Sports

The undying hope of the Taniwha: a memoir of Northland rugby

To the sound of country music, long suffering Northland rugby fan Scotty Stevenson fears a winning season could be inevitably lost.

The night was decent enough for rugby. Northland was slowly emerging from its traditional wet winter and the evening promised to remain clear. A southerly wind chilled the dusk but it wasn’t enough to scare away a couple of Northland kids from a night on the bank at Toll Stadium, formerly Okara Park.

It was 2015 and Northland – the rugby team – who had been terrible all season, were yet to record a win. In fact, they hadn’t even claimed a solitary point for finishing close. But we loved them all the same. They were of us. We were born in Northland, my brother and me, raised here too. And we were together on a Wednesday evening in October, the two of us, and our mum.

It had been a long day. My brother and I had helped Mum move house which, in a way, was more emotionally than physically draining. She had been in that house at the beach for 22 years. The back bedroom had been my summer room. My brother had never lived there but had returned, year after year, for summers. Inevitably these holidays involved drinking, swimming and arguing.

There had been no arguments on this day. It was as if we just wanted to pack everything up as quietly and as efficiently as possible, before we had time to consider what we were all leaving behind, which was our house. Even though neither of us had lived there with Mum and Dad, it was ours all the same. Dad was now gone forever. Mum was going a few kilometres away. The house overlooking the ocean was someone else’s.

We had taken one break during the day and we had sat then on the edge of the deck – my brother, our mum and me – and we had a cup of tea and ate home made quiche with our friend Jeanne and didn’t say much in particular. We just stared out, over the camping ground below and out into the bay, which arced before us from the reptilian pose of Whangarei Heads in the north to the headland at Bream Tail in the south. We didn’t talk much. Nothing needed to be said.

We had gone for dinner after the move, for pizza and for beer in Waipu, and thought about going into Whangarei for the game. Inevitably, however, there had been too much drinking. We drank locally brewed beer which carried the surname of the town’s first European overlord, the Reverend Norman McLeod – a fastidious Presbyterian whose followers were known as Normanites. They had been cleared from the Scottish Highlands, endured Nova Scotia, and eventually arrived in Waipu.

Everywhere in Waipu there are reminders of those Scottish settlers. The roads are named for clans, the beer is named for the Reverend, the park is home to the Caledonian Games, the murals and window displays are predominately tartan. Mum’s house had been on St Anne’s Rd, named for McLeod’s former settlement in Nova Scotia, wee typo notwithstanding.

We sat and drank McLeod’s beer and then we drank another. We gave up on the drive to Whangarei, even though we were prepared to sit on the bank in the wind and watch our Taniwha play Otago, and did what any right-minded Scot would do: we went to the pub to watch the game instead.

Shane, who kept bar at the Waipu Hotel was, as always, happy to see new faces. An amiable bloke with a crisp and booming voice that seemed to always be on the verge of laughter, Shane was kind enough not to point out that this was the type of establishment in which one was required to grab one’s own glass from the refrigerator before being served. It had been a long while since my brother and I had shared a beer at ‘the pub’ as it is more simply known in these parts.

He ordered a Tui, and I ordered a Lion Red. I shouldn’t have been surprised. My brother and I have never had a lot in common. In fact, in many ways you could say we are polar opposites. About the only characteristics we share are, in order: a love for swimming, a partiality for beer, and a deep and abiding respect for the wonderful world of country music – all of which, we can only surmise, are genetic inheritances from our late father.

The round seven Mitre 10 Cup match between Northland and Otago at Toll Stadium on September 27, 2017 in Whangarei. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

We settled on a leaner in front of the big screen and each took a long drink from our frosted handles. We didn’t have to say anything to each other right then, but we were both thinking the same thing: we missed our dad.

My brother had been back in the country for less than a week but he required no potted history of the Northland season to date. He had been with me for their last outing, at Eden Park, against Auckland, just a few days before. They had been trounced by the old enemy that night. In days gone by there would have been a steward’s enquiry after a performance such as that.

Akira Ioane (twice), Goerge Moala, Greg Pleasants-Tate, and Melani Nanai all scored first half tries for Auckland. Northland turned for the second spell on zero. By the end of the game Auckland had crossed the line 10 times, and scored 64 points. A second half double to Northland centre Warren Dunn did little to ease the pain. My brother had watched from the commentary box as I called the match. There wasn’t a lot to say afterward. So we didn’t say it.

Now here we were, in the pub, still not saying much at all. Two walls of screens showing horse racing and betting odds took up one corner of the bar room. The other end of the lounge was given over to two pool tables, both currently in use. There were no more than 10 people in the place, and each of them was familiar in some way – a face from our childhood, the mother of a school friend, a name from the past. The big telly was harnessed to the wall above the doorway to the restrooms, and next to it was the jukebox – if you could call it that.

It was not a traditional jukebox, more the bastard child of a late-eighties ghetto blaster that had been somehow hot-wired to a television set and lit by Liberace’s electrician. It strobed and glowed in hot pinks and purples and as the whistle blew for kick off, it began to play country.

It’s before my time but I’ve been told

He never came back from Copperhead Road.

It’s hard to know why exactly my brother loves country music. Perhaps it’s because of the fact he is tone deaf and cannot sing – two hurdles that for the enjoyment of any other genre would be all but insurmountable – but whatever the reason he remains the only person I know who has ever intentionally purchased a Garth Brooks album. That’s not to say plenty of others haven’t purchased a Garth Brooks album. The guy has sold a bundle.

Brooks’ undisputed popularity remains one of the great mysteries of the modern world. His popularity with my brother is one of the great mysteries of my childhood. My brother had three CDs as a young teen: Garth Brooks: No Fences, Bon Jovi: Slippery When Wet (timeless, classic, never bettered), and Billy Ray Cyrus: Some Gave It All.

Otago’s Fletcher Smith missed the first shot at goal. It was a penalty not far out from the Northland 22-metre line. We watched as Northland returned the ball deep inside the Otago. We used to watch loving Northland run the ball. This is the team that gave the world the Triple Scissors; that gave us Joe Morgan and the Goings (all of them) and Ziggy Seymour and Norm Berryman.

On this occasion they strung together four good phases, swept inside the Otago half and then completely, comically, fucked up the offensive ruck to concede a penalty. Forget the running; there is nothing more Northland than this kind of play. It’s as if there is a quintessential pratfall move planned for every game.

‘Cause A Country Boy Can Survive

Country Folks Can Survive

Fletcher Smith kicked his first penalty for Otago as Hank Williams Jr. started up. You have to feel for Junior here. His dad nicknamed him Bocephus for a ventriloquist’s dummy and then up and hallucinated his way to death on Chloral Hydrate in a truck stop in West Virginia (almost heaven).

But good ol’ Jr. stuck with it and came through the other side.

While Hank Williams Jr. played his guitar and sang his lamentation on the parlous state of the world while sitting on a barge floating down the Mississippi River, Northland conceded another penalty inside their own 22 and Fletcher Smith missed again. This was the joy of watching Northland at the time: you reserved most of your cheers for the other team doing something wrong, because there wasn’t a hell of a lot going right at your end.

With every Otago miss, fresh hope. It was a specialty dish in the north, like wild pork or crayfish; the 70 metre run down the sideline that would invariably end with a knock on at the next ruck, or the 30 pick and goes on the goal line that would be snuffed out by the concession of a penalty. As the jukebox played on (Bonnie Raitt, Glenn Campbell, Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney) Otago began to assert their dominance. My brother and I drained beers, giggled at the scoreline, played Face The Music…didn’t talk about dad.

The game ended that night 54-36 to Otago. It was the last game of the season. A season of loss. I had listed every song played that night on a till receipt, but a couple of weeks later I binned it, figuring there probably wasn’t a story in it. It had been one of those writer’s false dawns, a good idea after a couple, a pearler after several more, and a nonsensical one after the hangover. My brother left, my mum moved, and Northland would suck again for another season.

After a while you get used to loss. I missed my brother when he left and still do. We have not lived in the same country for a long time, and we have not lived in the same hemisphere for years, but we catch up in the way we always have, usually with a couple of phone calls a year. I got used to not having that place at the beach to call my ‘home’ and now have another where the cupboards are full and the colour scheme is perfectly Thorndon Cream and muted grey. I even got used to Northland sucking terribly for another season. You do indeed get used to loss.

Two years after that night in the pub and Northland are here: second on the championship ladder with three teams below them, each of which could win their games this weekend and relegate the Taniwha to fifth and deny them a first-ever playoff spot. Of all the Northland shit I’ve witnessed in my 40 years on this planet, this has got to be the most Northland thing of all. This is the rugby equivalent of a country song – a story of almost success, hijacked by fate and the outside world, powerless in the struggle. It is a season denouement in three sad chords and the truth.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. This was the year of redemption. The north was rising! They were winning! They were even losing with dignity! Toll Stadium had people. We were on our way to the semifinals…now here we are hoping that Southland (winless) Hawke’s Bay (toast) and Waikato (quite possibly about to be relegated) can manufacture wins on the weekend to save our wretched hide. You can get used to losing, but not like this. Never like this.

This is the weekend ahead, this is the pain of being a Northland kid. I will call my brother tonight. I’ll talk to him about the season that might still be but will likely end in pain. We’ll reminisce about the night in the pub and the handles and the country and the Taniwha of old, when you never really got your hopes up. We may even talk about loss – after all we need someone to lose so that we still have a chance. We know loss. We have that in common at least.

Southland, Hawke’s Bay and Waikato. That’s where the hope is now. That’s where it all rests for us. We will play Garth Brooks songs this weekend. After all, he too had friends in low places.


This story originally ran on RugbyPass.com – the premier destination for rugby fans in Asia, streaming International Test Matches including The Rugby Championship, Super Rugby and more to your device wherever you are in Asia.

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