OLD BOOTS FOR NEW IN OAMARU

The times are a-chang­ing at the Oamaru Old Boys Rugby Foot­ball Club.

North & South - - In This Issue -

The times are a-chang­ing at the Oamaru Old Boys Rugby Foot­ball Club.

Back in the 1950s, ladies waited out­side the Oamaru Old Boys rugby clu­b­rooms after a game while the men knocked back a few beers.

This year, the club is 150 years old – and the play­ers’ drink­ing habits aren’t the only tra­di­tion that’s changed. But on the side­lines, the sup­port­ers are still Heart­landers with ruddy faces who smoke rol­lies and talk out the side of their mouths; mus­ter­ers in striped rodeo shirts with the col­lars popped, cow­boy boots ridg­ing the an­kles of their tight jeans.

In this North Otago town, where the long, flat, slow main drag is cruised by bo­gans in matte-black Holden Kingswoods – from the in­dus­trial north end to the Vic­to­rian precinct fring­ing the sea – the pre­pon­der­ance of Oamaru stone makes ev­ery­thing very white. Ex­cept at Oamaru Old Boys, where ev­ery sin­gle player is Ton­gan or Samoan.

With each player two axe-han­dles wide, the team’s front row must weigh at least 400 ki­los. No won­der the tus­sock jumpers from down the line wince at the thought of tack­ling one of them; it must be like going up against three re­frig­er­a­tors. When the scrum packs down, mul­lets meet corn­rows and afros, and the op­po­si­tion pop up like corks.

The new face of Oamaru is re­flected in the young brown faces that smile and laugh on the side­lines. No crossed arms and stern faces here; the Spar­tan hel­met on the OB crest is an em­blem of af­fa­ble war­riors. At the end of a match, as the last rays of sun paint po­plar shad­ows across the dairy-green grass, heav­enly singing breaks out – ac­com­pa­nied by cupped-hand clap­ping: the is­lands have come to Oamaru. And how can you beat a team that har­monises?

In the past 10 years, Old Boys have won the North Otago club rugby Cit­i­zens Shield seven times, and to­day’s away game against Kurow is an­other past­ing: 61-12. (As the vis­it­ing team, the OBS ar­rived at the after-match func­tion in fancy dress – a North Otago tra­di­tion that meant the home town of Richie Mc­caw played host, sur­re­ally, to a Ton­gan dressed as a ba­nana.)

Such chang­ing times at the club don’t rest easy with ev­ery­one.

When the scrum packs down, mul­lets meet corn­rows and afros, and the op­po­si­tion pop up like corks.

“It took some teams a while to get used to the idea,” says Barry Meikle, a life mem­ber and pa­tron (seven Meik­les are listed in the Oamaru Old Boys’ roll of hon­our, rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral gen­er­a­tions).

Meikle of­ten re­lays the score to the lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion from the side­lines. But while he just sees win­ners, for oth­ers be­ing wal­loped by a tum­ble of Ton­gans is hard to take in this era of un­cer­tain farm suc­ces­sion, the death knell of old cer­tain­ties. “Yes, there is a lot of racism,” ad­mits Old Boys cap­tain Ralph Dar­ling. “We just get by. It’s only words at the end of the day.”

The team has bonded to forge its own com­mu­nity. And with the same line-up for the past six years, it’s been al­most un­beat­able. The Ton­gan pop­u­la­tion in Oamaru is now more than 2000 strong, thanks to jobs at the freez­ing works and an open, mul­ti­cul­tural coun­cil. “Our club would have folded years ago if they hadn’t turned up,” says Meikle. “The Kiwi boys just aren’t in­ter­ested now.”

After home games, play­ers put on a feed for the vis­it­ing team. There’s a mu­tual strug­gle to pro­nounce names and toys are scat­tered all over the clu­b­room floor as kids run in and out.

Some old-school tra­di­tions re­main, straight out of the 1950s: the hand­shakes and quaintly for­mal post-match speeches. But these days, the Old Boys wear black lavalavas, white shirts and jan­dals, ladies are wel­come in­side and there’s very lit­tle drink­ing.

“It’s all about fam­ily,” says Meikle. +

The team has bonded to forge its own com­mu­nity. And with the same line-up for the past six years, it’s been al­most un­beat­able.

PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY GUY FRED­ER­ICK. WORDS BY LISA SCOTT.

Be­low: Ikani Sila runs out against Oamaru Old Boys’ tra­di­tional ri­vals, Kurow. Op­po­site: Sio­siua Ngalo con­verts a try.

Above: Play­ers take to their knees on the cold, con­crete floor in the chang­ing rooms. Op­po­site page (clock­wise from top left): Some days the stands are like a mouth with no teeth in it, the split shift at the lo­cal freez­ing works tak­ing out a lot of play­ers and spec­ta­tors dur­ing this part of the season; club pres­i­dent Tonga Havea tends the post-match bar­be­cue; broth­ers-in-arms on the field; a vis­i­tor poses with a pair of fu­ture props, twins Quinn and Taine To­hill.

Above: A con­gre­ga­tion on the grass as play­ers gather for a mo­ment of prayer after the game, then make a joy­ful noise unto the Lord, their voices soar­ing into the North Otago sky. Right: Old Boys cap­tain Ralph Dar­ling, a sev­enth-gen­er­a­tion “Oa­ma­roo­vian”, whose mother is Samoan. Be­low right: Barry Meikle, club pa­tron and life mem­ber. Meikle men have played for Old Boys since 1941. Op­po­site: Maka Lea grins after the win.

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