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PUNCHING ABOVE THEIR WEIGHT

8 September 2022
heartland championship meads cup final south canterbury v thames valley
Thames Valley’s 2018 Meads Cup triumph was one of the great days in the union’s history. canterbury v thames valley

We trust the Thames Valley union and its loyal supporters raised a glass or five at last month’s centenary celebrations in Te Aroha. They deserve to. They will have spoken of 1953, 1957, 1962, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1995 and 2018, among other seminal years or great victories by the Swamp Foxes. For this is not a large union, by playing numbers, but it often turns out gutsy teams that play their hearts out for their region and their colours. It is a far-flung province, a mix of the coastal clubs like Mercury Bay, Coromandel, Thames, Tairua and Whangamatā and the inland clubs of Paeroa West, Hauraki North, Cobras, Waihou and Ngātea. Farmers, fishermen, teachers… Thames Valley rugby people come from all walks of life to do rugby battle on Paeroa Domain, Thames’ Rhodes Park, Te Aroha’s Boyd Park.

To the west and nor-west are the big cousins Waikato, Counties Manukau and Auckland. To the south and east is Bay of Plenty. King Country is not that far away. Joining the list of first-class venues on September 24 will be Whitianga’s Moewai Park, home of the Mercury Bay club. The Swamp Foxes will host the Old Golds of North Otago in what should be a buoyant occasion. In 1997 the late Graham Watton, Rugby News’s long-serving Thames Valley correspondent, released a book to commemorate 75 years of the union. In the earlier days, the region was part of the wider Auckland union area, making for some long treks into the big smoke.

Now the roads are better and the people are an eclectic mix. Life member, union President and historian Kelly Plummer has released his own book, Swamp Foxes Alive, detailing the history of this proud province. “The book is a companion volume to what Graham has done,” says Plummer.

“It was hard to decide what to put in and what to leave out.” Some of his research will find its way online at the union website. But you do not need to be Einstein to know that the 1962 victory over Australia at Boyd Park, 16-14 scoreline with just 14 men and after a late Terry Shaw dropped goal, will be writ large. It was, is and maybe always will be the greatest day in Thames Valley rugby history.

Six of the eight surviving members of that team made the centenary celebrations, which could have doubled as marking 60 years since that triumph. The coach, Norm McMillan, died just this year at the ripe old age of 98. But one should not forget that Thames Valley beat the might of Auckland thrice in the 1950s, including usurping the Coronation Shield at Eden Park in 1957. Plummer relates the story of how Kevin Barry, the union’s second All Black, described the 1954 25-17 win in Te Aroha over Auckland as one of his great memories.

For this is not a large union, by playing numbers, but it often turns out gutsy teams.

Just a year after the shock win over the Wallabies, Thames Valley was humbled 52-3 by Auckland in Te Aroha on a firm track. “Kevin said to the union, ‘For God’s sake, put us in the mud at Paeroa or the tide at Thames.’” Waikato was blanked 17-0 in 1945 in Hamilton, and the upstarts from the east tipped over the Mooloos a handful of times, the last occasion being 1973 in Paeroa. The flagship rep team has also lowered Fiji, Tonga and NSW, and in 1995 and 2021 almost toppled NZ Universities.

When the stars align, and that mud and tide are in, Thames Valley can often be a formidable foe. In 1997, at the start of an otherwise disappointing season in the NPC second division, Thames Valley, with a couple of All Blacks rings-in, including former Valley Roller Mills rep Scott McLeod, rolled a star-studded NZ Barbarians team (which was Auckland in disguise) 60-31 on a midweek afternoon in Paeroa. Alas, the match does not feature in first-class records as too many subs were used.

Not just McLeod, but also the likes of Carl Hoeft, Keith Robinson and even Wallaby Jeremy Paul made their rugby starts in Thames Valley. After some fallow years in the Heartland Championship, the Swamp Foxes won hearts and turned heads in 2018 when they won away playoffs in Whanganui and Timaru to clinch the Meads Cup in stirring fashion. They withdrew the 2020 team from all rep play but could be a contender in the 2022 Heartland Championship.

“We’re really in the Matt Bartleet legacy because he picked David Harrison and Joe Murray as his assistants and he’s still involved in the background in an advisory capacity,” says Plummer. Paul Neazor, in his 2006 Provincial Giants book, opts for 1988 as the union’s finest season. It’s a compelling case, going 9-2, beating Counties in Ngātea, and clinching the NPC third division crown with some super all-round rugby. Thames Valley and grassroots champion Ross Cooper is a union life member, former loose forward, and coach of that great 1988 team.

His 2ic was Brian Duggan, still the union’s most capped player. They raised standards, got the team fit, introduced the grids that the peerless Auckland team was using at training, and fielded what Cooper describes as “an incredibly powerful pack” that included the Silvester brothers, Mark Darrah, Pene Reuben and captain Irvine Campbell, who scored 14 tries, including three hat-tricks, from No 8. Chris Costello kicked the goals and Kevin Handley ran in six tries.

In 1989, Handley scored the best try of the match, maybe the season, as Auckland brought the Ranfurly Shield, some 15 All Blacks and 7000 punters, to Paeroa Domain. As vice-chairman of the union, Cooper will have the unenviable task of picking, with chairman Grant Dickey, a Chairman’s XV of the best rep players from the last 50 years, while Plummer will name a President’s XV from the first 50 years. Cooper has loved seeing the recent resurgence of Thames Valley rugby, exemplified by the Swamp Foxes.

“They are now well resourced and managed and they have up-to-date equipment on a par with top division unions. Their trainings are cutting edge and they use Facebook to promote the side around the region,” says Cooper. While the Swamp Foxes can act as a galvanising force in a far-flung union, women’s rugby is on the rise too, with the Vixens playing in the Waikato Development competition.

They have a short spring programme ahead, including fixtures against Whanganui and Ngāti Porou East Coast. It looks like Thames Valley has the building blocks in place to enjoy a few more glory days over the next 100 years.

Great days in Thames Valley rugby:
1922: Formation of Thames Valley union
1926: Thames Valley wins the first (of seven) Roller Mills tournament titles
1945: Thames Valley beats Waikato 17-0 in Hamilton, one of several shock wins over its neighbour to the west over the years
1951: Thames Valley beats Fiji in Te Aroha
1953: First Thames Valley victory over Auckland
1953: Bob O’Dea becomes the union’s first All Black (of two)
1957: Thames Valley wins its first, and only, Coronation Shield over Auckland at Eden Park
1962: Thames Valley defeats Australia 16-14 in Te Aroha
1969: Thames Valley beats Tonga in Te Aroha
1970: Thames Valley beats NSW in Thames
1988: Swamp Foxes win NPC third division title and beat first division Counties
1989: A record 7000 cram into Paeroa Domain to see Auckland defend the Ranfurly Shield
1989: Thames Valley Roller Mills, including Jeremy Paul and Keith Robinson, wins a seventh and last title
1990: Swamp Foxes win NPC third division title
1995: Swamp Foxes win NPC third division title
1997: Swamp Foxes beat a strong NZ Barbarians side (Auckland in disguise) 60-31 in Paeroa
2018: Swamp Foxes win Meads Cup, downing South Canterbury in Timaru

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