Thursday, 26 August 2010

Even though I reside in Dunedin, my heart belongs to Southland.

As I write this I’m contemplating whether to go and watch Otago battle Taranaki, or spend a quiet night-in watching Coronation Street.

I realize that’s a sad indictment on my life, but think about it, there could easily be more action on Coro than Carisbrook. Ken Barlow, despite his advancing years, has displayed more penetration in recent times than the Otago midfield and Dev Alahan’s untimely naked unveiling probably drew a bigger crowd than recent attendances at the ‘Brook.

All jesting aside, Otago rugby now finds itself in the unenviable position Southland was in ten years ago and the road to Damascus for Phil Mooney and David Latta is not without its potholes.

There’s a lack of locally-nurtured talent, most of the imports are not performing and the team has forgotten how to win a game, especially the close ones. Remind you of the Stags of the late 1990s?

In the past Southland supporters would probably have taken some smug satisfaction from Big Brother Otago’s misfortunes. But the little brother has had a growth spurt and can now beat up the older sibling in the back yard brawl. They are now equals, brothers in arms, in a common fight.

That fight is to save the ailing Highlanders. Jamie Joseph and Simon Culhane are a good start. So I think I’ll forgo Coro Street for Burns Street and do my bit. I hope I have some company!

* Continuing the fight theme, while Grant Beardsley v Aaron Smith at the Fight for Kidz promises to be the best scrap, there’s no doubting the most entertaining will be the feature bout between Jeremy Winders and Brendan Laney.

Winders and Laney are genial, jovial and thoroughly likeable blokes. Former Otago legend and Scottish rugby international Laney has a boxing background. As a teenager he fought out of the Temuka club. In the case of Winders, he’s as tough as old boots, having played much of his rugby career as a lightweight flanker for the Stags.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that Winders has reportedly shed 14 kilograms of beer belly to get in shape for the bout, as he would have killed for some of that weight when he was competing with the Henderson twins for a spot in the Stags.

Winders, though slightly nutty, is one of my favourite Southlanders. Few are more proud, even fewer have worn the ‘S’ on the left breast with more pride. Good luck Jerry. You never threw the towel in on the rugby paddock and I don’t expect your corner will have to tomorrow night.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

While some of the rules of rugby, especially around the breakdown, are about as mystifying as the Emissions Trading Scheme, compared to golf, rugby’s a relatively simple game.

To that end you had to have sympathy for the big-hitting Dustin Johnson when a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in the most marginal of sand bunkers potentially cost him the US PGA title at the heinously-bunkered Whistling Straights. Unfortunately with golf, rules are rules!

It reminded me of lesson hard-learned when I first joined the Gore club, about the same time as former Southland lock forward Alan “Tiny” Byrne. Not only did the Big Guy take great pleasure in jumping all over me, at every opportunity, in our rugby-playing days, he had equal delight in pulling a fellow novice up on one of the quirky nuances of golf.

I had chipped on to the green from close proximity and had managed, more by good fortune than good technique, to roll the ball to within centimeters of the hole. Not wanting to hold up my playing partners, I proudly strode to my ball and tapped it into the hole to claim my par. Unfortunately I had not removed the flagstick because some of my other playing partners were still off the green.

“Two shot penalty”, Tiny triumphantly trumpeted to all within bellowing distance and he insisted the penalty stand, despite my remonstrations of “surely you’re not going to pull me up on that?”

There are, however, golfing Gods and on this day they looked down and decided revenge is best served cold. Some holes later, Tiny was starting to run out of steam and much like he did when he was locking the scrum for Southland, he opted for a short cut. So rather than haul his golf trundler all the way to the tee, he had left it some distance up the fairway from where he had played on to the green on the previous hole.

The big left-hander with the shortest backswing in the history of the game then teed off with much gusto and he absolutely spanked it. Had a eucalypt not interrupted its flight path, I’m sure his ball had the potential to advance some 300 metres up the fairway.

But as all weekend hackers know, golf is a cruel mistress and on this occasion Tiny struck the tree right in the guts. His bludgeoned ball ricocheted straight back 50 metres from whence it came and cannoned into in his golf bag and trundler.

I laughed aloud without knowing the full consequence of his misfortune. “Two shot penalty”, proclaimed another of our playing partners, hysterically.

“Surely you’re not going to pull me up on that?” came the pleading reply. Suffice to say, it fell on deaf ears.

* Finally, hearty congratulations to Riversdale’s now most famous sporting son, World junior triathlon champion Aaron Barclay. And heart-felt sympathies to the Campbell family for the loss of one of Southland’s most talented sporting sons. Rest in peace Jamie.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

It was a surprise to me last weekend, amidst all the excitement of the historic Otago Ranfurly Shield challenge, to find the Scream Team was about to pass a significant milestone.

I love him like a brother but Lee Piper is prone to hyperbole. So when he declared we were about to commentate our 200th first class rugby game, I took it with a grain of salt and thought he was up to his old tricks of an eye for the main chance, leveraging a bit of shameless self promotion off a huge event.

Then the accountant in me clicked into gear. We’ve been calling Southland’s games since 1995. For the first few years we travelled with the side on the away games. Throw in several years of commentating Highlanders games, two to three years of calling the test matches in the South Island for the now defunct Independent Radio Rugby Network, a stellar but brief career with Sky’s interactive rugby channel and even a junket to Asia to commentate on the Hong Kong Tens and the games do mount up.

Southland Times sports editor, Nathan Burdon, has asked us to come up with our three most memorable matches. I don’t know about Piper’s but here goes for mine:

No 3: As rugby spectacles go, it was no great shakes, but Otago’s challenge has to be right up there as a rugby occasion. The seething throngs of people walking together to the game, the train, the buses, the brass band playing – it transported me back to my boyhood and going to Rugby Park with my father. It was history before our very eyes and Southland’s first successful defense of the Log of Wood since 1946.

No 2: Not surprisingly this one also involves the Ranfurly Shield and the finest 40 minutes ever played by a Southland team in my lifetime. In 1997 Southland trailed Graham Henry’s star-studded Auckland side 27-8 at halftime at Eden Park, only to fall short 34-32 in the dying moments when Adrian Cashmore collared a flying Phil Taylor with an open try line beckoning.

No. 1: I know it’s cheating because we weren’t actually calling the game. But we were there and I will take the memories of October 22, 2009, to my Riversdale grave. Southland 9, Canterbury 3 – the score is tattooed in my brain. Defending the Shield is one thing. Winning it is even sweeter!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

In an effort to put tomorrow’s historic Otago Ranfurly Shield challenge into perspective, I’ve delved into my sporting library and come up with the following top four rugby occasions at Rugby Park since we last won the Shield in 1959:

1966 v British Lions (won 14-8). 1978 v Australia (won 10-7). 1979 v France (won 12-11). 1989 v France (won 12-7).

Perhaps though, the most comparable occasion was the Otago challenge of August 2, 1947 when 21,000 rocked up to Rugby Park to witness a Ron Elvidge-inspired Otago take the Log of Wood 17-11.

That great Otago side included the likes of All Blacks Elvidge, Kevin Skinner, Laurie Haig, Jim Kearney, Lester Harvey and Charlie Willocks. Under coach Vic Cavanagh (junior) Otago then defended the Shield on 19 occasions before losing it to Canterbury in 1950.

I’m not suggesting for a moment the Otago side of 2010 is in the same league as their illustrious predecessors but they do possess two All Black-class players in Adam Thomson and Ben Smith, a very able openside flanker in former Stag Alando Soakai and a prop in Kees Meeuws who’s been to the mountain top before.

The Blue and Golds are desperate for some ITM Cup points and tomorrow surely represents a real opportunity to get their hands on some woodwork they haven’t seen since 1957.

And beware any side Laurie Mains is involved with!

* How about this for a bit of wishful train-spotting from one of my colleagues, Newstalk ZB’s Dunedin-based Dominic George?

He’s looked at the last six NPC clashes between the southern rivals dating back to 2004. Otago has scored 128 points, Southland 121. The average winning margin has been 7.5 points with Otago’s 27-10 victory in 2004 the biggest margin. It’s been tit-for-tat with both sides winning on alternate years and the visiting side has won on each of the last six occasions.

He’s therefore concluded Otago will win by 12 and under tomorrow. Tellingly, though, he’s not prepared to wager a beer on it!

* I’ve also been doing a bit of reading ahead of tonight’s centenary dinner of the Toko Golf Club in Milton where I hope to regale some tales of golfing glory. My speech won’t be entitled “Great golf shots I have played”, that would be far too short an after dinner dissertation, rather I’ll concentrate on my trip to the 2009 Masters at Augusta and the day I met John Daly.

Let me leave you with some great golfing quotes I dug up for the occasion:
Missing a short putt does not mean you have to hit your next drive out of bounds - Henry Cotton
Talking to a golf ball won't do you any good, unless you do it while your opponent is teeing off - Bruce Lansky
The golf swing is like a suitcase into which we are trying to pack one too many things - John Updike.
All oh so true!