You get a sense from talking with James Lash that Heartland Rugby is everything that he enjoys about the game of rugby union and while some, including this reporter, would admire him being offered an opportunity to wear All Black, the player himself is more than happy playing for Buller.
Buller, on the West Coast of New Zealand, is right in the middle of the ‘rugby heartland’. It is grassroots footy, with a 125 year-plus history that holds tight to the foundation of the game. An area where tradition and loyalty are held in high regard in New Zealand (NZ), it is where this 28 year old feels that he is most comfortable in.
Having played 34 games for the union, Lash has more goals to achieve with Buller. So after the upcoming club rugby season, he is looking at many more matches this season. Lash is targeting that timeline [club/province] above ambitions for higher honours.
“I have few goals to tick off with Buller this year: one is becoming the highest points-scorer for the union (575 currently) and I’ve got 125 points to get. And also to reach 50 games – which will occur in 2019. Also, to make the Heartland Rugby XV and add to the caps I have with them.”
James Lash: Heartland Rugby everything he enjoys about the Game
Last year, the player told Fairfax Media what he enjoyed most about the grassroots feel of a team like Buller. “It is natural footy, where players can express themselves rather than play like robots in the systems that dominate the provincial championship.”
And in this tier of the national competition, he has excelled. Named the Heartland Rugby ‘Player of the Year’ 2014, he has been the hitting his objectives in the three seasons he has competed in [did not play in 2015/16]. Yet while those accolades demonstrate his ability, it also shows that James is comfortable with his lifestyle.
Really enjoyed chatting with this guy #JamesLash 2014 Heartland Rugby Player of the Year, and a man who demonstrates #rugbyunited qualities. Still has goals to reach with Buller and with the Heartland XV squad.
All the best in 2018 mate @LWOSRugby @RedefinedRugby pic.twitter.com/Ggm6ktb1zC
— scott hornell (@scotthornell73) January 21, 2018
“I have a very good job and they are very supportive. I am a Sales Rep for Placemakers”. While not professional by monetary contract, most observers believe the standards are rising at most levels in New Zealand.
He also has a brother, Mike, who is a first-class referee. If the stars align, they may be the first set of brothers to be player and referee in a Heartland Rugby match.
Beside the game, Lash also loves the travel. “Yeah it’s awesome! It’s good fun getting out to these unique places (Ruatoria on the East Coast) and getting to see the country which you probably wouldn’t go look at other wise”. Additionally, community values also play a part in why Lash enjoys the team.
Buller – a Team with Heart
The sense of community is apparent in Buller. The town supports the team 100% and the team is where those values are evident. Team mates, friends and family ties are strong.
LWOR asked Lash about one player who is a living-legend in the region: Phil Beveridge. With over 150 caps over a career spanning from 1993 to present, his large figure is one that has influenced Lash’s time in Buller.
he’s a genuine good bugger!
“The culture we have at Buller is a real family one, and Phil is usually the one at the front of it driving it!”
Playing for your mates is only one factor. When asked about some of the more memorable matches he has played in, Lash recalls several moments. “The coaches both coaching in there 100th game was one, as we faced West Coast and put a record 48-0 score on them.
“Last year vs Mid Canterbury, we came back from about 20 points to win and was a real gutsy team win. And I can’t forget the 2014 semi final”.
Enjoying those successes is the difference between a Super Rugby franchise, and a smaller union. The club, but also the community around it thrive on those moments too.
Could Higher Honours be in line for James Lash?
Impressing many with both his game management, accuracy and ability to cross the line, Last Word on Rugby might assume that higher honours should be afforded Lash. He acknowledges that there has been contact. “No Super Rugby teams but have had interest from Mitre 10 Cup teams”.
“Though, my focus is on preparing for the club season–some in Nelson, and then my club Ngakawau. My job is very supportive, so I’m reluctant to move at present but, who knows what’s around the corner.”
Knowing this and with the recent loss of Lima Sopoaga to English Rugby, could other teams come calling? That could be anywhere from Highlanders’ new coach Aaron Mauger wishing to replace his pivot in 2019, or Tasman looking to add maturity to their squad. Possibilities may stretch as far as a new 2019 RWC strategy from Steve Hansen? Lash is happy to ‘wait and see’. As talented as some first-fives within teams playing in higher competitions, Lash has goals with Heartland Rugby but is not adverse to the thought of being contacted by other teams.
Currently ‘dipping his toe’ in the Sevens rugby pool, with performances recently for the Tasman provincial side, Lash says that it is a game he has not played in several seasons, but is enjoying his recent exposure to the shortened format. “This my first 7s season in four years, as other commitments have restrained me from playing”.
“Really enjoying playing and just taking it as it comes.”
“Initially I did it to get fit so I can come into club rugby in good shape and let that flow onto Heartland Rugby, but have enjoyed it more then expected.”
— Bayleys National 7's (@NationalSevens) January 14, 2018
In fact Lash is speaking to LWOR from Darwin, where he was invited to play for the Cavaliers side. And while this recent role may only be temporary, it does make Lash a more attractive prospect. Adding to his range of skills; tactical and defensive kicking, offensive play and constructing attack on the fly. All skills that not every young number 10 can offer. Include his performances with the New Zealand Heartland XV side, and Lash has much potential.
Watch this space…
Lash content to achieve his Rewards in Heartland Rugby
Although that might not be a reality, if anything were offered then Lash would consider it. But his goals, and the rewards he values most are in Heartland Rugby formerly.
“Yeah perform in Heartland is the goal. Financially it may not be worth it, but gladly I have a good job/career at Placemakers. So I’m reluctant to move at present but, who knows what’s around the corner.”
And by his record, he will certainly be a figure that is confident he has performed in the past. Confident he should do the same in 2018. Hoping to drive his side to another grand final [as they did in 2016 – see main picture]. Lash; and Buller, still wish to hold the Championship. Buller have won the Lochore Cup back in 2012 and men like Lash and stalwart Beveridge will each have an ambition to bring the silverware back to Westport.
Do that and he can feel more than content with the personal rewards and feeling of satisfaction that it would bring.
Not one to consider the lucrative offers offshore that so many have done, James Lash would much more enjoy his Heartland Rugby. Like the thousands of grassroots players who turn out after their jobs to practice, sacrifice much for the pride that comes in wearing their club or provincial colours–it means the world to them. For James, it holds everything he enjoys about the Game.
“Main photo credit”
Embed from Getty Images