QUITE A JOURNEY
Deficits, a championship and saving the Turbos
‘‘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.’’
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.