Sports

Sports: The Rugby Club Rising From The Ashes

Club rugby was once an essential part of New Zealand’s rural life, but in the professional age its prominence has been in sharp decline. So what happens when one of the smallest and most remarkable clubs in the country watches its old hall burn down? It rediscovers its importance, and its people. Scotty Stevenson writes about a special night for Glenmark. 

The Omihi Hall was nothing spectacular, just an old wooden building by the side of State Highway One, between Waipara and Cheviot. Next to it was a rugby field, hidden behind a coniferous windbreak, and in front of it was a small memorial which stood as a reminder to anyone who happened to stop by that no small corner of New Zealand was immune to the depravity of those two world wars.

That was it really. That – and a small country school – was all there was to the place. Those who regularly took this road through the parched lands of North Canterbury would know that in the case of Omihi, you really could blink and miss it.

Yet that hall, and that field, was home to one of the most famous rugby clubs in New Zealand – a club once listed by The Times as one of the thirteen modern wonders of the sporting world. The club’s name was Glenmark. It still is.

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Earlier this year, the Omihi Hall, and almost every piece of club memorabilia inside it, was destroyed by fire. Two days after the blaze, the Glenmark club still held its annual dinner. They pitched their marquee on the field at the Waipara Domain, roasted lamb and roasted each other, and drank big bottles of Speights and local Waipara sparkling. They talked about the fire, mostly, but as club President Andrew Evans remarked at the time, “it was better than everyone talking about the drought.” Dry humour from the dry lands.

The message was simple: you don’t need a hall to have a club. All you need is a community.

On Friday, that community came together again. This time the venue was the Hornby Workingmen’s Club, a sprawling barn on the outskirts of Christchurch built for bingo nights, buffets and senior citizen dancing. More than 400 people – most as white as a hotel bed sheet – poured into the club’s upstairs sports hall for a dinner to raise money for the rebuilding of the Omihi Hall. Among them were seven of the club’s ten All Blacks.

Grizz Wylie was there, his white handlebar moustache drooping like a silver willow. He took the stage with that other grey headed figure of Canterbury folklore Todd Blackadder. They talked about their time in the club. Grizz belched into the microphone, Blackadder reminisced on his childhood and the joyful simplicity of country rugby, both men connected through the generations by the red and black of Canterbury and the blue and gold of Glenmark.

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Big Graeme Higginson was there and so was Andy Jeffard. Both played for the All Blacks at Lancaster Park against the Springboks in 1981, before that whole damned tour went to hell. Higginson stands alone as perhaps the only All Black to be sent from the field and then recalled by the referee after some gentle persuasion from the opposition captain.

Jeffard talked of his time in Tokomaru Bay – he made the All Blacks from the East Coast, after playing a number of seasons in Canterbury. He and the great George Nepia remain the only two men to be selected for the national side while playing for the East Coast union. Jeffard is 62 now but looks at least twenty years younger that that. He spoke of his primary school days and seemed younger still. “The Maori kids called us white maggots,” he said, laughing. The white maggots had a name for the Maori kids, too.

Andy Earl was there as well. Still as big as a tree and still with his wiry slug and his shock of unkempt hair and his hands as big as Christmas hams. Earl was famous for his three-hour round trips for Canterbury trainings, and for his wee dust up at Llanelli’s Stradey Park Hotel. Earl emerged from that particular fracas victorious. Grizz Wylie was the All Blacks coach then. The plea was self defence.

Earl played just 14 tests for the All Blacks in six seasons, but he epitomised the work ethic of the old school Canterbury flanker. Blackadder, Reuben Thorne, Richie McCaw – there’s a little bit of Andy Earl about all of them.

Also on the stage was Bruce Deans, brother of Robbie. He was a shock call-up for the 1987 Rugby World Cup All Blacks and played not a single minute of the tournament. “It was my job to push the other guys and to be the best team man I could be,” he said, without a hint of resentment, and with more than a bit of pride. The Deans family is to Glenmark what the Clarke family is to Kereone. Bruce Deans is to enthusiasm for public speaking what Rammstein is to silence.

That left one Richard Loe to do most of the talking. Higginson said “Are you sure you want to give him the microphone? How long have you got?” Loe laughed him off and emptied a Steinlager can of most of its contents before duly talking about being a part of such a special club. His cousin Stu sat in the front row. That is, of course, where any self respecting Loe belongs.

Loe’s lengthy All Blacks career was perhaps most remarkable for the fact he was invariably assaulted in almost every game he played. Who could forget Wallaby Paul Carozza attempting to smash Loe’s elbow with his nose? Or Greg Cooper’s attempt to dislocate Loe’s finger with his eye socket? It seemed remarkable that Loe had managed to finish his career in one piece. One thing is for certain: if Loe had been ordered off the field, no opposition captain would come to his aid.

On the big screen behind the stage, was a projection of an extraordinary photo. It was the 1970 Glenmark under-11 team. Richard Loe was there, as was Stu. Craig Green was there, as were the Deans brothers. Andy Earl was there too. That team scored 220 points that season and conceded just three – a single try, scored by Bruce Deans, who had been asked to play for the other team that day.

Five future All Blacks from one under-11 team from a tiny country club called Glenmark – The club that four hundred people turned up for last Friday night so it could once again build a place to call its own.

It may have lost a few memories and a fine old building in that fire, but its legacy remains intact.

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