Heart and soul on show
To play in or witness a big game at Whakarua Park is to see the tribal heart and soul of New Zealand rugby.
Tomorrow the ground — the capacity of which is listed as 3000 but which has often held more than that since the first clash between East Coast and Poverty Bay on June 27, 1925 — will be the venue for the Ngati Porou East Coast centenary match.
The Bay beat the Coast 14-12 when the sides met in the first first-class match to be played in Ruatoria 96 years ago. At 2pm tomorrow, the smallest of New Zealand’s 26 unions will doubtless run out to the strains of the Ngati Porou anthem Paikea to take on their oldest rivals.
The Tom Cairns-Miah Nikora-coached Civil Project Solutions Poverty Bay team have the players and skills to play accurate, structured rugby worthy of the fixture in defence of the PJ Sayers Cup.
Coast coach Hosea Gear never played at senior level for the Bay against NPEC but while at Gisborne Boys’ High School he debuted as an 18-year-old against King Country at Rugby Park, in Gisborne. He knows how keen the five debutants in his 22 are. And Covid-19, the ditch, geography and his players’ various commitments have forced six-try All Black number 1079 to coach smart.
The reality of rugby at Heartland level is something that he, like the Bay coaches, work well and hard within. The staff of both teams, as much as the character, ability and leadership skills of sky blue No.8 Hone Haerewa and scarlet hooker Rikki Terekia, are quality. Their commitment and the teams’ performance tomorrow will reflect that.
Both teams are well prepared and while the Queen’s Birthday game is important in terms of their development, the sheer joy, love of rugby, colour, haka, superb hospitality, fierce pride and 100 years of passion for the national game, will all be on show at Whakarua Park.
And the passing of NPEC patron and life member “Big John” Manuel — “the last of the East Coast cowboys” — last year has not ended the tradition of 10-gallon hats or horses painted sky blue.
In only four or so years as a rugby coach, Gear has taken a lot on board and learned from it.
“In 2018-19 I coached Ceret sportif, a French amateur team, and we beat a professional side for the first time, which was huge for the club,” said Gear, who as head coach of the Sunshine Coast Grammar first 15 led SCG to Ballymore Cup glory in April.
“I love NPEC culture, ‘realness’, and guys not always being able to get to training — because of other commitments — makes me appreciate what rugby at our level is all about. I’ve told these guys: family and work come first.
“I’m reminded of what’s important.”
NPEC captain and No.8 Hone Haerewa played for the Heartland 15 in 2019 and is a fit, savvy, hard-nosed forward.
“The feeling around the Coast and the team is unreal: this weekend is going to be something I haven’t experienced before,” he said.
“There are a lot of new faces in our squad but we’ve gelled. Some of the new players are stunned at the culture we have in our team, and are enjoying their journey with us, yet while a lot of work’s been done, we still have a lot more to do.”
Poverty Bay captain and rake Rikki Terekia understands well the closeness by blood and feeling between the teams.
“The people always turn up to support the Coast; we have a lot of family travel up to cheer us on us as well. It creates an amazing environment to showcase Tairawhiti rugby, a thing I’m happy to be a part of,” Terekia said.
“Being a part of the Bay legacy has always been a goal of mine, and to now lead the team in one of our toughest matches is a privilege.”
Jackson Reuben-Swinton is the man in the middle tomorrow.
Reuben-Swinton, 43, will referee Ngati Porou East Coast versus Poverty Bay from 2pm tomorrow, with the help of assistant referee No.1 Eruera Kawhia, AR2 Melvin Ashford, substitution controllers David Newton and Shirley Mullany-Mato and referee manager LeRoy Kururangi.
Reuben, wife Lois, Piaterihi, Tumanako and Dylan came from the Bay of Plenty to Waihau Bay for family reasons and have thrived.
An old boy of Wesley College good enough to play second five-eighth for Counties-Manukau at age-group level and for North Otago at hooker, he began refereeing junior rugby in the Bay of Plenty in 2012.
In 2016, he made his BoP premier debut and has also blown the whistle at two Touch World Cups.
He coached Te Puke first 15 in 2019 and is taking the Ngati Porou East Coast women’s team with former NPEC men’s head coach Whetu Haerewa.
Reuben-Swinton said: “I expect it to be a fast game. There’s 100 years of feeling: both sides are coming to play hard, physical rugby.
“I’m excited, apprehensive . . . however, I have a routine to get rid of the nerves. The goal is to try to establish a bond early with both captains and teams.
“In all honesty, I see these men as true grassroots players who represent their families with pride.”
Ngati Porou East Coast
1. Perrin Manuel (vc) (Hikurangi, 35 caps, 6 tries)
2. Jorian Tangaere (Hikurangi, 4 caps, )
3. Adrian Collier (Tokararangi, 6 caps, 2 tries)
4. Patrick Allen (Uawa, 9 caps)
5. Riki Waitoa (Tokararangi, 34 caps, 7 tries)
6. Trent Proffit (Hikurangi, 13 caps, one try)
7. Hoani Te Moana (Tihirau Victory Club, 18 caps)
8. Hone Haerewa (c) (Tokararangi, 41 caps, 6 tries)
9. Sam Parkes (Uawa, 43 caps, 8 tries)
10. Te Rangi Fraser (Tokararangi, 7 caps, 4 tries)
11. Teina Potae (Tokararangi, 8 caps)
12. Tawhao Stewart (Uawa, 11 caps, 3 tries)
13. Tutere Waenga (TVC, 4 caps, )
14. Josh Dearden (Uawa, on debut)
15. Nehe Milner-Skudder (Zingari-Richmond, on debut)
East Coast reserve players —
16. Jody Tuhaka (Tokararangi, on debut)
17. Sam Matenga (Uawa, on debut)
18. William Bolingford (Tokararangi, on debut)
19. Tanira Nepia (Uawa, on debut)
20. Richard Green (Tokararangi, 11 caps)
21. Hamuera Moana (Hikurangi, 13 caps, 1 try)
22. Tipene Meihana (Uawa, 2 caps)
1. Nehe Papuni (YMP, age, on debut)
2. Rikki Terekia (c) (OBM, 14 caps, one try)
3. Toru Noanoa (Waikohu, 25 caps, one try)
4. Fletcher Scammell (HSOB, 4 caps)
5. Dan Law (Ngatapa, on debut)
6. Jesse Kapene (YMP, 13 caps, 2 tries)
7. Fawn White (YMP, 16 caps)
8. Morgan Reedy (OBM, 2 caps)
9. Ra Broughton (vc) ( Waikohu, 3 caps)
10. Jake Holmes (OBM, 20 caps, 25 points)
11. Te Peehi Fairlie (YMP, 17 caps, 11 tries)
12. Jacob Leaf (Waikohu, 12 caps)
13. Tione Hubbard (Waikohu, 2 caps)
14. Aaron McLelland (YMP, on debut)
15. Andrew Tauatevalu (YMP, 28 caps, 146 points)
Poverty Bay reserve players —
16. Shayde Skudder (YMP, 17 caps)
17. Jarryd Broughton (Waikohu, 3 caps)
18. Juston Allen (OBM, 28 caps, one try)
19. Keanu Taumata (OBM, on debut)
20. Mario Counsell (Waikohu, 57 caps, 3 tries)
21. Austin Brown (YMP, on debut)
22. Taine Aupouri (YMP, on debut)