Where have all the West Coast men gone?

KIWI BATTLER: Former Kiwi Tony Coll is seeing the effects of job losses.
KIWI BATTLER: Former Kiwi Tony Coll is seeing the effects of job losses.

Mine closures on the West Coast are threatening to bring the region's economy to its knees and end some proud sporting traditions. Neil Reid reports.

Tony Coll endured many body blows during his legendary rugby league career, but nothing compares to the hit suffered by his beloved sport on the West Coast.

Rugby league is woven into the fabric of the West Coast but an exodus of men from the struggling mining industry has reduced the local league competition to just three teams and there are fears it will be gone altogether by the time the province celebrates its centenary in 2015.

"It would be devastating . . . that is the only word I can say," Coll said.

"It is looking as [likely as] it ever has been with the numbers and teams we are going to have this year.

"A few of them were struggling last year to have numbers and it's going to be harder this year."

The exodus of players, coaches and administrators follows October's mothballing of the Solid Energy-owned Spring Creek mine, resulting in redundancy for 220 miners.

The mine's closure has also affected business for up to 130 local contractors.

Many of those who lost their jobs were stalwarts of the proud province's league and union club competitions.

Coll, who played 30 tests for the Kiwis between 1972-82 and was the West Coast league player of the year in 1973, 75 and 79, is now a Grey District councillor. He said it was "just natural" his sport would be hit hard following the closures of Spring Creek and Pike River mines, with combined job losses of about 500.

"On the West Coast there are not a lot of employment opportunities for the young people . . . eventually they have to go away," he said.

For several weeks claims have been circulating on the Coast that the region's club competition would go the same way as the mines, and be mothballed due to a lack of players.

West Coast Rugby League president and chairman Peter Kerridge was aware of the talk, but said that at the body's annual meeting last Monday, three clubs confirmed they could field teams. When asked if the West Coast would definitely have a competition this year, he responded: "Those of us who run the game will be providing everything necessary to run a comp. It is up to those folk in the clubs and around the clubs to produce a team."

He said the "ideal" minimum number of sides was four, adding last year's under-18 grade ran with a three-team competition.

"[But] they get sick of the sight of each other," he said. "You could run a comp with three, but it is a question of the same-old same-old."

Coll added: "He's bloody lucky he's got three [clubs] to tell you the truth, I thought there would only be two."

Kerridge said his sport's problem was the reality for many parts of rural New Zealand.

"It reflects the shrinking job market, if the jobs go then it has a ripple effect right through the community," he said. "We had problems and we are anticipating bigger ones with the closure of Spring Creek."

Greymouth businessman Bernie Monk, whose family has owned the Paroa Hotel for the past 59 years, said Solid Energy's mine closures had effectively brought his beloved home town to its knees.

He said the West Coast economy had been hammered by the closure of the timber industry, successive mine closures and the high Kiwi dollar affecting tourism.

"It is a stack of cards and it is all falling over at once at the moment," Monk said. "I don't think the rest of the country realises just how dire things are. Because it's the West Coast I wonder whether [others think] ‘it's just not that important'.

"A lot of other towns or cities like Auckland or Wellington, if a big company goes under then they have about 20 other companies to fall back on. The West Coast doesn't have that cushion."

Monk said the numbers of Coasters, including many sportsmen, who had recently left the region was "unbelievable".

Like league, the West Coast Rugby Football Union is also bracing for a hit on its club competition.

Chief executive Mike Connors said it was a given there would be some impact, but the full extent would be known only once the region's six clubs cranked up pre-season training.

"[Spring Creek] will have its effect because mining spins off right through the community," Connors said.

He could see little end to the exodus of West Coasters - including young footy-playing men.

"I have just been to West Australia and you have a generation of 19-25-year-olds earning upwards of $80,000-$160,000 a year," Connors said.

"So you don't have to be a Rhodes Scholar to know where they will all head. People talk about coal and gold being our exports but the West Coast's biggest export has been our kids."

Sunday Star Times