A DREAM come true is how Namibian international David Philander describes his signing for the Poverty Bay team for the Heartland Championship.
“I have always dreamed of playing rugby in New Zealand,” said the 25-year-old, 1.71-metre, 87-kilogram back, who arrived in Gisborne on Monday.
“I’m a big fan of the All Blacks and the way New Zealanders play their rugby. Coming here is a chance for me to fulfil my dream and improve my rugby.”
Philander, who hopes to make a new life for wife Leilani and their 11-month-old son Jose, has signed a one-year contract with a one-year option. He will work for the Poverty Bay Rugby Football Union.
He debuts for the Bay on Saturday in their Heartland Championship opener against Horowhenua Kapiti in Levin.
“I’m ready to play but it’s over to the coach whether he wants me to start,” said Philander, a member of the Namibian squad for last year’s Rugby World Cup. “I had my last rugby game two weeks ago so I’m match fit.”
Bay coach Grainger Heikell said it would depend on how much jet lag had affected him.
“He looks in good shape, it’s just a matter of getting over the travel,” said Heikell. “Being able to play a number of positions in the backline makes David a valuable asset.
“It’s not just the fact he has played for Namibia in the world cup, so obviously has the skills, but his leadership and experience will be invaluable.”
Philander’s preferred position is fullback but he is happy to play wherever coach wants him to . . . “the team always comes before the individual”.
While some might say turning his back on the international scene to play Heartland rugby was a step down the ladder, Philander has no regrets.
“I know I will improve my rugby playing with and against New Zealanders, players from the islands and other overseas players,” he said.
“Coming here is also an opportunity for my wife and I to experience a new lifestyle.”
Gisborne hosted Namibia twice during the cup and the city impressed Philander.
“It’s a beautiful city and the countryside is so green — not like Namibia which is mainly sand — and the Gisborne people were so friendly.
“I spoke to Grainger and mentioned back then I was interested in returning. For obvious reasons my main focus then was the world cup, which was everything I thought it would be and even more.
“The whole country seemed to embrace the cup — from the biggest cities to the smallest — and the atmosphere when I played against Wales in New Plymouth was something I will never forget. It was the biggest crowd I had ever played in front of.”
Philander and his teammates saw bits of Poverty Bay’s clash with Wanganui while hosted in Gisborne.
“There was a big crowd, the pitch was in great condition and there was a good atmosphere, but we spent most of the time talking to people and signing autographs.”
When Philander returned to Namibia’s capital city Windhoek (population 268,132) he told Leilani of his desire to play for the Bay.
“At first I was nervous, I have never been away from Namibia,” Leilani said.
“I have one sister and two brothers, and I knew leaving them and my mother and relatives would be hard, but David told me how wonderful Gisborne was, how green the countryside was and that the beautiful beaches were so close.
“After a while I started to get excited but there were lots of tears when it eventually came time to leave.”
Philander, who played for Rehoboth — one of the top clubs in Namibia’s nine-team premier league — also found it hard to leave family and friends.
“I have one brother and two sisters, all younger than me, and we will miss them. My brother and sisters and my parents were sad but also happy for us to have this opportunity.
“We are also looking forward to a new lifestyle where we don’t have to travel 360 kilometres to the nearest beach or have 39-degree temperatures.”
Heikell said Philander would be a huge boost for the squad.
“It’s taken a long time and a lot of paperwork but we’re delighted David and his family are here,” Heikell said.
“He has already met some of the boys and he’ll meet the rest of the squad at training. The boys are excited about having him in the squad.
“Poverty Bay have a tradition of giving local players the chance to play rep rugby but when a player like David wants to come here, you don’t say no. He will also be involved with coaching in the district, which will be good for our young players.”
Heikell said apart from midfielder Nick Wilson and winger Sione Tupa, who have niggly injuries after Sunday’s win against the NZ Army team, the rest of the squad came through unscathed.
“I expect Nick and Sione to be available for selection for this weekend. We’re leaving on Friday for Levin and hopefully we’ll get along to support Gisborne Boys’ High School against Napier in Palmerston North.”
Gisborne and Napier meet in the final of the Hurricanes region secondary school first 15 competition. The winners advance to the national top-four competition.