Reviewed by David Famularo
I have to admit a certain level of excitement was building as the recently erected flood lights beckoned me from the grey overcast sky as I drove towards Trust House Memorial Park.
There was a lot riding on this game, at least for Wairarapa Bush who were playing lowest placed East Coast.
Win the match and they would be in the semi-finals of the Mead Cup which goes to the top team in the Heartland competition – the second tier of provincial rugby, the first being the inspirationally named Mitre 10 Cup.
Lose the match and Wairarapa Bush would be left battling it out for the Lochore Cup which goes to the top team in the lower half of the Heartland competition.
Plus it was the weekend of the reunion of players, coaches and administrators who were part of Wairarapa Bush’s last great era of rugby, when the union climbed out of the Second Division to the First Division in 1981 and hung in there till the end of 1987.
That era’s best year was 1985 when Wairarapa Bush achieved fourth place, beating all the major unions except Auckland.
I arrive about 15 minutes before kick-off at 6pm, expecting tickets to be around the $15 to $20 mark but am surprised to find they are just $5 and that includes seats in the grandstand which is good as it is uncertain if the rain that has been around earlier in the day is going to reappear (it doesn’t).
Contemporary R&B pumps from the speakers on the sideline, the teams are warming up on the field, and members of the 1980s teams are mooching about on the recently installed artificial turf.
I easily find a seat dead centre in the grandstand which eventually nearly fills up – a big crowd by normal standards.
Looking around, this is not a typical cross section of your general public, which suggests local rugby does not get the broad public support it did back 30 years ago.
A group of somewhat cool twenty-somethings sit in front of me, an anomaly in the crowd.
The two teams retreat under the grandstand to emerge about 10 minutes later, the Wairarapa Bush team lead by winger Cameron Hayton who is playing his 50th game for the union, with a guard of honour from the 1980s player, although it seems it should be the other way round as it is the eighties players who are being celebrated this year.
East Coast starts things rolling with a rousing haka. Sometimes during the match this ferocity spills over into a couple of questionable cases of playing the man and not the ball, and a few flare ups between the teams.
All the early pressure is coming from East Coast and as one bench expert a few feet away from me says “You don’t really want to be camped in the corner by your own try line against the lowest team in the competition.”
But against the general run of play the first try comes from Hayton with support from former All Black Zac Guildford.
East Coast reply with their own try about eight minutes later, with Hayton striking again a few minutes later.
It starts to become apparent that while East Coast is playing a fine all round game, Wairarapa Bush just has those couple of backs who can break through at any moment, and this becomes the general story of the game.
At times the Wairarapa Bush scrum and lineout is dominant, and the next moment East Coast is rolling the scrum and stealing the line outs.
Still, Wairarapa Bush looks like a team with potential if it can improve its tactical nous, do the basics like taking down players with the first tackle and getting to the breakdowns quickly.
Wairarapa Bush is only metres from the East Coast try line and with the scrum put in when the half time whistle blows, the home side enjoying a flattering 22-8 lead, but there no sense that the game is in the bag.
The Bee Gees blast from the sideline near where BJ Lochore loiters, All Black captain, coach of Wairarapa Bush in 1981 and 1982, and coach of the 1987 World Cup winning All Black team.
The break over, Wairarapa Bush is on the attack only for East Coast to score a try to bring the score to 14-22.
A few more complaints about the ref’s decisions from the nearby experts – “He’s a socialist ref – he wants everything to be easy,” then Wairarapa Bush number 10 Sam Monaghan scores the try of the match, breaking a series of tackles for a good long run to under the goal posts.
Hayton arrives at the same destination a few minutes later with his third try, followed a few minutes later by a heavy tackle on a Wairarapa Bush play that sends auditory shock waves right into the grandstand. No one dies though. In fact, it is an almost injury free game.
East Coast is back for another try, and then it is Wairarapa Bush’s turn with a rolling maul to push captain Eddie Cranston over the line.
The conversion attempt from a somewhat challenging angle ricochets off the post but for some reason the ref calls for it to be taken again.
With the game safely in Wairarapa Bush’s hands, this time the ball is handed over to Hayton in honour of his half century of games with the ensuing half-hearted kick travelling well east of the goal posts.
The game is over, and all the locals are happy.
It’s a great 80 minutes entertainment for the price of $5. The atmosphere is relaxed and good spirited, and you don’t have to be an avid rugby follower to enjoy the game.
In fact, it offers a refreshing alternative to the excessive hype of Super 18 rugby for people who simply enjoy a good sporting match.