QUITE A JOUR­NEY

Deficits, a cham­pi­onship and sav­ing the Tur­bos

Manawatu Standard - - Front Page -

‘‘When the go­ing gets tough in Manawatu¯ , ev­ery­body ral­lies, and that is what saved us.’’ John Knowles

As John Knowles turned up to the Westown Golf Club in New Ply­mouth in 1996, he had no idea that he was about to set off on a jour­ney that would change his life.

The then High­lands In­ter­me­di­ate School prin­ci­pal was ready for a reg­u­la­tion af­ter­noon hack with fel­low teacher Jed Row­lands.

But in­stead of the usual golf course ban­ter, Row­lands came armed with a propo­si­tion – one that would kick­start Knowles’ rugby ad­min­is­tra­tion ca­reer.

This ca­reer will come to a close at the end of the year when the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Manawatu¯ Rugby Union steps aside from his post.

Back in 1996, Knowles had been out of the rugby world for a long time and Row­lands was yet to push on with a coach­ing ca­reer, which would in­clude stints with Taranaki, the Blues and the Black Ferns.

‘‘We were play­ing one day and he said: ‘Have you ever thought about get­ting back in­volved with rugby?’’’ Knowles, a Feild­ing High School old boy, re­calls.

‘‘I said: ‘No, I am too bloody busy with the prin­ci­pal job I have got’.’’

Row­lands pressed fur­ther and even­tu­ally con­vinced Knowles to man­age the Tukapa se­nior A club side.

That was the start of a windy road that led him to Manawatu¯ – a prov­ince he has left a pro­found im­pres­sion on.

His stand­ing in rugby cir­cles be­came even more ap­par­ent as he stood on the side­lines of Tur­bos train­ing the day af­ter his res­ig­na­tion was made pub­lic, his phone con­stantly buzzing with well-wish­ers want­ing to ac­knowl­edge his ten­ure in the prov­ince.

He may be coy about the praise, but it was lit­tle sur­prise.

Knowles was at the helm as the re­gion were called on to save the Tur­bos from what ap­peared to be a in­evitable de­mo­tion. He was there when they tran­si­tioned from easy­beats to Cham­pi­onship win­ners in 2014.

And he pulled them out of a deep fi­nan­cial hole to put to­gether six con­sec­u­tive years of sur­plus – and all ex­pec­ta­tions are that a sev­enth is on its way with the com­ple­tion of the Manawatu¯ Per­for­mance Cen­tre, re­cently val­ued at $995,000.

But be­fore Knowles took on the top role at Manawatu¯ , there were plenty of twists and turns in his rugby ca­reer.

From club man­ager, he fol­lowed Row­lands to the Taranaki pro­vin­cial team in 1997 and stayed on board when Colin Cooper took over in 1999.

Man­ag­ing a rugby team while hold­ing down a full­time job was not easy. He made it work, but it was get­ting in­creas­ingly dif­fi­cult with the in­creas­ing de­mands of the pro­fes­sional rugby en­vi­ron­ment.

Teach­ing was his first love, but rugby un­cov­ered a new pas­sion and he had found a role he was rather good at.

For years he was able to have the best of both worlds, but that was about to change.

It was late 2002 when Cooper called Knowles af­ter be­ing pro­moted to coach the Hur­ri­canes.

‘‘He rang up and said: ‘I have got to come and see you. What about giv­ing up your job and com­ing with me?’’’

‘‘The big­gest de­ci­sion I ever had to make was when I left teach­ing to go and work for the Hur­ri­canes. Coops came to me and said ‘you won’t be able to carry on teach­ing’.

‘‘I was 52 at the time and I thought that is a bloody big call be­cause you have got su­per­an­nu­a­tion and all that com­ing. But I had done 13 years in that par­tic­u­lar school and it was the case of I was go­ing to have to move side­ways to get to 65, oth­er­wise I would go nuts.

‘‘It changed my life com­pletely.’’

He spent the next two sea­sons man­ag­ing the Hur­ri­canes, but he could not shake teach­ing as the ca­reer be­gan to repli­cate an on­a­gain, off-again re­la­tion­ship.

Knowles be­came the di­rec­tor of a cor­re­spon­dence school – a po­si­tion he re­calls as ‘‘a job from hell’’ – in late 2004.

But 18 months later he was back in rugby af­ter be­ing of­fered a con­tracted po­si­tion at New Zealand Rugby to launch the Air New Zealand Cup.

‘‘I was back in a heart­beat,’’ he says.

While it was only a con­tracted po­si­tion, Knowles hoped it would lead to some­thing more per­ma­nent. And, in a way, it did when things started to crum­ble in one of the four newly-pro­moted pro­vin­cial unions just one month from the start of the new tour­na­ment.

‘‘I was at the tail end of that con­tract... I fin­ished the project and [New Zealand Rugby chief ex­ec­u­tive] Steve Tew said to me: ‘Why don’t you just stay at home, there is noth­ing much go­ing on here and there is no point you sit­ting around the of­fice do­ing noth­ing’.

‘‘That lasted for one day. He phoned me up and said: ‘You are an ex Manawatu¯ guy aren’t you?’ He said: ‘We have got a prob­lem up there’.’’

The prob­lem was the union’s messy di­vorce with coach Char­lie Mcal­is­ter. Tew had also been work­ing with coach Dave Ren­nie and wanted to pair him with Knowles as team man­ager.

‘‘[Ren­nie and I] sat down and had a cup of cof­fee and im­me­di­ately we gelled re­ally well. Rens said to me: ‘I am only go­ing up there for a month. I am not do­ing any more than that’. That was the plan. We would only go and help for a few weeks.’’

But things changed when they met the team. ‘‘We had a meet­ing in the chang­ing sheds with all the boys. They were hum­ble. Their heads were all hung low. They all had con­tracts and sud­denly they did not have a coach. There were warn­ings from New Zealand Rugby that Manawatu¯ would be pulled out of the com­pe­ti­tion and they did not know what was go­ing on.

‘‘They were re­ally low. They came out to get ready for train­ing and Rens said to me: ‘We can no more leave this prov­ince than fly to the moon. We have to see the sea­son out’.’’

A meet­ing with then Manawatu¯ Rugby Union chair­man Tony Mur­phy the fol­low­ing night sealed the deal – Ren­nie would coach the team for one sea­son and Knowles would be the team man­ager.

‘‘We had a lot of fun with those boys. It was re­ally the hum­ble­ness of the guys. There were no ex­pec­ta­tions. They were just there to do the job. We had some pretty av­er­age play­ers at that time to be hon­est. They were not re­ally up to the level. Rens al­ways said it was go­ing to be a long haul and it was.’’

Both men stayed on, but by the end of 2007, Knowles was back teach­ing.

‘‘I had this prob­lem that my wife had a good job in Welling­ton and she did not want to leave. I thought: ‘I will not have a mar­riage left if I do not go back’, so the end of 2007, I went back.’’

His fi­nal flirt with teach­ing was as prin­ci­pal of Wadestown School when he re­alised he no longer had a pas­sion for the job.

So when Ha­dyn Smith quit as chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Manawatu¯ Rugby Union, Knowles was a pop­u­lar, al­beit re­luc­tant, can­di­date.

He con­vinced wife Ju­dine to make the move to Palmer­ston North per­ma­nent. But rather than a wel­com­ing party, there was a nasty sur­prise wait­ing for him in Manawatu¯ .

‘‘They were say­ing in the New Zealand Rugby of­fice they were in a lit­tle bit of a fi­nan­cial hole, but there was noth­ing much be­ing said. When I got up here and opened the books up, it was just short of $500,000 [in deficit]. I thought: ‘Holy s..., how am I go­ing to pull this out?’’’

Knowles knew the only way was for the union to get out to the com­mu­nity.

Then came a call from one of Manawatu¯ ’s big­gest sup­port­ers, Bernie Higgins, of the Higgins Group.

‘‘I went around to his of­fice and he said: ‘What are you try­ing to do?’ I said: ‘We are in the s .... This thing won’t sur­vive’.

‘‘He got on the phone and he rang Steelfort and a cou­ple of other busi­nesses around town and we had a meet­ing in the ref­eree’s room. That is what started the Save the Tur­bos cam­paign.’’

With the axe hov­er­ing over the Tur­bos, that cam­paign played a key role in keep­ing the team in the top di­vi­sion. ‘‘It put a lot of pres­sure on Steve Tew,’’ Knowles said. ‘‘When the go­ing gets tough in Manawatu¯ , ev­ery­body ral­lies, and that is what saved us. We got the money back up, but more than the money, we got the en­thu­si­asm back, and it went from there.’’

Knowles’ role in the cam­paign even­tu­ally earned him the Manawatu¯ Stan­dard’s per­son of the year for 2009.

Since then, it has been much smoother sail­ing.

Knowles re­calls the Tur­bos win­ning the 2014 cham­pi­onship pro­vin­cial di­vi­sion as the high­light of his ten­ure.

His re­place­ment won’t have to look far for ad­vice. Knowles said he was not leav­ing Palmer­ston North and that his res­ig­na­tion was not retirement. ‘‘There might be a bit of stuff that comes up. It doesn’t have to be in rugby. It could be in any­thing.’’

PHOTO: WAR­WICK SMITH/ STUFF

John Knowles is step­ping aside as the Manawatu¯ Rugby Union chief ex­ec­u­tive at the end of the year.

When John Knowles took on the Hur­ri­canes man­ager po­si­tion for the 2003-04 sea­sons, he did not ex­pect that to in­clude iron­ing jer­seys.

John Knowles, cen­tre, cel­e­brates with other key con­trib­u­tors to the Save the Tur­bos cam­paign when it was con­firmed the team would not be de­moted.

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