Thames Valley Rugby Union Are Hard-Wired Into Their Community

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Heartland logo during the round one Heartland Championship match between East Coast and Thames Valley on August 26, 2017 in Ruatoria, New Zealand. (Photo by Kerry Marshall/Getty Images)

At the provincial heartland of New Zealand, a rugby game in Paeroa is more than just 80 minutes. It is a highlight of the week, even more so for some. The weeks highlight for those who would plan to travel from within the district, to cheer on their men. That is because the Thames Valley Rugby Union team; eloquently known as the ‘Swamp Foxes’ are hard-wired into their community.

The team and the players in it are an integral part of the communities soul. So on Saturday, when I traveled down from Auckland to the Hauraki District, it was as an rugby observer but more to see what the ‘feeling’ was. To discover if the intrinsic provincial value of rugby still holds true in the smaller centers.

And it certainly still does.

Thames Valley Rugby Union Are Hard Wired Into Their Community

Hard-wired, meaning fixed to the soul of the local community. In a similar way to other key sports; cricket, netball and in Paeroa, gumboot tossing. No, I jest. Netball is less popular than gumboots.

That’s because those are the required dress code here. Something you would not see as much of up at QBE Stadium, where the test match between New Zealand and South Africa was to be played later that same day. But the boots were required here, as the Swamp Foxes home ground had been drenched by spring rains.

Located on the flood-prone Hauraki plains, the nickname Swamp Foxes is imaginative, rather than descriptive. More to do with an attitude, of being ‘crafty and showing cunning’ yet it more than likely reflects the hardy resolve of the people who live here. Stepping through the puddles or bogs, to travel up to an hour to watch a game. So playing on one is in the players nature.

Buller Comes to Town, and So Do the Locals

The visiting team were Buller, from the West Coast of the South Island. Another long standing provincial heartland rugby center, and one who also endures a far bit of wet weather. The soggy surface to begin with, should not have been a concern. On this day, it was the strong support and confident Swamp Foxes team who were the challenge.

It was that visible support that Buller was short on. The shear distance from Westport to the Paeroa Domain meaning the South Island team may have had less than two dozen supporters on this day. And honestly, some of them could have been ‘fair weather fans’. But they were sure outnumbered by the 1500 or so spectators packed into the tight confines of the Thames Valley Rugby Union grandstand.

And this is where the rugbyunited value is most apparent. It is where friends meet up. I observed the regular mix: older supporters, senior club members sharing old stories and yarns. Plus a mix of young boys and girls (who giggled as usual, but knew exactly where the B team were playing). Only in NZ rugby, would teenagers know their sides schedule like that.

Then there were the large number of families. Generations of supporters that included more Mum’s than you’d see at any standard Super Rugby game.

That is representative of the provincial game in New Zealand. It applies in towns like Ruatoria, Masterton or Westport. Families who don’t simply support a team, but those who have players from the Thames Valley Rugby Union mixed into their bloodlines.

With the Swamp Foxes so hard-wired into their community, match day affects many families in this close knit community and brings them together as a strong group.

Family First and Concern for Injured Player

They will have had fathers or sons involved, or even daughters who married into this group–rugby here shows the ties that bind us. Similar to other sports, the locals always show up. But unlike your over-sized stadium with less than half or a quarter full–the game in Paeroa had the communities full support.

And because it was family, when Hayden Anderson wen’t down with a severe injury, everyone was concerned.

Sitting among them, I sensed that some wanted to run out and check on their friend. The looks of concern were needed, as he appeared to be incapacitated by a broken bone; the Medics isolating him and calling for medical treatment. Looks, and questions in the stand were of concern for the person–not how it had temporarily halted the game.

And unfortunately for this small rural township, the closest Ambulance which was called for from the pitch, was delayed due to other calls. So it was awful luck that Anderson lay prone on the ground just as a rainstorm hit the area. With thoughts for Hayden’s welfare, those around him plus concerned team management and family formed a circle of umbrellas to ease his suffering. A real team effort, as such.

Heartland Rugby Championship Match Resumes

Even if there was a delay to removing the injured player, players and officials were respectful. But as soon as the field was ready, the whistle blew time back on. Fans immediately went back to cheering and shouting out their support.

The Swamp Foxes needed it too. Buller were the runner-up for the Meads Cup in 2016, so holding them to just a single score was critical, in the 14-7 halftime scoreline. Buller have threats like James Lash at first five; top points scorer to date in the Heartland Rugby Championship. The home side needed to be vigilant in defense for the next 40 minutes.

A strength this year for Thames Valley are the established players. That includes first half try scorer Alex Bradley. A strong loose forward trio were a powerful force, and regular breaks and a good territorial advantage in the second half nullified Buller. The soggy ground wouldn’t allow for the away teams backline to get started, but when burley hooker Hayden Wisnewski sprinted away with an intercept, the score had stretched to 21-7.

Jubilant fans cheered out for every carry now, as handling errors from Buller regularly afforded possession back to the Foxes. With a valuable bonus point on offer, they clapped even louder when loose forward Brett Ranga completed a fine rolling maul try. The home side’s structure was terrific on this day, and even some late ‘hopeful kicking’ by Buller could not stop the home side winning 26-7.

Result on the Field Makes Fans Day

Winning was good. Bonus point secured too. Good for the sides championship hopes; they sit now at two wins from four matches and fifth on the Mitre 10 Heartland Rugby Championship table.

And it does something more for those on hand. More than just momentary gratification–as Super Rugby can. It boosts the community, because the teams success is hard wired into the success of the province. Rugby can do this, and other sports too enjoy the same sentiment. Post-game, handshakes between the two sides, and a buoyant mood in the grandstand is the reward on a soggy, wet day in Paeroa.

Rugby is still the heartbeat of many New Zealand communities, and being there Saturday, it was a joy to see first-hand.

“Main photo credit”
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