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‘Don’t be afraid of living’

A medical event at the relatively young age of 31 was instrumental in changing Josh Willoughby’s approach to life. The head of the Poverty Bay Rugby Union talks to Jack Malcolm about that time, and the road his life has taken since.

At 31 Josh Willoughby was still in good shape, he never expected to have a heart attack.

His rugby days were behind him, but he was still young and in relatively good shape.

He had just completed a vigorous boxing training with a friend when he felt short of breath and dizzy. He knew something was wrong but thought it wasn't serious, taking some Gaviscon for what he thought was heartburn.

It wasn't until about 14 hours later he went to the hospital after calling his GP.

In the hours that followed, he was flown to Waikato hospital, the doctors taking every precaution because of his lack of underlying conditions, age and no family history of heart conditions.

“You're sitting there; you're 31, you've got two kids, you don't think that these happen to you at that age. . . then bang.”

When they asked him who they needed to call he knew he needed to talk to his partner, Tineille.

She showed no signs of weakness throughout the whole ordeal, he says, and was the support he needed to help get back to everyday life.

“I wouldn't be able to do what I do now without Tineille. . . she's a fighter, which is great to have in your corner.”

Josh said the whole experience changed his focus. He realised his family was what was most important to him.

“My attitude is, don't be afraid of what happened, don't be afraid of living.

“My priorities changed to spending time with those you love and who build you up — that's what's important to me.”

He was the practice manager at East Coast Farm Vets at the time, and he remembers his bosses, Andrew and Loren Cribb, were really supportive of his recovery. They allowed him to work his way back into work at his own pace.

He speaks highly of the Cribbs, saying after he was offered the Poverty Bay Rugby Union CEO role the hardest discussion was with Andrew.

“I owe them for what they've done for me.”

Josh said his priority was securing the longevity of their veterinary business before he applied for his current role.

In the lead-up to taking the position, Josh said he had time to reflect on why he had been offered the job, considering he had a lack of experience in the sports management sector.

He had a background playing rugby, he'd been in the Otago development squad and played for their Sevens team and the New Zealand Universities team before moving to Gisborne.

An ongoing neck injury meant he wasn't able to dive into the commitment that comes with playing the game at a high level.

But he had potential, receiving several international offers to play while he weighed up his options after finishing university.

Ultimately, the decision was made for him after his partner Tineille moved back to Gisborne to help support her grandmother after her grandfather' suffered a heart attack.

He made the trip shortly after, driving with his brother because he needed two cars to move everything they had.

He played rugby in Gisborne, but it wasn't his priority, and he used the game as an opportunity to meet people.

This was highlighted when he left playing the premier grade final early to catch a flight for the anniversary of his father's passing.

Despite playing rugby for social reasons, his form for Ngatapa saw him selected for the Poverty Bay team to play Auckland in their 2008 Ranfurly Shield challenge.

“I didn't realise how cool that was until now, when you get to look back on it.”

He concluded was he was given the CEO role to drive community engagement.

“In my time here what I've come to realise is we cannot do it ourselves. We've got a great team, but we need our clubs and volunteers. . . it's not what we do in here (the office).

“We are merely a support service for our community. . . we're there to listen and adapt to what they need.”

Josh calls Gisborne home. The pull to come back and raise his children here was “too strong”, and they moved back after spending two years in Manawatu for work.

He has two daughters aged eight and ten and a four-year-old boy.

“I love it. . . they're everything.”

He said the lockdown had been hard. Overnight the rugby union lost 40 percent of their funding and he had to juggle the stress of an increased workload and spending time with his children.

“My job got twice as difficult; the hours I had to put in were pretty full-on to try to provide security to my team and our rugby community.

“We didn't know what our funding was going to look like. I was living in spreadsheets, forecasts and Zoom meetings.

“It was difficult to think we're at this time where you're forced to stay at home with your family and I wasn't spending time with my kids.”

He chose to reduce his hours during the day, spending as much time as he could with his family and then staying up late finishing off his work.

“But the sacrifice was worth it. . . to deliver as close to a full rugby season for our community that we could have hoped for. I've got my team to thank for that.”

FAMILY TIES: Josh Willoughby and partner Tineille Charteris with their children Charlotte, Celia and Alfie. Picture by Paul Rickard