Sports

Where the real music is made: A love letter to provincial rugby

As the goalposts are taken down and cricket pitches mowed across the country, Scotty Stevenson reflects on the continued importance of provincial rugby in New Zealand.

A lad had a question for me this morning. He asked: “How do we make provincial rugby important again?” I looked at it and sighed. I sighed for two reasons. The first was that in my heart it has never lost its importance. The second? In my head I know it has.

Super Rugby was always going to outshine the provincial game. It is the pyrotechnic stadium extravanganza to provincial rugby’s dude on a guitar in the corner. Super Rugby has the cash, the hype, the crowds and the crowd-pleasers. Provincial rugby has a nine-song set list and a bingo game in the room next door. And that’s what I love about it.

I love that, and I love Marty Banks’ flat out refusal to cut his hair during the season. Trust me, if ever there was a lid that was asking to be trimmed, it is that Jim Croce abomination. Marty Banks doesn’t need time in a bottle, he needs time in barber.

Marty Banks' Tasman teammates attempt to physically carry him to a barbershop. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

Marty Banks’ Tasman teammates attempt to physically carry him to a barbershop. (Photo: Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

I love Mike Morrissey on the South East corner of Yarrow Stadium in New Plymouth, flying his over-sized Taranaki flag and gurning his way through every single Bulls game. I once called a game between Taranaki and Auckland at Yarrow, in conditions so gnarly an advertising hoarding flew across the ground and almost decapitated Ben Atiga. Mike Morrissey was standing where he always stands that night, soaking wet, shouting at the sky, “You call this a storm!”

I loved that.

I love windy nights in Palmerston North (is there any other kind), when the bucket heads pre-load and pitch up on the green bleachers and shout for the Turbos; when Callum Gibbins tackles players with his face; when ‘Sarge’ Jansen is on television match official duty and he beams on the sideline because he just loves being there.

I love roadtrips to Pukekohe, and the hotdogs behind the main stand, which I always seem to be eating when the diehards walk past on the way to the supporters club. There is no way to muster a comeback when your face is covered in tomato sauce. Eating a Pukekohe hot dog requires skill and flexibility, and a thick skin. And napkins.

Forsyth Barr Stadium, a 20-minute walk from Best Cafe. (Photo: Getty Images)

Forsyth Barr Stadium, a 15-minute walk from Best Cafe. (Photo: Getty Images)

I love Friday nights at Forsyth Barr, watching Otago play recklessly under the roof. I watch in the groundskeepers’ office some nights, on the old couches from Carisbrook, alongside blokes with names like Ox, and Keeper, and Millie and Bilbo. In this one little corner of the stadium, the ‘Brook lives on.

I love dinner afterwards at Best Café, with its vinyl table covers, and orange chairs and carpet the colour of half-chewed grass. There are posters on the walls of ‘Fishes of New Zealand’. It pays to know what you are eating, even if it is covered in batter (golden, crunchy, as light as a pickpocket’s fingers) and served with chips.

I love the oysters in Invercargill, and the antlers on the terraces. I love the grass bank at Toll Stadium where I sat as a kid and watched Northland lose. Now I sit in the commentary box and watch Northland lose. I love watching that team lose. I loved watching them win against Waikato even more.

I love a beer with the referees, and a laugh with the players. I love how Brad Weber’s nose never heals, and how Ben Herring likes to feed commentary lines to us in the pre-match warm-up. Provincial rugby is full of character coaches, like big Paul Tito, who once shook a referee’s hand so hard it led to a formal complaint, and Scotty Robertson, who hung up his breakdancing boots this year after slipping over and falling on the Ranfurly Shield.

The biggest prize in New Zealand rugby. (Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

Still the biggest prize in New Zealand rugby. (Photo: Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

I love the Shield. No more needs to be said about that. I still have my commentary notes from the very first Shield match I ever called. I still have my commentary notes from every provincial match I have ever called. Because I have loved them all, and I love them still.

Yes, I know that when you measure these things against the hollow metrics of business, they don’t stack up. I know that provincial rugby struggles to make a buck. The crowds ain’t what they used to be and great rivalries exist now only in lounge bars and on the tips of old mens’ tongues. I know in my head that this is true. Yet I know in my heart that for those men and women who run around on those fields, in those stadiums that echo still with the parochial cheers of hopeful towns, their pride in their province remains undiminished.

And that is what’s important.

So this week I will love being under the roof at Forsyth Barr, watching Otago play North Harbour in the Championship final. I still remember that famous play-off game in 1992 – Forster to Timu to Cooper in the corner – when Otago won 26-23 and Mike Brewer said it was as good as any test match.

He was right. It was one of the many great provincial games, and there have been many more since. Super Rugby may well have the stadium show, but the real music is made in the provinces. Where the rugby is all three chords and the truth. And the bread is free of charge at the Best Café.

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