THE CLUB FOR ALL SEASONS
ONE OF the many enduring images highlighted by the long-running and popular TV show Toyota Grassroots Rugby was the Mackenzie v Pleasant Point Senior B clash at Fairlie’s Strathconan Park a few years back.
It was unusual in that the main field was covered in snow and there was plenty of white stuff falling from the sky. A lady in the crowd was heard to say: “I can’t believe they’re playing in this!” But play they did, for the Mt Cook Cup, and against the South Canterbury union’s wishes. It was said the players said, ‘Bugger this, let’s rip into it.’ Apparently the showers were warm after the match.
Welcome to rugby, Mackenzie-style. You need to be made of the right stuff to play your code at this club when the temperature drops through the floor in June and July.
Don’t be confused, though. The Mackenzie Rugby Club, which toasts 60 years of existence in 2013, is right in the heart of Fairlie, a small town of about a thousand, about 40-odd minutes north-west of Timaru. Mackenzie used to be the sub-union of the area, until four clubs merged and Mackenzie was born.
Rugby News arrived early at the club grounds, and tried to imagine the scene in winter. There is a basic grandstand and scoreboard to one side of the ground, and there is ample room around the field to park up your ute, pop a cold one out of a chilly bin and soak up the action. Do not think Ruatoria’s Whakarua Park has a monopoly on this sort of raw rugby spectating.
I was already well briefed on some of the minutiae of Mackenzie’s club history. There is a wealth of information on the club website, much of it supplied by life member and club historian Len King or another man in the know, Jeremy Sutherland.
There are details of every trophy the club plays for – and there are a stack of those – plus each individual trophy awarded at prizegiving nights. Since 1990 the club has kept appearance records of all senior players and they are faithfully recorded.
The club colours of black, gold and white hoops are prominent as you drive into Strathconan Park. Filling in the large gaps in my knowledge and painting a solid picture of the Mackenzie rugby scene are two life members, Noel Glass and Greg Anderson. They boast around 70 years’ combined involvement at this club, and represent the type of selfless country rugby folk that are thick on the ground at Mackenzie.
Anderson played more than the 195 senior games he is credited with as a lock/loose forward, but records started only in his third season in the top XV. His father and sons played here, making for three generations of the Anderson family who went through the grades.
A local farmer, Anderson says he’ll be a “sideline critic” in 2012 after taking the Senior Bs last season and serving as president until 2010.
He speaks of the perennial challenge of finding numbers in a rural area, but there is an Under 18s to go with two senior sides. The JAB section is one of the best in South Canterbury, he believes. Mackenzie draws most of its players from the locality, though the odd one travels up from Timaru.
Like many community sporting hubs, the rugby club is incorporated with the squash and cricket clubs. Touch is played during summer. It all helps the place tick over.
Glass also knows the place like the back of his hand. He explains some of the difficulties faced by Mackenzie during the coldest winter weeks.
“Quite often the weather can be pretty good. But home ground advantage is huge here. For chunks of time in certain years you can lose your home ground. It’s frozen snow and you can’t train. We’ve had to go down to Pleasant Point to train,” says the farmer from Albury, just down State Highway 8.
Anderson recalls when Glass was coaching the seniors in the mid-1990s and the team had three weeks training further south as the ground was covered under a foot and a half of snow. Unsuccessful solutions included putting on covers or setting fire to it! It would just thaw and then freeze into ice.
Anderson is realistic about Mackenzie’s ability to hold onto players, who shift to Timaru or further afield for work or study opportunities.
“One of the reasons we don’t win as many championships is because of our high turnover of players, but geez, I’ve met some good guys in the last 20 years. It must be in the hundreds. That’s been a great experience,” he says.
The outlook for 2012 looks promising. Some fundraising activities were already underway. The club has done a muster with 100 dogs for the last decade. There is sheep crutching and hay carting among other events. The seniors are also welcoming back former South Canterbury and North Otago centre Faaitu Tuamoheloa who is working on a dairy farm.
And they all know what to do if it starts snowing.
MACKENZIE'S GREATEST on-field moment came in 2003 when the seniors won the championship for the first and (so far) only time.
The 44-10 crushing of South Canterbury’s most successful club, Temuka, in the final at Timaru’s Alpine Energy Stadium was a remarkable coming of age for the upstart country club from up the highway.
“That still rates as the best event in the club’s history,” says Glass. “That’s been the aspiration of every coach and player that’s been through the club, to win it.”
Anderson concurs: “Temuka’s always been one of the strongest clubs in South Canterbury. They’ve been our nemesis for years. It was great to beat them.”
The night that followed was a long and happy one, by all accounts.
There is plenty of silverware on the line in many South Canterbury club clashes, but as Glass emphasises, “the ultimate is still to win the championship”.
NOEL GLASS had a fine playing career, though he is too modest to blow his own trumpet about those days.
The openside flanker played 110 times for South Canterbury from 1974-84. His sixth game, at the tender age of 19, saw the union lift the Ranfurly Shield – for the second time – in downing Marlborough. Glass had to listen to the end of the game on radio in hospital as he had lacerated his leg.
In 1976 he was in the New Zealand Colts. His playing days with Mackenzie had started in Under 16s (the old sixth grade) in 1971, and he had his last match for the Senior Bs in 1985, when his shoulder caved in.
Since then he’s done the lot, serving on the committee and as club captain, coaching the seniors in three separate stints and acting as a sounding board.
“The club has looked after me pretty well. I’ve met a huge amount of people,” he says.
“One of the great things is the club spirit and bonding you get with players before the game and afterwards in the changing sheds.”
That’s a very Richie McCaw-like comment from one of the great men of Mackenzie rugby.« Back to Club of the Week
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.