CLASH FOR THE CUP O’ WOOD

North & South - - Contents - BY MIKE WHITE

For 70 years, the Cen­tral Otago vil­lages of St Bathans and Becks have taken to the rugby field to bat­tle for the prized Wooden Cup.

For 70 years, neigh­bour­ing Cen­tral Otago vil­lages St Bathans and Becks have taken to the rugby field to bat­tle for the Wooden Cup. It’s a mod­est tro­phy, but win­ning it means ev­ery­thing – and this year, vic­tory was es­pe­cially im­por­tant. Mike White headed south to the St Bathans Do­main for the an­nual match.

“TWENTY TO GO and it’s yours, boys!” Becks man­ager Bill Clous­ton urged his play­ers, al­most shak­ing with nerves and en­thu­si­asm. The fi­nal quar­ter in the an­nual rugby match against St Bathans was about to start, with Becks lead­ing 22-12 but play­ing into a nor’wester and a dip­ping sun. They’d lost the match for the past three years, been badly thrashed a cou­ple of times, but right now sensed this might be their year.

“It’s the win­ning and the los­ing of the game this quar­ter,” chipped in coach Steve Hore. “It’s fuck­ing close. We’re go­ing to use a lot of subs this quar­ter, but if you’re on the field, your job is to run like fuck, tackle like fuck, fuck­ing go as hard as you can.”

“If we get penal­ties in front,” Clous­ton or­dered, “we’ll take the bloody thing and make the three points.”

The sur­round­ing Becks play­ers sucked down more wa­ter, squinted into the sun, and set about mo­ti­vat­ing each other.

“De­fence is go­ing to win this fuck­ing game… There’s go­ing to be fists fly­ing, fuck­ing full on, fuck­ing great.”

Clous­ton’s voice was as dry as the hills around him, hoarse from the past hour of lec­tur­ing the ref­eree and en­cour­ag­ing his play­ers from the side­line. He looked down the field to the ring of St Bathans play­ers in their gold jerseys and knew they’d be des­per­ate, knew they’d come back at Becks like noth­ing be­fore. He turned to his team, as they in­serted mouth­guards and traipsed back to the half­way line.

“I’ll shout all night if you win this fuck­ing game,” Clous­ton yelled af­ter them. “And I ain’t jok­ing.”

THEY’D STARTED ar­riv­ing just af­ter lunchtime. Utes with dog boxes on the back. Four-wheel drives full of fam­i­lies. The odd sedan with ex­pired rego and a boot­ful of beer. They pulled into the St Bathans Do­main, cir­cled the pine trees and the long­drop, and parked along the touch­line. They were there for the Wooden Cup. And they were there for Rick Beat­tie.

Beat­tie was a leg­end around St Bathans, a farmer whose fam­ily had been in the area for gen­er­a­tions and had a road named af­ter them. He’d been a de­cent blind­side flanker, coach, and or­gan­iser of count­less Wooden Cup matches, and had re­cently taken it upon him­self to be grounds­man. Each year, he’d fill in the rab­bit holes, pick the pine cones off the pad­dock, mow it, clear it, mark it, and straighten the goal­posts.

Beat­tie was wind­ing down from farm­ing,

had bought a camper­van and a bunch of new fish­ing gear, and was plan­ning to ex­plore the coun­try. But in July, he came home for lunch one day and col­lapsed. The fu­neral was mas­sive. And to­day’s match was all about honour­ing him.

His part­ner, Sue Ingram, had taken over his du­ties and spent two days cut­ting the do­main’s grass, then six hours hand-rak­ing it. On the touch­line, a new tro­phy in Beat­tie’s mem­ory sat on the bon­net of a Hilux dou­ble-cab. And be­side it was the Wooden Cup, a 20cm-high gob­let of pol­ished wood that has been played for since 1948.

But the rugby ri­valry goes back much fur­ther than that. Some­time in the 19th cen­tury, a rugby match started be­tween the Ir­ish gold­min­ers of St Bathans, and the Welsh min­ers in nearby Cam­brian Val­ley. Af­ter World War I, the en­counter stopped, be­cause so many lo­cal men had been killed. But in 1948, the publi­can at St Bathans’ Vul­can Ho­tel, Bill Houl­ston, de­cided to re­in­state the match and got a car­pen­ter on the nearby rail­way to craft a cup. De­spite be­ing named the Vul­can Cup, it’s been known as sim­ply the Wooden Cup for as long as any­one can re­mem­ber. And be­cause the min­ers had largely left the area by then, Houl­ston de­cided to make the match be­tween St Bathans and its clos­est neigh­bour, Becks, 15km down the road, with the di­vid­ing line set at Wool­shed Creek, which runs through Lauder Sta­tion.

As the area’s pop­u­la­tion has dwin­dled, it’s of­ten been hard to put out a team of res­i­dents, and in some years, “if you had legs you played”, lo­cals reck­oned. So the re­cruit­ment area is rea­son­ably re­laxed nowa­days, al­though the ba­sic rule is that play­ers should have some con­nec­tion with Becks or St Bathans, whether they’ve lived there, or worked on a farm, or had a rel­a­tive who turned out for one of the teams. Even still, ev­ery year there are mut­tered ac­cu­sa­tions of un­rea­son­able ring-ins – though All Blacks like Patearoa’s An­drew Hore, or An­ton Oliver, who has a house in Cam­bri­ans, have never made the start­ing line­ups.

There are only a few rules. It’s al­ways played on the first Satur­day in Septem­ber. There’s no push­ing in the scrums, no lift­ing in the li­ne­outs, and they play four 20-minute quar­ters to give play­ers a bit of a breather. And who­ever wins, takes the cup back to their home pub – the Vul­can in St Bathans, or the White Horse in Becks – where it sits above the bar till the fol­low­ing year, when each side starts round­ing up play­ers.

“There’s no prac­tices,” said St Bathans coach Phil Smith, “it’s just who turns up on the day.”

He care­fully watched those fil­ter­ing into the do­main, count­ing un­til he knew he’d got a team. “Ah, there’s Sea­horse, that’s good. We’d heard he might be off jet-boat­ing, but he’s bloody use­ful.”

St Bathans’ old­est player was Rob­bie Calder, who was 46 and had been play­ing since his fam­ily bought Lauder Sta­tion 23 years ago. Smith, 50, played him­self un­til a few years ago and had a fear­some rep­u­ta­tion.

“The mo­ment he stepped on the pad­dock, you didn’t want to be in the road be­cause he caused more stitches than any­body else,” one lo­cal mur­mured. “He was like Jekyll and Hyde – he gets on the rugby field and goes nuts.”

In a re­gion where play­ers of­ten move about, Smith was one of many with split loy­al­ties. In 1992, his par­ents bought a farm near St Bathans, “and I’d only been here a week and my mum got a phone call from Rick Beat­tie and he goes, ‘Mrs Smith, would your hus­band be in­ter­ested in play­ing rugby?’ And she said, ‘No, but my son would be.’ Rugby prac­tice was seven o’clock on a Fri­day night at the pub – that was a bit of an eye-opener.”

Smith played for St Bathans for more than a decade, but then mar­ried wife Janet, whose fa­ther was the Becks man­ager, and moved to their farm by the Becks pub. He’s still there, farm­ing 5000 sheep and beef, but his sport­ing heart has al­ways re­mained with St Bathans, while Janet is a de­voted Becks sup­porter. Things cer­tainly get tense at home

around Wooden Cup time.

Smith eyed the ar­riv­ing Becks play­ers as they grabbed their gear and headed over be­tween the pine trees to change. They looked fresh, sharp and nu­mer­ous.

Bill Clous­ton handed out Becks’ ma­roon jerseys, which bore the name of his silage and head­ing com­pany, and wound in­su­lat­ing tape around his play­ers’ arms, in mem­ory of Beat­tie.

“There’ll be a minute’s si­lence when you get on the pad­dock,” Clous­ton, 69, told his play­ers. “And then it’s all go. This is the year we’re tak­ing the cup home. Play to win the bloody thing. We’ve got to go out there and give it ev­ery­thing – bit of mongrel for these guys. No stomp­ing, but don’t go out as if you’re hav­ing a bit of a run.”

Coach Steve Hore, who owns an en­gi­neer­ing firm in Ōmakau, took over and be­gan de­tail­ing their de­fen­sive strat­egy. “Just drop the first guy, get him straight on the ground, and then get ready for the next one and just fuck­ing knock them over. That’s the fuck­ing key to the day, al­ways is.”

The backs and for­wards sep­a­rated for a few warm-up drills across scruffy tus­sock speck­led with sheep shit. By the time they re­grouped, many were heav­ing, a year hav­ing passed since they last played. Hore re­turned to the day’s tac­tics: at­tack in groups of three; com­mu­ni­cate; don’t over­com­mit to the rucks; and if you do, keep your hands out of it.

Mid-af­ter­noon sun on their backs, the Becks play­ers warmed to Hore’s plan.

“You’ve just got to fuck­ing get in there, even if you’re a back,” one in­structed.

“Make sure you just fuck­ing blow them out at the rucks,” an­other re­in­forced. “We’ll have a beer with them af­ter­wards, but there’s no fuck­ing mates at the mo­ment, okay. Let’s get fuck­ing stuck in.”

ROB­BIE CALDER’S shep­herd at Lauder Sta­tion, Ben Har­ris, had been prac­tis­ing all morn­ing. Sur­rounded by sheet mu­sic, he hoisted the bag­pipes he hadn’t played in months and be­gan blow­ing, sweat­ing as his fin­gers re­mem­bered their place on the chanter. A few hours later, he piped the teams onto the field, wear­ing his St Bathans play­ing strip, a kilt, and rugby boots. Af­ter Amaz­ing Grace, every­one stood in si­lence, re­mem­ber­ing Rick Beat­tie, the wind rush­ing through the pine trees and kids sky­lark­ing in the dis­tance the only things to be heard.

Becks had won the toss and cho­sen to play with the wind, and within five min­utes had scored, when half­back Tom

Hut­ton nipped in by the posts. An­other try fol­lowed in the sec­ond quar­ter, be­fore Hut­ton spied an open­ing round a ruck and strolled in for his sec­ond, to make it 17-0. A dog ran onto the field and evaded the home team’s tack­lers with sim­i­lar ease.

On the side­line, St Bathans sup­porter Bill Ma­son kept faith with his team and pre­dicted the wind was worth 20 points. At 81, he re­mem­bered the very first Wooden Cup, and hadn’t missed many matches since. “Oh, we’ve had some fe­ro­cious games.”

Ma­son, by all ac­counts, had been a party to past fe­roc­ity, with a rep­u­ta­tion as a no­to­ri­ous crash-tack­ling sec­ond five- eighth in his day. “He didn’t take dum­mies – just, BOOF,” whis­pered one for­mer team­mate. “He was hor­ren­dous. When he hit them, they stayed tack­led.”

Mo­ments later, Ma­son was flat­tened him­self, when play swung to­wards the touch­line and a tack­ler came fly­ing into the spec­ta­tors. Ma­son picked him­self up, picked a few tufts of grass from his jersey, and was handed a fresh beer. He was still tough.

Fi­nally, St Bathans rus­tled over for a try. Ref­eree Kieran Parker ad­mit­ted the con­ver­sion “looked a bit scratchy. But both the touch­ies gave it to me.”

So when Parker blew for half-time, it was 17-7 and spir­its had lifted among St Bathans sup­port­ers. “The sec­ond half is ours… stick it up in the air, get it high… it’s all down­hill now… let’s go boys…”

Not long af­ter the restart, a St Bathans player broke down the wing (“come on boys, come on…”); fended three Becks tack­lers (“that’s the stuff…”); and plunged over (“you beauty!”). 17-12.

But as the wind fiz­zled, Becks mus­cled down­field and mul­leted cen­tre Jack Clark dot­ted down to make it 22-12. “Shit, that wasn’t sup­posed to hap­pen. Bug­ger it, eh...” The ref blew for the end of the third quar­ter. St Bathans fans reached for an­other beer and as­sured them­selves there was still time to come back. And Bill Clous­ton marched out to join the Becks play­ers with a prom­ise of beer all night if they could hold on.

CLOUS­TON GREW UP with Rick Beat­tie. Went to school with him, played rugby with him, was best man at his wed­ding. But for one day a year, when the Wooden Cup was on the line, they were en­e­mies. That’s just how it was around here. “It’s the only chance you get to smash your mates,” ob­served Becks cap­tain Jeremy Jenk­ins.

As the fi­nal quar­ter got un­der­way, a Becks player limped to the side­line, took off his boots and swapped them for slip­pers. “How do you get hurt play­ing a friendly game?” a mate puz­zled. “It’s not friendly out there, trust me,” the in­valid replied.

Bod­ies flew into rucks and were biffed out again. There was blood smeared on knees, arms and faces. Ef­forts to break the de­fence were des­per­ate, and so were the tack­les. “Ball, ball, ball... feet, feet, feet,” came the cries from the side­line. “Stomp on some hands to get it out… Get on­side… Get out of there… That was for­ward – Je­sus!”

As ev­ery­thing be­came more in­tense, sup­port­ers cribbed from the touch­line onto the field, urg­ing their play­ers. “Go, go… get him, get him, GET HIM!” It was

Not long af­ter the restart, a St Bathans player broke down the wing (“come on boys, come on….”); fended three Becks tack­lers (“that’s the stuff…”); and plunged over (“you beauty!”). 17-12.

like Fore­skin’s Lament played out on a tawny Cen­tral Otago stage. It was rit­ual, tribal, bru­tal.

St Bathans came again, but spilled the ball; lost a li­ne­out on their throw; tried to run it from their goal line but were smoth­ered. Even the breeze seemed to con­spire against them, swing­ing to the west and sweep­ing across the field, and the score re­mained 22-12.

“Start­ing to run a bit short of time now,” Phil Smith ad­mit­ted. “Ac­tu­ally, Becks are play­ing bloody well – pinch­ing the ball all the time, which is usu­ally our strong point.”

Even­tu­ally, as play broke down on the half­way line, Kieran Parker blew full­time. St Bathans play­ers’ hands dropped to their knees as they gath­ered their breath. Bill Clous­ton’s hands shot sky­ward in tri­umph.

“Good shit, boys… well done, fel­las… fuck­ing, you beau­ties!”

The Becks play­ers hugged and back­slapped and gath­ered in a cir­cle and raised three cheers for St Bathans. “And one for the ref... ’RAY… and one for Rick... ’RAY.” St Bathans replied in kind, and then the teams filed past each other for hand­shakes.

“Good stuff, Jimmy… well done, Gerry… cheers mate… stop gloat­ing, you bas­tard.”

Be­fore long the Wooden Cup was awash with beer and shared around the Becks play­ers, as they posed for pho­tos.

Tom Hut­ton was voted Becks’ player of the day, Sea­horse (Dave Kenny) was St Bathans’.

Rob­bie Calder was re­warded for be­ing the old­est player (“He’s got an­other five years in him, easy”), and Lo­gan By­ers got the prize for best tackle of the day

“Good stuff, Jimmy… well done, Gerry… cheers mate… stop gloat­ing, you bas­tard.”

(“Jeez, fuck, it was too”).

The new Rick Beat­tie memo­rial tro­phy was awarded to St Bathans stal­wart Beaver (Steve Lith­gow) for his con­tri­bu­tion to or­gan­is­ing the game, and a framed St Bathans jersey was pre­sented to Beat­tie’s part­ner, Sue Ingram.

“He’ll be up there look­ing down say­ing, ‘Why didn’t you bug­gers win?’” she told the crowd.

The shad­ows that had edged over the side­line by the match’s end crept to­wards mid­field as the play­ers leant on utes, cra­dled stub­bies and re­lived the en­counter.

“Some guys, this is the only time of the year you’ll see them,” noted Steve Hore. “Wooden Cup and duck­shoot­ing. It’s just a bloody good com­mu­nity thing.”

Becks lock/flanker/full­back Wil­lie Clous­ton lit a cig­a­rette and drained a Dou­ble Brown. He runs the fam­ily farm in Becks with his dad, Bill Clous­ton, and this was the 16th con­sec­u­tive year he’d played in the Wooden Cup. “The body will feel it to­mor­row – it’s bloody fierce and phys­i­cal. We’re all mates that want to go out and beat the shit out of each other and then sit around and have a beer.”

There wouldn’t be too many beers tonight though. Wil­lie’s wife was off to the Pink con­cert in Dunedin, so he was head­ing home to look af­ter their kids.

His daugh­ter, Harper, was rid­ing round on her bike. Other kids were play­ing in the pile of grass that had been raked from the field. A few lads booted wob­bly drop­kicks be­tween rick­ety goal­posts. The play­ers started to drift away, off to Moose’s wool­shed for a shower, up to the Vul­can for a feed.

Phil Smith was gut­ted but do­ing his best to be gra­cious. “They were younger, fit­ter, faster. But it’s got to go around.” His wife Janet was, how­ever, buoy­ant. Becks had won the cur­tain- raiser women’s hockey match 11-8, and now they’d re­gained the Wooden Cup. “You want a ride up the road, loser,” she yelled, rat­tling the car keys. Smith winced, re­al­is­ing he was in for weeks of rib­bing.

A few orange peels lay scat­tered around the 22m. A weak­en­ing sun picked out the snow that reached half­way down Mt St Bathans. The last utes pulled out, a cold wind chas­ing the dust from their tyres.

“LOOK AT THE crew we’ve got here. Bloody mar­vel­lous!” Bill Clous­ton was the hap­pi­est man in Cen­tral Otago. He waved an arm around the bar at Becks’ White Horse Ho­tel, where play­ers and sup­port­ers were mak­ing it a good night for own­ers Karen and Gary “Meat­loaf” George.

“This was our day,” crowed Clous­ton. “I had a feel­ing it was go­ing to be. I’ll have an­other one please,” he said, slid­ing his han­dle across the var­nished bar­top to Meat­loaf.

Try scor­ers Tom Hut­ton and Jack Clark were the toast of their ta­ble, still wear­ing the play­ing jerseys a grate­ful Clous­ton had gifted them.

“Yeah, got a cou­ple of meat pies [tries],” laughed Hut­ton, whose fam­ily has a farm in the Ida Val­ley. It was his first Wooden Cup but he swore he’d be back. “Bloody oath. It was a bloody clas­sic old match, re­ally. Bloody hard case.” Meat­loaf drained the last of a bot­tle of Dram­buie into the Wooden Cup, which was al­ready three-quar­ters full of beer, and the tro­phy started an­other round of the bar, every­one tak­ing a drink as it cir­cu­lated. Even­tu­ally it would be placed on the top shelf be­hind the bar, be­side the women’s hockey tro­phy and un­der­neath the photo of Bob Mee, the White Horse’s first publi­can.

But tonight it was the cen­tre of cel­e­bra­tions, a small cup that had passed through count­less hands, di­vided fam­i­lies, and uni­fied com­mu­ni­ties for 70 years.

Bill Clous­ton leant over the bar to check his tab – true to his word, the drinks were on him. It wasn’t quite eight o’clock and the to­tal had al­ready passed $300. Clous­ton didn’t care. He didn’t have a care in the world, right then.

“It’s only once a year,” he roared, as the Wooden Cup reached him, he lifted it, drank to his team, and re­mem­bered his mate, Rick Beat­tie. +

The Becks team cel­e­brates af­ter the match. Bill Clous­ton is sec­ond from right, with arm raised.

“There’s no prac­tices,” says St Bathans coach Phil Smith, “it’s just who turns up on the day.”

Top: Becks cap­tain Jeremy Jenk­ins puts black arm­bands on play­ers, in mem­ory of St Bathans farmer and Wooden Cup stal­wart Rick Beat­tie, who died in July. Above: Ben Har­ris, the shep­herd at Lauder Sta­tion, pipes the teams onto the field.

The teams ob­serve a minute’s si­lence in mem­ory of Rick Beat­tie, be­fore the game.

Top: Chil­dren watch the match from the back of a ute. Above: St Bathans player “Chief” charges up­field.

Op­pos­ing play­ers re­lax af­ter the match. As Becks cap­tain Jeremy Jenk­ins (far left) says, the game is “the only chance you get to smash your mates”, but af­ter­wards, friend­ship is re­sumed.

Top: Becks player Wil­lie Clous­ton cel­e­brates post match. Above: Try scor­ers Tom Hut­ton ( left) and Jack Clark drink from the Wooden Cup at the White Horse Ho­tel in Becks.

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