Rugby's nearly man hammers home advantage

MR CONSISTENCY: Phil Jensen has won the national title for hammer throw 20 times.
MR CONSISTENCY: Phil Jensen has won the national title for hammer throw 20 times.

Stuck behind All Black props Richard Loe and Graham Purvis in Waikato rugby's pecking order, Phil Jensen knew it was time for a code switch.

So it was goodbye rugby ball, and hello wrecking ball.

More than two decades on, the Wellington IT architect for Oracle continued a remarkable sporting streak with his 20th national hammer throw title on Sunday, at age 46.

His 18-year-old daughter, Ahna, was among those cheering him on at Newtown Park against opponents not a lot older than her.

''It was quite a thrill; probably because 20 sounds better than 19. It just felt like a significant milestone and it was a bit of a buzz,'' Jensen said.

The buzz extended to the Jensens' Naenae home that night where wife Katrina, Ahna and his 16-year-old daughter, Renee, celebrated with a family dinner.

''My youngest turns 17 this year, and since she's been alive I've never lost at the nationals. She's my good luck charm.''

Jensen, the son of a Waikato dairy farmer born in Te Aroha, won his first national  hammer title in 1988. Three years earlier the Hamilton Boys' High School prop played under a stern-faced coach named Graham Henry in a New Zealand secondary schools team including Jon Preston, Daryl Halligan and Olo Brown.

Then, when he cracked the Waikato team he found a front row of Loe, Warren Gatland and Purvis in his way.

There was no way in, even when Loe looked down for all money against Otago in Dunedin.

''He was a bit sore but he gave it a rub and magic water and was away again. I just kept sitting on the pine.''

That sealed the deal. Jensen then rattled up 17 consecutive hammer titles and built a successful IT career as ''an engineery-type dude, a geek''.

He threw at three Commonwealth Games, finishing fifth in Auckland in 1990 and sixth in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 before his career highlight; a silver medal in Manchester in 2002. It was a huge night, when he threw only an hour after 18-year-old Valerie Adams also won silver at her first big meet.

''I had to try and keep up with her. That was pretty cool; probably the best experience in terms of the impact it had on my family and the thrill it gave them.''

That was 12 years ago and Jensen was set to hang up the hammer. But the competitive instincts burned. His life priorities are family, work, then sport, and with wife Katrina supporting him all the way, he fits it all in.

''I love throwing the hammer. When you get it right, it's like hitting a golf ball perfectly.

''Working in IT is a very sedentary job and I need to be doing something active. I'm quite a competitive person.''

Jensen trains at an old rubbish dump site with a view of the runway near Wellington Airport, complete with concrete slab and cage, because the hammer craters cause too much angst for other athletes on pristine fields. He also coaches Ryan Tinkle, who proved his toughest opponent at Newtown Park on Sunday.

Jensen's first throw of 61.85m proved the winning one, but Tinkle got within 87cm and smashed his personal best by a metre which gave his coach almost as much delight as his 20th title.

Jensen hasn't ruled out returning next year to chase No. 21. The only thing that nags away is he never broke the national record of 73.10m (his PB is 72.06m). Otherwise he couldn't have asked for more from a glittering sporting career.

''I thought I'd be surpassed this year so thought I'd be able to just shuffle off. I may return next year; I'm still mulling it over. It depends on how much work I'm prepared to do to keep in shape. As you get older you're fighting the sands of time as well.''

It's a scrap that so far has Jensen a clear winner.

Waikato Times