Vining still passionate, 250 games on
Blair Vining recalls game number one for the Midlands Rugby Club senior team pretty well.
As a 17-year-old he made his debut for the Winton-based club in a home game against Blues in Southland's premier club rugby competition - a game he described as eventful.
''Mark Wilson was my locking partner and I got taken out and pinned on the ground. I got a smack on the beak and [Wilson] took exception to that because I couldn't fight back and it ended up in a big brawl. It was probably one of the more exciting first games you could play in.''
Seventeen years on and Vining is now the veteran of the Midlands pack and on Saturday will remarkably bring up game number 250 when his team takes to the field against Star.
Ironically the 200-game milestone was also against Star. It was in the 2009 Galbraith Shield final at Rugby Park, a game which was one of the highlights in his 17 years with the Midlands senior team, but also one of the lowlights.
He is haunted by a belief that they had snatched a last gasp victory with a try but instead had to settle for a 13-9 loss.
During all of the highs and lows Vining has kept returning to the Midlands club.
His first year with Midlands was in the premier grade where they lost to Marist in a promotion relegation fixture and had to spend a few years playing in the division one competition.
It never mattered for Vining what level Midlands were playing at, that was his club and he was not going anywhere.
''It's a loyalty thing. I love the people in the club and it's my second family. All my school mates are still playing - like Damien Pulley and Ben McHugh - they're not far off 250 games as well.''
The past two years have been difficult seasons for the Midlands club. They have won just one of their last 23 games in the premier competition.
However, Vining feels that under the guidance of former All Black Paul Henderson they are on the right track.
''It's a real shame this year we haven't got the results. We are on the climb though, the last time there was 17- and 18-year-olds in the team was when I was that age, it is a rebuilding year. I think what Ginge [Henderson] is doing, it's given some of us older players a new life ...''
Henderson has confirmed that he will return next year to coach again at Midlands and said the club was determined to remain in the premier grade and be a force.
''We are only about 5 per cent away from us being at the bottom of the competition to being up there. The margin is small, there has been a lot of games this year that we've rattled some cages,'' Henderson said.
Despite being a long way out from next season Henderson said he had had some positive discussions in regard to players wanting to join the club.
He said they were keen to attract players from outside the region to Winton, but the club was eager to get a longer-term commitment from them than Midlands have had from recruits in the past.
The recruitment has started with midfielder Pusamino Fa'asavala arriving from Samoa this week. He will play for Midlands against Star on Saturday with an eye on the 2015 season.
Saturday's showdown with Star will be Midlands last game in 2014, with it being the last round-robin fixture before the semifinals a week later.
In other premier games on Saturday Blues will play Marist and Pirates-Old Boys will play the Eastern-Northern Barbarians in Gore.
- The Southland Times