Campbell Burnes catches up with Hugh Renton after a breakout Highlanders season and ahead of what he hopes will be a second successful campaign with the Tasman Mako.
The rugby gods smiled on Hugh Renton in 2020 and 2021.
They did not smile on him from about 2014-17 as he struggled to get on the field due to a paralysed arm. At 24, he was beavering away with his study, towards a Bachelor of Commerce, training with the Crusaders and content to play club rugby in Christchurch. There were no available contracts, however, at either Canterbury or the Crusaders. But Ethan Blackadder was out injured in 2020 and so Mako head coach Andrew Goodman asked if Renton was keen to come up as an injury replacement. He stayed 12 weeks, starting 11 games, split between No 8 and No 6, and won a Premiership.
Not required by any Super Rugby franchise in the original 2021 squads, Renton was whistled up earlier this year by the Highlanders as Kazu Himeno was stuck in MIQ when the competition kicked off, then Liam Squire went down.
The man who appeared once off the bench for the 2017 Hurricanes racked up 12 games for the Highlanders and was at blindside flanker for the Trans-Tasman final against the Blues, forming a tremendously effective loose forward combination with Himeno and Billy Harmon.
Renton powered through his work, winning ball, carrying hard and tackling accurately.
A few weeks off to refresh the body and mind, and to sort housing in Nelson, not to mention a quick trip home to his family Hawke’s Bay farm, has Renton in a good space ahead of the Mako’s NPC title defence.
He will especially relish working again with Shane Christie, defence coach at the Highlanders and Mako.
“Shane is a wizard, alright. He’s awesome at articulating all he wants on the defensive side. His relationship with the players and helping with their mindsets is a real strength. Defence can be a hard area of the game, but he makes it easy the way he coaches.”
In many ways it is remarkable that Renton is able to thrive at a union with two All Blacks in his position, but he can of course operate equally well at No 8, while the likes of Taina Fox-Matamua, Jacob Norris, Sione Havili and Anton Segner jostle for position in the loose trio.
Goodman is looking forward to having Renton back to add to his deep loose forward stocks.
“That was a pretty special season for him. He was an injury replacement for us last year, then started every game and went down to the Highlanders and took his game to another level,” he says.
Renton did not get too down when his arm was at its worst, but there were uncertain moments.
“It never had a timeline to come right. It was the unknown. The fears were there: would it be strong enough to come back and play rugby? It took time but it’s all good now. I’m happy with where my body and mind have been for the last three to four years,” he says, now 25 and having re-signed with the Highlanders. At last he is a fully fledged fulltime pro.
Grateful to all the Mako staff, including former CEO Tony Lewis, who took him on a hunch, Renton is mindful that it is not easy for players on the fringe of the pro game, as he was for several seasons.
“That was a breakthrough for me last year. I feel for players out there who are trying to get an opportunity, because it’s hard but it is possible.”
He will continue chipping away at the last two papers for his BCom, majoring in accounting and finance and minoring in psychology. But he is full steam ahead with his rugby. At last.