"Don't ya love the smell of dak and dogs fighting? It's grassroots, eh?" says Peter Urlich as he charges down the touchline, too enthused to be under the influence himself.
Saturday afternoon at Walker Park in Pt Chevalier, suburban Auckland, and a familiar smell drifts across the field. Little else, however, assimilates with the usual image of third division club rugby league.
For starters, this is unfamiliar territory for pop stars. Yet lounge-suit crooner Urlich is clad in a Pt Chevalier Pirates T-shirt and urging on his boys in a top of the table clash against the Papatoetoe Panthers.
Alongside Urlich is former Warriors forward Awen Guttenbeil, as emotionless as Urlich is extroverted. Guttenbeil is the coach. At right centre is the distinctively-dreadlocked Karl Te Nana, once of the All Blacks Sevens team; inside him is Wairangi Koopu, who last year played for NRL premiers Melbourne. At halfback is Stacey Jones.
This is the all-star lower grade league team, the Kiwi equivalent of Alan Shearer, Kevin Keegan and Bobby Moore joining the same village football side and enlisting Keith Richards as manager.
Last season, Pt Chevalier came comfortably last in the Auckland Rugby League's Phelan Shield. "Bottom of the bottom," says club stalwart Carl Gribble.
"I think they defaulted three games and only won one all year; there were very few guys at training and I think three guys paid their subs last year," recounts Guttenbeil. "We went from that to 46 guys paying before our first pre-season game."
Pt Chevalier are now top, with aspirations to return to Auckland's first division for the first time in years. For that, they can thank the loyalty of Jones, who has often stood on Walker Park's inhospitable sideline as the sea wind ripped in and the Pirates battled to another defeat.
JONES IS their most celebrated junior product; Guttenbeil, who was raised in Northland, played there as well when he moved to Auckland. For years, they talked about returning to their roots. "We had always spoken jokingly about it," says Jones, "and it got more serious when the club was struggling a little bit and we had the time to give back."
They recruited Urlich as manager, Koopu, Te Nana, Monty Betham and Guttenbeil's brother Karl, a former New Zealand A international, to strengthen the team and persuaded Peter Leitch to oversee fundraising.
The big issue for Pt Chev, and many grassroots clubs, was that the modern generation of players don't drink in the clubhouse afterwards – instead, you'll see them gathered around their cars drinking their own. "The club had no money,' says Urlich baldly. "A lot of clubs quite honestly are in difficulty, rugby clubs too. People don't go to clubrooms any more like they used to and it's like the Sydney clubs with the pokies – that's their key income."
But now opposing players want to drink with Jones.
"What I really like about this level of football is that teams can go back to the opposing clubrooms and have a beer," he says. "You don't get that at the NRL; you have that family atmosphere. While it can get a bit rarky on the sidelines, you know you can bring your family down."
They used to get a hundred spectators to a home game. Now the crowd is five times that. "It's brought out people I haven't seen for ages," says Gribble, the club's junior chairman, who encourages his kids to come and watch as well. Persuading youngsters to turn up to prize-givings also became a lot easier when it was the stars handing out the trophies.
The three-deep touchlines see Papatoetoe take a 14-10 halftime lead, with whoops emerging from their team huddle. Urlich says: "Every team wants to beat us, they want to beat the team with the stars."
Guttenbeil asks his men: "Are you finished playing for the day?"
URLICH BEGAN the year as team manager but found the workload unexpectedly high and now describes his role as guiding the club's "moral and emotional and cultural landscape". This translates to writing the team song. He leaps up and down the touchline, theatrically wiping his brow when Papatoetoe drop the ball over the line, then muttering "they smell blood" when the Panthers finally take a 20-16 lead.
Te Nana is hit late and helped off. This may or may not relate to claims that his Sky Sport co-host Steve Devine has offered a bottle of whisky to any player who decapitates him this season.
But using the famous slope towards the Waitemata, the Pirates begin to trundle forward. Koopu is still fearsomely fit and it takes four to stop him. The rest of the pack are big, young kids and Jones feeds them early, quick ball.
Then he shimmies and offloads to set up a levelling try and Te Nana, gripping his shoulder, returns to the field. A touchline conversion puts the Pirates ahead. "Tell them these last 10 minutes are about attitude," instructs Guttenbeil nonchalantly. Pt Chev's tubby prop aims a Maori sidestep at the Panthers fullback and scores. The sideline erupts. Guttenbeil grins and says: "That's the closest result we've had all season."
In the spartan, whitewashed dressing room, Koopu, his eye bloodied, sits his son on his knee and agrees that it's all a bit surreal, given that last season he was playing alongside Billy Slater and Cameron Smith.
He was due to see out his career in the English Super League, but decided to return home to be close to family and turned down offers from premier clubs because it seemed too much like hard work.
"For me, it's about being alongside my mates and having a few beers afterwards," he says. "It's what I really love about the game."
The beers duly emerge. Then Urlich pins the words to the team song on the wall, grabs a plastic drinks barrel and beats a rhythm. "We are the pirates from Pt Chevalier, show no mercy, show no fear ..."
A chubby kid with a dog on a string wanders in. "Eh, Stacey Jones is over there," he says to his mates, before attempting to borrow your correspondent's pen. "I want to get his autograph."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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