Scotty Stevenson spent the weekend in the company of rugby players who’d just been on the receiving end of heartbreaking losses, and he loved every minute of it.
I sat and drank with losers all weekend. Absolute losers. They had given their all for their teams, and their provinces and they had come up short in the one game when it all counted. They were defeated men, pondering what might have been and wearing runners-up medals – quite possibly the saddest adornment ever to grace a player’s neck.
I sat and drank with those Otago losers on Friday night. Coaches Cory Brown and Ben Herring had invited me into their changing shed after the final against North Harbour. Harbour had won the match thanks to a late Bryn Gatland dropped goal that flew through the posts like a wounded duck. After the presentation I stood next to Otago captain Paul Grant as the victors posed for the cameras on his home pitch and sung their team song.
We watched the performance – the clapping, the cheering, the beautiful joy of it all. Grant stood there and took it all in, wishing, no doubt, that he was the one leading his team in a winning chant. It says much about Paul Grant that he stood there stoically until every last word had echoed around Forsyth Barr Stadium. Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I gotta be honest, that’s a pretty good team song”. Then he turned and walked off the field.
I walked into the sheds soon after, to sit and drink with losers. I walked down the long concrete corridor under the main stand, past the North Harbour changing room. Inside they were belting out ‘We Are The Champions’. I opened the door to another scene entirely, one in which perspective and pain existed. What an honour to have been handed the key.
It was the kindest, gentlest, most fraternal place I could have imagined being right then. There were smiles, there were hugs. There was trainer Karl Bloxham and manager Slim Hubbard, two men who would have walked through fire in the dying stages of that final if it meant those boys could have won the game. Sitting quietly on a bench was Dick Knight, the most capped Otago player in history. His boy Adam now wears the big gold ‘O’. There is no greater sight than a father consoling a son just with his presence.
There was Andrew Hore, a farmer from Patearoa, who plays for the Maniototo Maggots at the Offal Pit. He had been called in during the week as injury cover. It was his first game for Otago in sixteen years, and he had arrived that night after tailing all day on the family station that he helps run with his father Jim, mother Sue, and big brother Charlie. I once asked him how big the station was. He said, “Big enough to keep away from each other’s wives.” Hore dispensed consolation from a battered beige suitcase. The boys loved it.
Beers were consumed. They still tasted good. Teihorangi Walden slowly peeled off the thirty lineal metres of medical tape that was holding his shoulder together. There was not much to say about the game. What was done was done. David Latta, one of the great Otago captains, shook hands and said his goodbyes. Maybe that was the best thing to do: shake hands and say goodbye.
I sat and drank with losers on Saturday in another town after another game. I had first met the Buller boys in 2012, when they had played the Lochore Cup final on a windy day at Victoria Square in Westport and won their first-ever title. I had called the game with Richard Turner on a scaffold tower on the northern side. Marty Banks kicked the goals that day. Marty fucken Banks.
Halfway through that game Andrew ‘Roo’ Duncan had climbed the ladder to the commentary box with a chillybin of crayfish and whitebait. When the first try was scored, the Buller boys had all gone hunting under the goal post pads and had found the fifty dollar note that had been put there for the first tryscorer by a man called Brad McKenzie. The money was to be used specifically for the purchase of Purple Goannas. God Bless the Heartland. A year later, I had seen them all again. On that day the final was in Timaru. There was no three-day celebration after that game. There was, however, more whitebait and crayfish.
On Saturday, there was whitebait and crayfish again, waiting for me in the freezer in a hotel in Whanganui. “Just send the chillybin back when you’ve finished with it,” said the note. Before the Meads Cup final the Buller boys gathered in the team room and feasted on beef and ham and pasta and potatoes. Then they rolled down to Cook’s Gardens and almost upset the most dominant team in Heartland Rugby history.
They were losers though. And later that night I sat and drank with them. We drank beers and Cody’s. Cody’s, a pre-mixed can of bourbon and coke, happens to be the preferred tipple of loosehead prop Logan ‘Fazza’ Mundy, who played his 100th game for Buller earlier this season. The entire team celebrated with a Cody’s and a ciggie. Those that didn’t indulge in tobacco were handed a spaceman candy cigarette. I think that is about the greatest thing ever.
I sat and drank with a loser named Phil Beveridge who two days later would turn 43. ‘Dozer’, as he is known, blows things up for a living and says he is hanging up his boots now. He only came back to play a handful of pre-season games, he told me. Yet here he was, in the team room after the final. I told him he had to come back. He chuckled away like the Big Friendly Giant and shook his head. Dozer debuted for Buller in 1993. Ciaran Neilsen, the young lock who pushed on his ass in the scrum all season, was born three years after that.
Dozer wasn’t the only old loser in the room. Luke Brownlee had played his 185th game for Buller earlier that day. The week before, after Buller had upset South Canterbury in the Meads Cup semifinal and Brownlee had become the first man to play 150 national provincial championship matches, he had jumped straight into the car with Roo Duncan and driven six hours back to Westport. I asked him why he had been in such a hurry. “I had to mate cows in the morning,” he said.
Brownlee missed two games this season, for the first time in his 18-year provincial career. “I found a hamstring,” he told me when I asked what had happened. “Worst thing is, I wasn’t even on a rugby field. I was chasing a calf on the farm.” Brownlee says he’ll probably give it away, too. He doesn’t like the fact that his wife has to milk the cows while he is away all the time.
Blair McIlroy’s wife Kel is a bit tired of her husband being away as well. ‘Sheep’ lays foundations in Canterbury and lives in Darfield. According to Buller calculations, he has travelled more than 30,000 kilometres to train and play with this team. He played his 50th first class match against Whanganui and came away looking like an early Halloween costume. He sat and drank beer and iced his shiner.
There was beer pong, and there were laughs. Andrew Stephens, the little halfback and captain, beamed at the room. Family and friends and wives and partners sat around and told yarns. Kel Sullivan turned up with pizzas at midnight. Coach Craig ‘Bart’ Scanlon sung the praises of his boys, and singled out young Dan Hytongue for special mention. Hytongue has found a band of brothers and some great fathers in this team. He was picked for the Heartland XV for the first time this season.
I dropped a smoke bomb and vanished just after 2am. I turned and looked back at the room as I left. It was the best place in the world right then. Honest, open, full of good cheer and great friends. Podge McKay was probing. Glen ‘Burger’ Duncan and Fazza Mundy were conspiring. There would never be a night like this again, not with all those old-stagers pulling the pin. It was a night that needed bottling.
They were all losers, these men. And they were glorious in their defeats. I sat and drank with losers all weekend long. They let me in, they shared their stories. We swallowed gin and laughed awhile. I finished the season thinking this: if drinking with losers can make me feel this good about people, I hope these fine blokes never learn how to win.