe it.
At halftime Andy Leslie had wandered over for a chat. One of the most charming and likeable men you’d ever hope to meet, he couldn’t believe the lads had come all the way from Brisbane to watch the game. Hell, most Wellingtonians couldn’t be bothered coming to watch the game. Andy is one of those blokes who smiles with his entire face, and he beamed at Jay with the trademark twinkle in his eyes, listened to him chat away about his trip, shook his hand vigorously, and then wandered off with his cup of tea to talk to another group of fans.
Andy Leslie’s story is unique for the fact he was first selected for the All Blacks in 1974 and was immediately handed the captaincy, despite the fact he had not yet captained Wellington. It wasn’t a universally popular call, but it proved to be the right one. He captained the All Blacks in all but one of his 34 matches and retired from international rugby after the 1976 tour of South Africa.
It says much about how New Zealand – and rugby – used to be that before Andy left for his first tour of Australia in 1974, his beloved Petone club did a whip around so his family had a little extra in the kitty during his absence. It says much about New Zealand rugby still that this former All Blacks captain would take the time out of his night to engage in a serious and genuine conversation about the game with a bald-headed, thickly bearded Queenslander in a watermelon shirt. As we would discover later, Andy Leslie wouldn’t be the only Wellington captain to welcome Jay and Chips with open arms.
Later that evening, we would join the winning team at a small celebration at the Green Man, a local pub in the city. It was midnight by the time we had finished devouring lamb ribs and sliders and whatever else emerged from the Portlander kitchen and made the short walk through Wellington’s inner city. The festivities were in full swing.
Coach Chris Gibbes looked more relaxed than he had been immediately after the final whistle. He had come down from the coaching box at full-time and declared that he didn’t want to coach anymore. I’ve never seen a man so stressed out after a victory. The intervening few hours had obviously done plenty to calm him down and he was now beaming with pride
There was Tolu Fahamokioa, a jovial Tongan prop who had saved his best game of the season for last, and who had scored two tries in the final. It capped off a remarkable year for him. Tolu had thought his professional rugby career was all but over when he took advice from his agent and headed north to Hawkes Bay a couple of seasons ago. He was cast adrift by the Hurricanes after that and looked destined to slowly fade into some kind of provincial obscurity. Selection for the Barbarians side to face the British and Irish Lions back in June gave him a boost, and here he was now, in October, back with the other Lions and playing the house down.
I had first got to know Tolu in Golden Bay of all places. His partner, Courtney Clarke – herself a fantastic sportsperson, more on that in a minute – and Tolu worked night security at the Pohara Beach Top 10 Holiday Park where my family camps over summer. Her uncle and auntie, Brent and Del, own the place and her father, Darren, does whatever needs doing around the joint in the busy period. Tolu was always the butt of Darren’s jokes, as we all are over summer, but something in that constant goading must have sunk in. It clicked for him this year.
It would be hard not to try that little bit harder if you were the partner of Courtney Clarke. A former provincial netballer and this year a Tasman women’s rugby representative, Courtney spent the Farah Palmer Cup season balancing training and match travel with twice-daily milking on her family’s Takaka Farm. It was an incredible act of commitment, just as impressive as the fabled four-hour round trip that former All Black Andy Earl would take for Canterbury training, or the 50,000 kilometres clocked up by Blair ‘Sheep’ McIlroy during his playing career for Buller.
Darren would often volunteer to do the driving – up to four hours to get to Blenheim on some days, over the nauseating Takaka Hill, though Motueka and Nelson, and then over ‘The hill’ (Kiwi understatement at its very finest. ‘The Hill is more of a mountain range, and the road is a serpentine test of patience given the region is a magnet for campervans) to the vineyard capital of the country.
Courtney would be up at 4am each morning for milking and on training days would snooze in the car on the way to training (Darren’s chat would send anyone off to sleep), train like a boss, and snooze on the way back. She would often drive herself on the shorter trips to Nelson. It was a staggering effort that, like so many other amazing stories of dedication that emerge each season from the women’s league, largely went unnoticed by the wider public.
She was there in the pub when we arrived, happy to see her fella celebrating with his team mates. Happy to see him rewarded for his hard work. There were other partners, too, and union staff and the odd fan or two. And then something weird happened. Brad Shields, the Wellington Captain turned around at the bar, looked straight at Jay and said, “Jaybor! What the hell are you doing here?”
Much to his surprise, it appeared Jaybor had already achieved some recognition on this side of the ditch for his involvement with clothing label YP Threads. Enough recognition that the winning captain of a provincial rugby team based in a city he had never been to knew who he was. That was the night complete for Jay. Or at least he thought it was, until Brad bought him a drink. That really would have sealed the deal if not for the fact that he was then handed the Cup from which he was instructed to take a long slug.
“We’re going off!” He exclaimed with wild-eyed amazement after he had finished the cup scull. I stood and watched my mate having the time of his life and must admit my heart filled with joy. It wasn’t because of the booze – it was because of the gesture. I wanted Jay and Chips to have a great time because I love the game here every bit as much as they love the game in Australia. They were welcomed with open arms by that winning side – they felt included and appreciated – and that was enough for me. Much later I wandered back through the city and smiled still. We were only one game in. If we made it through three it would be a miracle.
“We feel like used condoms, but we’re at the airport eating Subway.” – Jay Staunton, Saturday, October 28, 2017.
The boys had booked an early departure from Wellington to Christchurch, which didn’t strike me as the best bit of planning. I had agreed to meet them in the Garden City and ferry them to the Premiership final that night. We rendezvoused at the hotel for a steak before heading across town to AMI Stadium in Addington. It’s still a tough drive through Christchurch; it’s still wrecked and wretched and held up by containers and strung together by abandoned yards and derelict buildings. It is growing back, slowly, like ground cover plants in the aftermath of a forest fire, but you still feel the loss all around you.
We arrived early at Addington, the temporary home of the Canterbury and Crusaders teams that now seems so permanent. Jay and Chips grabbed their tickets and wandered off for a beer down the road. It was still three hours until kick off. It had been a fine day, but as the sun dipped low, the air cooled and the wind from the east bore a sea-chilled bite. Jay would later report that his bald head had gone completely numb by half-time.
The game itself had none of the twists and turns of the previous evening’s fixture. Canterbury did what Canterbury does and strangled the life out of the luckless Mako. Richie Mo’unga, who had missed the semifinal thanks to a call up to squad duties with the All Blacks, once again was chief tormentor, having scored two tries in the corresponding fixture the previous season. The final score was 35-13, and Canterbury lifted the trophy for the ninth time in ten seasons.
We talked about Canterbury’s dominance after the game, on the drive back to the hotel bar, where Jay and Chips were embraced by the SKY Sport crew and the beers flowed as freely as the stories. There is no secret to Canterbury’s success. They recruit well, set high expectations, buy into the quest as a team, and usually come out on top.
Their one hiccup during the season and been a shock loss to Taranaki in a shield defence at home. They had led the game 31-7 after half an hour, but managed to score just 12 more while conceding 48. The final score – 55-43 to Taranaki – broke all manner of Ranfurly Shield records but it did not break the resolve of Glenn Delaney’s men. That they still found the will to win the title after that is quite something.
Jay and Chips sat around the table swapping yarns about the game. Big Willie Lose was in fine form, telling stories from his playing days. On one occasion he was picked to play number eight for the Auckland Maori team, he recalled.
“We were in the changing room and that coach walked in, and he began to point at particular players and tell them about who they were marking that day and what they would have to do,” he told us.
“Then he got to me, and said ‘you, you’re marking the great Buck Shelford today. He’s a legend, big and mean and powerful.’
“I was waiting for him to give me some advice, in the same way he had for all the other players he had singled out, but then he just shook his head and said, ‘Good fucken luck!’”
Jay excused himself for a a few minutes while Chips and I listened to more yarns. Then a message came through on the phone. It was Jay.
“I’m locked in the disabled toilet. Can you come and assist please mate?”
There are two things to do in the event of receiving such a message. One: go immediately to provide assistance. Two: Sit there and laugh for at least five minutes. We chose the latter option. Eventually I wandered down the hallway. Jay was banging on the bathroom door, trapped by karma (Jay is not disabled) and two inches of timber. I did what any mate would do and shot a quick video on my phone, and then went to the concierge desk. This was a job that needed an experienced pair of hands. A semi-drunk Australian was trapped in a bathroom. It was a scenario well above my pay grade.
The concierge, a rather gruff man, followed me to the scene of the tragedy.
“What seems to be the problem, sir?” He called through the door.
“I’m somehow locked in,” came the rather sheepish reply.
“Stand back from the door, please.”
I thought he was going to kick the door down. What drama! Just then he reached out, grabbed the door handle and slid the door open. Jay walked straight out with his head down, past the man who had rescued him from a disabled toilet, and back into the bar. I lay crumpled in a heap with tears streaming down my face. For a good fifteen minutes Jay had been trying to pull open a sliding door. Hell, he must have slid it shut to start with. I shall never be able to figure out how that all went so wrong for him.
Sunday dawned crisp and clear. It was a brilliant day for a drive and an even better day for a game of footy. We were heading to Methven, at the base of Mt Hutt, where the MC Hammers – the mighty men of Mid-Canterbury – would contest the final of the Lochore Cup against West Coast. West Coast were the unlikely finalists and the only New Zealand province never to have lifted a trophy in national domestic competition.
Methven, a ski town famous for its two pubs, the Brown and the Blue, is not usually the home of Mid Canterbury Rugby. That honour belongs to Ashburton which, like most towns of a similar size in New Zealand, often finds it’s last two syllables replaced by the suffix ‘vegas’. Ashvegas on this occasion was hosting the Agricultural and Pastoral Show, which is about the only thing that trumps heartland rugby in rural New Zealand.
As it was, Methven was the perfect venue, it’s wide green domain bathed in bright winter sunlight with Mount Hutt still capped in its veil of snow. Jay and Chips leaned on the post and rail fence and made small talk with the locals. I climbed the scaffold tower with Brendan Laney and we called the game.
For a time it looked as though the Coasters were right in the mix, having all the early running against their more fancied opponents. It looked even better for the battlers when Mid Canterbury fullback Maleli Sau almost decapitated Logan Heath in one of the more vicious tackles of the year. He was sent from the field after just three minutes, never to return.
There are not many sides that can sustain a third-minute red card and still hope to win a final. The Hammers didn’t just win the final, they crushed it. West Coast just could not take advantage of their extra man and were finally overrun 47-15. The locals loved every second of it, and the Coaster supporters didn’t seem to love it much less. That was the beauty of the day, really. It was a genuine occasion, a throwback to another age of rugby when you brought your beers to the domain and found a space on the rail.
I joined Jay and Chips after the final whistle and we stood on the middle of the pitch and drank some kind of pre-mixed vodka drink that would have stripped the cirrhosis from a drunkard’s liver. Then we made our way into the club rooms with it’s riverstone feature wall and high vaulted ceilings, and it’s round formica tables dotted with big bottles.
We sat down, the boys each with a quart of James Speight’s most famous creation, and at that moment, surrounded by the sounds and personalities of our national game at its most basic and most welcoming we shared in that rare and fleeting sports lovers’ singularity; it was the perfect ending to the perfect rugby experience in the perfect place to experience the perfect ending.
Sir Brian Lochore wandered over to say hello, and like Andy Leslie a couple of nights before, charmed the guests with his presence, and crushed their hands with his. Sir Brian, who lends his name to the cup the teams had battled for that afternoon, is in many ways the last of his kind, a living link between the way the game was once played, and the way we should all strive to be: unfailingly polite, astonishingly perceptive, deeply humble and admired for deeds rather than words. I have had the pleasure of his company on many occasions; I feel better as a person for having had those opportunities.
He duly said his goodbyes and moved on to the next group – Sir Brian does not get to exit quickly from social situations – and we moved outside to where the players were milling after showering and changing into their slacks and blazers. There was only one thing left to do: Jay needed to scull from the cup.
Having eschewed the opportunity to partake in a beer, I loaded the boys into the car for our final retreat. The late afternoon light was as soft as a puppy’s tail as we headed out of town. We made one quick stop at the Brown pub, for supplies, and another on the river stones of the Rakaia so Chips could live up to his promise of a nude swim. The water, cold and blue like an ex-wife’s heart, rushed along at an icy clip, but Chips would not be dissuaded from his sundowner skinny dip.
Jay drank another beer and laughed. I stood there smiling, watching two mates enjoy their last hours in New Zealand. It was then that I thought there may be one last drive that Jay and Chips needed to take. We hit the road and headed for Arthur’s Pass. Quite why, I don’t know. It just seemed like the right thing to do. We raced the sun through the interior of the South Island, past the tussock lands and Castle Hill, and beside the darkening waters of Lake Pearson. We hit the long, low bridge over the Waimakariri River as the last of the light drained away from the day, and we reached the Otira Viaduct in the evening mist.
We got out, set foot in the West Coast, looked at each other as if to say, this is the best and most pointless detour any of us have ever made, and hopped back in the car. It would be the route the West Coast boys would be taking later that evening, on a bus filled with the what could have beens and the almost was.
Not much was said on the way back to Christchurch. Too much had happened in the last 72 hours. It needed to percolate a while, settle into the memories in the comfort of car silence. Jay took charge of the playlist, Chips managed to drink the entire box of beer without so much as a word. It was stealth drinking at its finest. I smiled the entire way home, through the tiny towns of the plains and through the scruffy suburbs of the Garden City. I smile still.
It was October then, it is January now. The new season is just one month away. I wonder if there will be a weekend this season that comes close to that one with Chips and Jay. I wonder if an experience will come as near to perfection. We all need reminders of why we love something. Jay and Chips were that reminder.
I hope they come back, or that perhaps this story makes you grab a couple of mates and explore the country and watch some rugby and meet some people and nude swim in freezing rivers. I hope you get to meet your rugby heroes and find them to be all you hoped they would be. I hope you get to stand on the sideline in a country domain and watch average joes become local heroes. I hope you get to stand in a pub and congratulate your favourite team on a fine victory. I hope you scull from the cup.
I left the boys at the hotel and crawled into bed. The next day Jay sent a message from the airport: “One for the ages,” was all it said. It was all it needed to say. A month or so later I retraced their roadie from Auckland to Wellington on the way to Golden Bay. As I drove past Lake Taupo the boys popped into my mind. I thought about the Lake and its beginnings as a super volcano. And then I could hear Jay’s voice again.
“That’s given me a big science stiff,” it said. And I laughed out loud, and looked forward to the new season.
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