Sport can help West Coasters heal the pain

TONY SMITH
Last updated 05:00 27/11/2010

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OPINION: Sport can be a salve in troubled times, so it's heartening to hear some of the nation's leading codes are looking at what they can do for the West Coast community.

New Zealand Rugby League chief executive Jim Doyle said yesterday he had talked to Warriors chief executive Wayne Scurrah "about how we could do something together early next year" on the West Coast.

Doyle says it is too early to discuss details because "the people down there have got a lot more to worry about than sport just now".

The NZRL has already sent flowers and condolence cards to the families of the five rugby league men who perished in the Pike River mine.

A Warriors pre-season match against the Kiwis or New Zealand Invitation team at Wingham Park would be something for the Coast community to look forward to. As an alternative, perhaps the Warriors could invite the Newcastle Knights from another proud coalmining region in the Hunter Valley to come to Greymouth to play for a specially struck trophy (the Coalfields Cup, perhaps?).

We understand the South Island rugby league team were due to play a game in Greymouth next season anyway. That would be a perfect time to honour Blair Sims, one of the Pike River 29, a dual West Coast rugby league player of the year who represented the South Island at centre and wing this year.

Rugby league has, traditionally, been the West Coast's most successful team sport. A celebrated British author, the late Geoffrey Moorhouse, paid this tribute to the region in A People's Game: The Official History of Rugby League (1895-1995): "The one area that would long rival Auckland for the strength of its commitment to the game was the West Coast of the South Island, an old gold-rush [and significantly] coalmining area of high rainfall and stupendous scenery."

Moorhouse knew so from first-hand experience. He worked as a journalist at the now defunct Grey River Argus newspaper 50 years ago at a time when the West Coast routinely supplied the hard core of the Kiwis' forward pack.

West Coast Rugby League president Peter Kerridge estimates "close to half" of the West Coast's 51 Kiwis were miners.

The Coast rugby league community has lost other luminaries in mining accidents. Peter Mountford (from the region's most famous football clan) died in the Strongman disaster in 1967. Bernard Green, a Kiwis centre in the early 1980s, died in a mineshaft collapse in Roa four years ago.

The All Blacks have had a long, hard season, but it's to be hoped a bunch might find time to travel to Greymouth when they get home from another Grand Slam tour of Europe. After all, NZRU president John Sturgeon, who is with them in Wales, is from Runanga, which has lost several of its sons.

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Canterbury and Crusaders rugby chief Hamish Riach told us this week he's already turning his thoughts towards something tangible to show rugby's respect for the Pike River group, which included at least four recent senior club rugby players.

Greymouth has hosted Super rugby pre-season games in the past. It would be logical to have played the Highlanders there in January after the Crusaders return from two games in Australia. But Riach says it is the southern franchise's turn to host the fixture and it was earmarked for Oamaru some time ago. He's still mulling over another option.

Perhaps the Crusaders could apply to the NZRU for permission to take a regular-season game to Greymouth's Rugby Park.

The Sanzar authorities could compensate the Crusaders for any loss of gate revenue and allow an afternoon kickoff.

The Chiefs, whose catchment includes the coalfields around Huntly, might be fitting opposition. The Crusaders are due to host them in Christchurch on May 21. Could that match be shifted westward instead?

What about a limited-over cricket fixture? Would it be out of the way to suggest a Twenty20 game between the Black Caps and an invitation team (hopefully including some world-class Australians) be played on the Coast if a suitable pitch could be prepared?

What about Ruth Aitken taking the Silver Ferns there for a netball game?

Nothing's impossible if the will is there – and it certainly seems to be, judging by the outpouring of grief.

Nothing can, of course, compensate for the lives lost this week. The grieving will go on for some time. But it would surely give the entire West Coast – and its young people, in particular – a massive boost to have our leading sportspeople perform there.

- The Press

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