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When Wairarapa-Bush stepped into the big time

Back row, left to right: Mark Bracewell, Carl Baker, Merv Dudley, Mike McCool, Andy Earl, Paul Hawkins, Gary Patrick.
Middle row, left to right: Graham Humphrey [manager], Jimmy Cotter, Neil Kjestrup, Mike Cornford, Chris Kapene, Charlie Kaka, Joe Wyeth, Brian Lochore [selector/coach].
Front row, left to right: Graeme Anderson, Greg Karaitiana, Greg Rowlands, Gary McGlashan [captain], Doug Bracewell [vice-captain], Bernard Lett, Steve Thompson, Philip Rutene.

When BJ lost his cool
If you want to win the bloody thing, get your asses into gear
Forty years ago last Sunday, Wairarapa-Bush turned the rugby world on its head by winning promotion to the NPC First Division, a feat so mammoth a beer was even launched to recognise it. CHRIS COGDALE talks to some of the key figures on that remarkable seven-day journey.

RUGBY

Wai-Bush players Bill Rowlands, left Jack McGlashan, coach Brian Lochore, and Jimmy Cotter listen to a speech from Masterton Mayor Frank Cody on their return to Masterton.

“Character! That was the key word in Wairarapa-Bush’s magnificent 10-9 win over Southland in the promotion-relegation rugby fixture at Invercargill on Saturday.

“And it took plenty of that for the team to come back from trailing 6-9 at halftime to beat a Southland side which desperately strove to retain its position in the national first division.”

That was the opening paragraph of Wairarapa Times-Age sportswriter Gary Caffell’s report on the 1981 match, which catapulted the tiny Wai-Bush union into the top echelon of New Zealand provincial rugby.

Although the journey ended in Invercargill, it started seven days earlier in Masterton.

The town hosted the North Island second division final between two unbeaten teams – Wai-Bush and a Taranaki outfit so confident of victory, they had already booked airline tickets and accommodation in Invercargill.

The fact that the home side were even in that position was remarkable, given that two years earlier the team won only one game.

But the appointment of former All Black captain and future 1987 World Cup-winning coach Sir Brian ‘BJ’ Lochore in 1980 had the team finish third in the North Island competition.

They were title contenders the next year, up against the might of Taranaki – a game halfback Graeme ‘Bunter’ Anderson remembers with particular fondness.

Second-five Charlie Kaka is tackled, but Jack McGlashan and Bill Rowlands are on hand to keep the momentum going.

“The whole ground was absolutely heaving. It was just a fantastic day and we played incredibly well,” Anderson said.

“I think they had All Blacks Graham Mourie, Dave Loveridge, and Kieran Crowley in their team, and Loveridge went off.

“He was a pig farmer and he came squealing like a pig out the back of our ruck. He didn’t do much afterwards and soon went off injured.”

Anderson said the highlight was a try to flying winger, the late Greg Karaitiana, who ran rings around fullback Crowley.

The 15-6 victory over Taranaki set up a do-or-die clash in Masterton with South Canterbury, which the home side comfortably won 16-0.

That meant a hurried trip to Invercargill to take on the last-placed team in the first division in a promotion-relegation game.

Wai-Bush were off their game in the first half and trailed 6-9 at halftime, their points coming from a try to flanker Merv Dudley, converted by Doug Bracewell. Lochore was not happy and dished out a few choice words during the break, that captain Gary ‘Jack’ McGlashan said was the toughest team talk he had heard all year.

“He came on and told us that if we wanted to win the bloody thing, we had to get our asses into gear and pull finger,” said McGlashan.

It worked. With a brilliant individual try to mercurial No 8 Carlos Baker the only score of the second half, Wai-Bush held on to win 10-9.

“We spent a lot of that game parked on our goal line, especially late in the second half,” Anderson said.

Wai-Bush No 8 Carlos Baker sets off on one of his many searching runs.

“They had Kenny Stewart and Leicester Rutledge as their flankers, and they were both All Blacks, and so were [backs] Brian McKechnie, and Steve Pokere. Those loosies were brutal, and they would hit you after the ball had gone and you could see why they were All Blacks, and it was a really gutsy effort [on our part].”

Caffell said the big thing about the achievement was winning the three games in a week.

“Nowadays, they would never ever look at a programme like that, it was absolutely impossible.

“When we went down south I think the hope was that we would compete but to win it was always going to be a fairy tale. The game itself was pretty amazing because it was so tight.

“We had a very ordinary first half, and I remember the guys coming in and telling me that BJ, who was not known to swear or get really into his halftime team talk at all, really gave it to them.”

Once the magnitude of their achievement sunk in, there was the not so small matter of a celebration, which lasted well into the night and into the next day on the trip home.

Eighteen-year-old Phil Rutene, a NZ Colt representative, was on the bench for all three games and has fond memories of the week and the team’s return to Masterton.

Wai-Bush v Canterbury 1985 – For much of its life Memorial Park has been the headquarters for Wairarapa-Bush rugby, including the heydays of 1985 when the team finished fourth in the first division, beating Canterbury on the park in July.

“The trip home was pretty memorable. We stopped at a pub in Featherston, and we got a phone call that there’s a whole lot of people waiting for us at the Masterton War Memorial Stadium, so we all had to sober up pretty quickly,” said Rutene.

“I remember all of us walking off the bus down the aisle, and we seemed about two or three foot taller because the aisle was stacked with beer crates.”

McGlashan said the reaction was unbelievable with the bagpipes and the mayor [Frank Cody], and the big crowd; everyone was pretty shocked.

Caffell said that he was amazed by the public response.

“It was a once in a lifetime thing really because here we were, a little union with amateur players, against all the big unions and played those three games in a week. It was just extraordinary, and I had never gone through anything like that in my sporting career.”

“I was really good mates with BJ, and I was just rapt for the guys, seeing them so drained in the dressing room yet so happy.

“We had so many guys who were just journeyman players, but they just played out of their skin.”

Wai-Bush’s success led to the brewing of a special beer called ‘10’ with green and red labelling to celebrate the achievement.

Wai-Bush spent the next six years in the NPC first division, with their best success an astonishing fourth placing in 1985.

The XV that took the field against Southland was: Neil Kjestrup, Mike Cornford, Jimmy Cotter, Greg Karaitiana, Charlie Kaka, Doug Bracewell, Bunter Anderson, Carlos Baker, Merv Dudley, Joe Wyeth, Mike McCool, Andy Earl, Chris ‘Moose’ Kapene, Jack McGlashan [captain], Bill Rowlands.

On a sad note, Lochore and six of the players – Karaitiana, Cotter, Wyeth, McCool, Rowlands, and Kapene have all died.

The last word goes to McGlashan, who played a record 132 matches for the province and proudly led the team to arguably the greatest achievement by a Wairarapa sports team.

“We had great camaraderie, and we were a really strong-knitted team. Because we spent so much time together, everyone was pretty close. There were no stars and everyone did the job what BJ asked us to do.”

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