Stags legend celebrates 100 games
It's singlet-and-jandal weather at Les George Oval, the training ground of the Southland Stags.
That in itself is something to celebrate, but it's a small thing compared with the achievement of skipper Jamie Mackintosh, who will bring up his 100th game for Southland in Dunedin this afternoon.
The 28-year-old is leaning against a fence after training as the sun sinks behind the pines and into nearby Foveaux Strait.
Mackintosh gets a faraway look in his eye as he contemplates a significant milestone in a significant career.
In just over 125 years, only 11 players have become Southland centurions.
To join that special club you have to be committed, loyal, durable and lucky - many have worn the maroon and shared all those traits, but still haven't got there.
"I'm really big on this history of the jersey," Mackintosh says. "I love knowing who has played before me and I really respect the jersey.
"Greig Spencer was a hundred-gamer, and I've got a special relationship with Jason and Leicester Rutledge, they have basically looked after me my entire time in Southland rugby."
One player who has been in Mackintosh's thoughts lately is fellow Southland prop, captain and All Black Clarke Dermody, who seemed destined to break his uncle Gerald's provincial record for games played before opting to play out his career with London Irish.
Mackintosh took over the captaincy when Dermody left in 2008.
"I'm sitting in a guy's seat who never got to 100 games, but probably should have, Clarke Dermody, who's sitting on 92," Mackintosh says.
"There are some pretty special people that I think about. I think about how much Derm would have loved to have got there and I think about what it means for Cabbage [Rutledge]. I just feel really lucky."
Mackintosh has grown up in the public eye.
As a baby-faced teenager he blazed a trail through New Zealand age-group sides.
He made his Southland debut in 2004, started playing Super Rugby three years later and in 2008 toured Europe with the All Blacks, making his test debut against Scotland and playing in a midweek game against Munster.
He captained the Highlanders for two seasons and would love to have played 100 games for the franchise, but will now be in a Chiefs jersey next year.
Nothing, however, compares with pulling on the maroon jersey with the big S on the chest.
"I love being from Southland, I always have. I'm grateful for the opportunity that Rugby Southland gave me, especially as a young fella. They looked after me and now I just want to keep giving back to them.
"With the durability - my body has been through the wringer. I've had hip operations, groin operations, ruptured both my feet, had two shoulder operations. It hasn't been the most ideal body, but I seem to have the ability to keep fronting up and playing a lot of games, which I'm pretty proud of."
Mackintosh spent some time on his family's Tokanui farm this week, reflecting on his career to date with his father over dinner.
It will be a proud moment for the clan when he runs out under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium against the old foe this afternoon.
Few have felt the lows Southland rugby has endured during his career as much as Mackintosh, particularly the financial struggles, which almost saw the union bankrupted in 2011.
Mackintosh felt like his rugby family was being attacked, that some of the glory of the 2009 Ranfurly Shield win and the following season's dramatic tenure was tarnished. It hurt.
And then there are the good times, the best of times. October 22, 2009, and the 9-3 win over the Cantabs to break a 50-year Shield drought.
Victory over Auckland in 2010, the week the snow and the stadium fell.
The seven straight wins that marked the start of the 2010 season and the Shield's second coming in 2011. Beating Waikato this year after three straight losses.
It's those wins when things have been
at their hardest that are the most precious, Mackintosh says.
"For me it's when we get under pressure and have a win. I know how much the community down here loves rugby and I know when we aren't winning it's hard, because it's a small community and the feedback can be pretty direct. I know on the other side of the fence what they want and you feel that pressure because the guys who give you that feedback are your mates, they are your community and you want to do well for them. That's what drives me."
Mackintosh recalls his debut off the bench, and a 31-28 win over Otago, nine years ago. Team-mates today, Hale T-Pole, David Hall - who should join the centurions' club next week - Bryan Milne and the injured Jason Rutledge were also involved that day.
"I remember Anton Oliver was playing, there were a few big names in the Otago squad. I remember coming off the bench, it was a bit of a kicking duel and I ran up to the fullback and then back to our fullback.
"I reckon I sprinted about 300m and Crazy [David Hall] just stood in the middle of the field and said ‘you are going to learn the hard way, aren't you young fella?'. Now I watch young guys come on and they are like a dog shot in the arse and it's pretty funny, because I was like that too."
There's some life left in this old dog, too.
Mackintosh believes the new scrum rules suit him, make his long frame less vulnerable to the destructive tendencies of tighthead props.
"I want to get back into the All Blacks again and I think if I did I would have plenty to offer the environment. Now with these new rules I'm working really hard on my scrummaging and trying to nail that part of my game. I know that the rest of my game is at the standard it needs to be, to be an All Black, but, if I can get this perceived scrummaging deficiency out of my game, then I can get back there," he says.
"When I look back [on my test debut] I was just so young. I didn't even really know much about rugby. The knowledge and my experience since 2008, I've grown so much. I remember being dropped and going away with the Junior All Blacks, I think I learnt more on that tour under [Ian Foster] and Colin Cooper than at any time in my life.
"Being in the All Blacks you are in a bit of a whirlwind. I know, if I ever got back there, how differently I would do things, how better suited to the environment I would be."
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