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RUGBY AS A FORCE FOR GOOD

4 April 2024
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Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union staff help charity Strive clean out facilities at the flooded Eastern Institute of Technology. Photo: Courtesy of Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union

Twelve months on from the devastation wrought by Cyclone Gabrielle, Aiden McLaughlin checks in with rugby clubs and unions from Napier to Ruatoria to see how they have bounced back and what they did to keep the doors open.

Resilience.

It’s a word we’ve all become accustomed to using in recent years. Whether it’s a global pandemic, financial pressures or weather events, the world has needed to show resilience.

Maraenui Rugby and Sports Association showed plenty of it after the events of November 2020. The floods that struck Napier that month were meant to be a one-in-250-year deluge. Its clubrooms were severely flooded, meaning that they couldn’t be used for a year. Hosting, such a key part of any club environment, was done by way of a garden bar.

Eventually though, the clubrooms were fixed and things were returning to normal. Except there was another weather event about to strike in February last year – Cyclone Gabrielle.

“We had just got everything back together,” says club president Vicky Julian.

“We had to do the walls, the floor, everything. We had just finished getting it all nice and brand new again and then we got hit by the cyclone and basically we got the same damage pretty much, so we had the water sitting in our clubrooms for two or three days, so the bottoms of our walls had to be replaced. We lost the carpet and lino and there was contamination,” she says.

For any club, a sustained loss of income can be financially devastating. Being unable to open the clubrooms – again – meant they couldn’t open the bar and therefore couldn’t hire the clubrooms out for other functions. On the other side of the ledger, the club’s insurance premiums have now tripled after these two events.

As the reality of the new damage hit home, the call went out.

“We had a few of our own members that were going through their own difficulties [after the cyclone], but we had a few life members, a few of the older guys, that turned up to help strip out the carpet and do those types of things, so when it came to starting to do the repair it was a cost we didn’t have to do because we got our club members to start doing that,” says Julian.

By the time the rugby season started, they opened up the clubrooms even though the repairs hadn’t been completed.“We opened up but we weren’t the best-looking club. We still fed our visitors when they turned up, though. The community love coming out and watching sport, they love it, so it’s a big part of the township, the part that sport plays,” she says.

Just four kilometres across town from Maraenui, when the employees of the Hawke’s Bay Rugby Union got back to their offices about 10 days after the cyclone, the last thing on their minds was rugby. There were staff members and players who had lost their houses.

“We spent the first month just out in the community. We put a call out to all those in the rugby fraternity who had been affected and we went out to our sponsors, referees. We spent a couple of days at the Eastern Institute of Technology, just rolling the sleeves up, up to our knees in silt, just trying to do what we could to help the community,” says Hawke’s Bay RU chief executive Jay Campbell.

“We thought that we could use rugby as a vehicle so our communities could get back out there, take their minds off it for an afternoon, so that was the driver to get rugby up and running as soon as possible,” he says.

The offers of help quickly came in from around the country, taking many different forms.

“It shows you how tight the rugby community is. We had most of the unions reach out to offer help. We had Canterbury Rugby Union that did a boots and gear collection where we got six or seven boxes sent up. Southland Rugby Union provided three or four sets of old shorts and socks that they had lying around. Taranaki Rugby Union did a really generous fundraiser, which we passed on to Maraenui. Auckland Rugby Union did a fundraiser when we played them [in the NPC] at Eden Park,” he says.
Further up the east coast lies the most remote, smallest rugby union in the land. Rugby stalwart Bill Burdett has seen plenty in his time. Awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community and local government in 2021, he is the patron of the Ngāti Porou East Coast Rugby Union, as well as the President of Ruatoria City Rugby Club. But even he hadn’t seen anything like the devastation that Cyclone Gabrielle brought.

“Our clubrooms got drowned,” he says. “We’ve since given it a tidy-up.”

Ruatoria is 343km from Napier, showing the scale of Cyclone Gabrielle’s impact. Again, it was the clubrooms that bore the brunt of this club’s damage. The club had celebrated its centenary in 2022 and there is so much history contained in that building, that being without it is unthinkable. Again, once personal matters had been prioritised, it was the community that came to help the cause.

“We have in a sense bounced back. We’re lucky that we’ve got a young, vibrant executive and some very loyal club members. The council had yellow stickered it and it was some months before the council removed the yellow sticker and said the clubrooms are compliant and can be used,” says Burdett.
Use of the clubrooms was limited, though. The club could hold meetings there, but hosting after-match functions wasn’t an option. Instead, they used the Ruatoria RSA.

The club is on a fundraising drive to pay for the work needed to get the clubrooms not only back to the way they were, but also to extend the toilets and put a women’s changing room in. They have some funds but need a lot more. Architectural plans have been drawn up and the council have waived consent fees.
In Poverty Bay, player numbers were up in the aftermath of the cyclone.

“The thing that rugby offers people is certain physical and mental support. Being at a club is social, you’re there with your mates, you’re not going through it alone, you’re able to share; if someone from your club finds out something has happened to you, then they rally around,” says Poverty Bay Rugby Football Union chief executive Ray Noble.

“It’s people wanting to help. It’s people putting their hand up to play another season if it means we get a team here and we’re back in the club and helping each other. If there’s any good to come out of the cyclone, which isn’t much, it’s that community empowerment piece and how rugby plays such a crucial, crucial role in that, especially in rural areas,” he says.

Again, the damage in the region was widespread, but especially so in Te Karaka and Wairoa (Wairoa teams play in the Poverty Bay competitions).

“Before we even thought about rugby, our response was really about supporting those communities so rugby took a back seat as we looked at what we could do in different ways to get back to normality. Through the season, I suppose, just like any sport, we tried to take away the cost of playing rugby last year,” Noble says.

“There was a bit of an unknown around participation, grounds, all that kind of stuff, so there were contingencies we had to put in place. We had to be flexible and adaptable. A tough year, but a rewarding year. When a tragedy like that happens, everyone circles the wagons and funny enough, one of the things they want to do to get back to normal life is play rugby.”

Back in Napier, the union started to think about the next steps; once it got through the first months of being out in the community, it understood that people needed more financial support, and they also needed a morale boost.

“We tried to think of a way that we could activate and utilise the Magpies to do something, so Dan [Somerville, Commercial Manager HBRU] came up with this idea of using the Battle of the Bays and just trying to generate a whole lot of goodwill. We wanted to make it a free game for the public but equally we were there to raise funds for the community,” says Campbell.

Sponsorship of the match at McLean Park in September was essential. They reached out to One NZ, which committed $100,000 to the cause. From there, the event snowballed, including having Ladyhawke play pre-game.

“We provided hospitality for first responders and different people who were fantastic during the cyclone and tried to make it a real carnival for our community and to say thank you to those affected and raise funds,” says Campbell.

“Those funds and all the other funds that we raised in the lead-up to the Bay of Plenty match were put into a trust and that money has been dished out to communities over the last three or four months,” he says.

In the midst of planning the Battle of the Bays came an unexpected boost, with the news that the 33-man All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad would be announced at the Pettigrew Green Arena in Napier.

“For us to have the All Blacks in town was a real coup. They came because of the cyclone and I thought it was a great gesture by New Zealand Rugby to come so the players could see, even in August, the devastation that was still around. There was still a ton of work to be done. They could see what people had been going through,” says Campbell.

From the smallest provincial union to the All Blacks, Cyclone Gabrielle truly brought the rugby community together like never before.The flagship rep teams of Hawke’s Bay, Poverty Bay and East Coast all stood up during the 2023 season to further help galvanise the local community.

The Magpies contested their first ever top tier NPC final and annexed the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington. The newly promoted Tui reached the FPC Premiership semifinals, their best result since 2006, and defeated eventual champions, the Auckland Storm.

Poverty Bay reached the Lochore Cup final, its first decider in 12 years. Ngāti Porou East Coast, which had to start its club competition several weeks late, made the Meads Cup semifinal and retained the Osborne Taonga.

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