Cantabrians Abroad /
Jeff McIntyre never made the Burnside High First XV, but he’s helped an Arizona rugby club take a Hollywood-style leap to championship success.
Harnessing energy with coach Jeff McIntyre
It’s a Saturday morning. The sun beats down from a cloudless Arizona sky. The calendar reads winter, but it’s warmer here than the summer back in Christchurch. Shouts ring out from field and sideline as a ball spirals between players, as bodies collide, as teams battle for supremacy. Jeff McIntyre looks on as a kid in red and black catches the ball, brushes aside a would-be tackler, and gallops away 10 yards, 20 yards, 30 yards, to score. Yards, not metres. This is America. American kids on an American field.
But this is not American football. It’s rugby.
A Burnside High School old boy, Jeff reflects fondly on his Canterbury childhood, on getting to grow up in ‘a massive playground of outdoor opportunities that are just at your fingertips’. But rugby was Jeff ’s main sport as a kid. ‘I wasn’t anything super flash,’ he says. ‘I make that point to the boys I coach here – I wasn’t on the First XV.’
Now in his fifties, Jeff has lived in Arizona since 2006, working for himself as a financier, helping raise capital for investments in energy projects and green technologies. He scratches his rugby itch as both a qualified referee (high school, college, and men’s rugby), and the Team Manager and Assistant Backs Coach for Red Mountain Youth Rugby in Phoenix.
Like back home, it’s another dominant team in red and black. ‘We have five teams now: Under 10s, Under 12s, Under 14s (which is junior high school), an Under 16 team, and a senior team which is like a First XV,’ says Jeff. ‘We play in all those divisions, and we’ve been state champions for seven years. We’re the only team in Arizona that gets invited to national tournaments. It’s been exciting.’ Not that it began that way.
In fact, the journey from when Jeff first became involved (soon after arriving in Arizona) with what was then the Mesa Knights youth team, to what they’ve become, sounds like something out of a Hollywood sports film: a ragtag bunch playing for the love of the game while barely fielding a team, eventually growing into perennial state champions.
‘I met a Māori guy, Varen Berryman, who’d married an American, been at the University of Hawaii, and had these three Māori boys who’d been born and raised in America,’ recalls Jeff. ‘They wanted to play rugby, and formed the nucleus of this youth rugby team. Varen coached and said come on down, and I did. It was sort of small and struggling. We were lucky if 15 boys showed up on a Saturday for a game of footie. We had these scruffy jerseys sponsored by a local restaurant owned by a Tongan guy. It just slowly grew from there.’
Nowadays the head coach for Red Mountain Youth Rugby is OJ Hawea, another Māori living in Arizona.
OJ’s father was a Waikato Rugby Union official and OJ has helped grow touch rugby massively as a sport in the United States; he’s now President of the USA Touch Rugby Association and coached the national men’s team at last year’s World Cup in Malaysia.
When he’s not helping OJ coach at Red Mountain Youth Rugby, or refereeing a variety of age grades, Jeff spends his days working at the nexus between the oil and gas industry and green technology. ‘It’s a fascinating industry,’ says Jeff. ‘It gets bad press, but those of us who work in the industry know
that the world still runs on oil… The reality is if we want to go to a carbon-free future very quickly, then we’d have to go back to the 19th century in terms of standards of living because so much of commerce, transportation, and our way of life is dependent on fossil fuels. But that will change over time with new technology.’
Unfortunately, the technology behind ‘sexy’ alternatives is nowhere near ready to replace fossil fuels, says Jeff.
‘Guess how much total global energy usage is generated by renewable sources like wind and solar,’ he prods. ‘It’s gone from around 1.7 per cent to 2.6 per cent in the past 15 years.’ Similarly, electric cars are not yet a panacea. Jeff notes their lifetime carbon matches petrol vehicles, due to the way electricity is generated in many countries. There are also huge environmental concerns with the extraction of rare metals used in the batteries.
Jeff calls himself a ‘practical realist’. Over the past 13 years he’s been involved in several projects to help finance the research, development, and eventual implementation of green technologies to make a real difference within and alongside the fossil fuel industry, rather than shunning it. These include a zero-power injector to convert diesel trucks to CNG (a cheaper and cleaner burning fuel) without losing any power, and miniature refineries to cleanse dirty gas onsite at remote fracking wells rather than flaring it off into the atmosphere.
The rugby field gives Jeff a break from working hard to put together complex multi-million-dollar deals involving cuttingedge technology. Along with the leap in on-field results, over the years he’s also noticed a change in the way local high school football coaches view rugby – played during the football offseason – and the involvement of their own stars. Initially reluctant, worried about their boys getting banged up, now coaches are more supportive.
‘There’s a sort of tacit acceptance that rugby is not as dangerous as football, that the boys come away from rugby very fit and better tacklers,’ says Jeff, who then adds a ‘little secret’ he’s learned from years of coaching hundreds of kids who play both American football and rugby. ‘They all prefer rugby. It’s fascinating, they still love football, it’s the main event, glamorous and where the money is, but the reason why they love rugby is they all get to touch the ball, the post-game adrenaline rush is more intense because they’re on the field for longer, and they love the fact they make the decisions on the field as to what they do. Whereas high school football is very structured – you are literally a widget in a big machine.’
The American kids also love the camaraderie of rugby, says Jeff, along with the informality of the Kiwi coaches. ‘There’s lots of love. We have a team spirit the boys really take to. I go to these boys’ weddings, we run into each other 10 years later, I give them a big hug and we reminisce. It becomes an important chapter of their life, and we’re proud that we’ve built it.’
The American kids love the camaraderie of rugby, says Jeff, along with the informality of the Kiwi coaches.
High school rugby has flourished in Arizona in the past 15 years, with Red Mountain Youth Rugby scooping several championships.
TOP / When Jeff began coaching they could barely assemble a team, now they have big squads in multiple age grades.
ABOVE / Along with coaching, Jeff gives his time as a referee for rugby and touch rugby. OPPOSITE / Jeff's 'day job' involves raising capital for green technologies in the energy industry.