Not too many living figures have rugby grounds named after them. But John Sturgeon does. He was never an All Black, never played for West Coast, but is probably the most well-known rugby identity out of that province. In 2018, they renamed Rugby Park after one of their favourite sons. It’s now John Sturgeon Park. The man himself, now 87, a bit creaky after hip and knee operations but still as lucid and clear-thinking as ever on rugby, was not best pleased about the idea at the time, but is at peace with it now. He gets his own carpark, so he’s not worried if his mates give him stick about it. Sturgeon was born in Motueka, moving to the Coast aged seven, and you only need quickly sift through Clive Akers’ indispensable Rugby Register to find that six Sturgeons have played first-class rugby, most of them cousins of John and most of them for Golden Bay-Motueka or Nelson Bays.
One exception was Murray Sturgeon, brother of John, who locked the West Coast scrum for 10 games in 1966- 67, and was in the engine room of the United scrum with John for several years. John himself was not that far away from representing West Coast, playing sub-union rep footy, but had to content himself with well over 200 games of senior rugby for the United club after starting out as a 17-year-old for the Blaketown club reserves. He was tall, at six feet four, so could win his share of ball, but perhaps did not pack enough weight on those bones to twist the arms of the selectors. The United players loved him, though, as he was a non-drinker and always had a car, so was the sober driver on Saturday nights. Sturgeon did, however, play with and against some good footballers, marking Māori All Blacks and West Coast second rower Tommy Rogers.
That was at a time when there were rather more than the six clubs that now exist on the Coast. Sadly, Star-United, which amalgamated after Sturgeon’s playing days, and to which he is a life member, is now defunct, a sign of the lack of playing numbers on the Coast. League, once a great sport of the province, has also been hit hard, a fact that Sturgeon laments. And yet Star-United had its share of success, winning six West Coast senior club titles, including five in six seasons between 1977-82. It attracted good players like Gavin Cook and Tony Kissick.
Sturgeon was well into his noted administrative career by then, managing the West Coast team, serving on the union’s management committee and then rising to chairman. It was suggested at an East Coast pub late one night that he should stand for the NZRFU council, which had 19 members at that stage. So, from 1987-95 he served on the council in the lead-in to rugby going pro. The chairmen in that period were Russ Thomas, Eddie Tonks and Richie Guy.
Managing rugby teams was not too onerous a task for Sturgeon, having worked in the mines and then looking after miners in management.
He first ran into Alex ‘Grizz’ Wyllie, a tough farmer from North Canterbury, in the 1987 NZ Colts that Wyllie was coaching. Sturgeon was manager. “I was a people person, really. I had worked at the mine and we had 240 guys there. I had the responsibility for about 70 of them. So I knew a bit about man management. Some of those miners were hard guys, but I’d done a bit of boxing. They knew that,” he says.
By 1988, he was taking the New Zealand Sevens to Hong Kong and Australia under the coaching of Peter Thorburn. He was back on the sunburned island later in the year as manager of the All Blacks.
“We had 13 games on that tour. Can you imagine playing 13 games in Australia today?”
Many would have first seen Sturgeon in 1989 as the avuncular presence with the All Blacks on their northern tour via Ric Salizzo’s groundbreaking documentary The Good, The Bad and The Rugby, which lifted the lid on the inner sanctum of this team.
“That was a great trip. I was told by some of the top-liners like ‘Snow’ White that they reckon that was the best All Blacks team that’s ever been. Andy Earl, I still reckon he was one of the better No 6s we’ve had, and Graeme Bachop at halfback was one of our better ones,” Sturgeon says.
“You don’t get much better than Joe Stanley. We haven’t got a Joe Stanley today. That’s starting to show on the scoreboard.”
So how did Sturgeon, a teetotalling miner from West Coast, get on with Wyllie, who liked a drink and could be gruff?
“No worries at all because I was the boss. And that was laid down by the rugby union. Wyllie ran the show on the grass and the manager was everything outside of the grass. You are the one with the bag full of tickets. If someone’s to come home, you’re the one to send them home. I never had that problem with the players. They were good to me and I was good to them.”
Several of that All Blacks vintage still call him or look him up. Earl will drop in on Sturgeon and his wife Mary if he’s on the Coast for work.
“They say to me ‘Sturge, they won’t be having as much fun now as we had.’ They still performed on the field. They were more professional as rugby players than in the first 5-10 years of professionalism.
“Grizz Wyllie was a very good coach. He was also a very good selector, better than John Hart, I’ll tell you that. Wyllie was a tough bastard, don’t worry about that, but we got on well because he had a job to do and so did I. We worked well together. I knew when I had to pull him into line,” says Sturgeon.
The NZRFU broke with its old tradition of only appointing All Blacks managers for two years. Sturgeon did four, including two tough tours of duty to France in 1990 and Argentina in 1991. There were no training camps in those camps. Just hard tours.
Sturgeon was vehemently against the ill-fated appointment of Hart as co-coach for the 1991 Rugby World Cup.
“It was disgusting that they did that. I argued like hell at the council table. They were two different people and coaches.”
For context, current All Blacks manager Darren Shand has logged no less than 19 years in his role, a model of quiet efficiency with virtually no public profile.
Sturgeon got the chop, or as he describes it, the “arse”, along with Jock Hobbs (incredibly) and Colin Meads when the NZRFU council was restructured from 19 members to nine in 1995. But he still stayed in the game and was the liaison officer from 2000-04 for international touring teams to New Zealand. Sturgeon had a soft spot for the 2002 Irish, in particular.
He must have learned plenty from two great characters of rugby, both now sadly passed, Barrie ‘Tank’ Herring and Kevin Gimblett, who were the All Blacks’ liaison officers when the team was in Auckland during Sturgeon’s tenure.
Herring and Gimblett helped Sturgeon became a member of the NZ Barbarians club. He’s the sole West Coast member of that august club.
Later, from 2009-10, he enjoyed his role as NZR President, travelling widely and pressing the flesh. One of his duties was presenting caps to past All Blacks in several heart-warming ceremonies.
“I knew a lot of people. I knew most of the hierarchy in England. The Welsh treated me like a king because I was a miner. They gave me gifts like gas-fitting lamps,” he says.
He was in Ireland on presidential duties in 2010 when he got the call about the Pike River tragedy. He knew all 29 of those who died, or their families.
“It hit me pretty hard because I was away from home. I was getting reports three times a day from my wife. She was home on her own.”
Mary could not travel with him as All Blacks manager, but they did 17 overseas tours together as guides for Williment Travel, which he fell into by chance and unhappy circumstance after Mick Williment himself got cancer. Andy and Lesley Leslie often accompanied the Sturgeons as tour guides.
Sturgeon doesn’t travel much now, but you’ll find him at club rugby or at the ground named after him during the season. He still awaits the moment when West Coast wins a major provincial trophy. There was a time when the Coasters pushed Canterbury hard in their regular battles. But the 2022 season did not inspire Sturgeon, the red and whites going 0-8 in the Heartland Championship.
“That was an embarrassment. We never won a bloody game. There’s a few issues there,” says Sturgeon. One of the concerns he has is the use of loan players and whether they are better than the locals. Some have made the three-hour trip from Christchurch and offered full value. Some have not.
“Stu Loe came over (in 1999). He made that much difference it wasn’t funny. He was big, hard, had a lot of experience and he was the mother hen on the paddock and would give the forwards a bit of a wind-up,” says Sturgeon.
That said, while he sees himself as a critic on occasion, Sturgeon is a big fan of the Heartland Championship as a competition.
“There are some very good teams and some of them play well above themselves.”
For 12 years, Sturgeon, chaired the panel that chose the NZR awards winners. Often alongside him was Rugby News founding editor Bob Howitt.
“I had a lot of time for Bob. He was great on that. You’d be talking about a player and he’d say ‘He only scored four tries for the year. The other fella scored eight.’ You couldn’t argue with Bob, but we used to have some laughs.”
There was a further connection, in that Sturgeon succeeded Ray Harper on the NZRFU council. The latter was Howitt’s father-in-law. A former All Blacks manager who has since died, Harper was the 2012 recipient of the Steinlager Salver.
These days, Sturgeon derives pleasure from keeping tabs on his mostly sportsminded family, his grandchildren excelling in various fields. “I haven’t really got a complaint, have I?"
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