Jimmy Cowan - Southland's loyal team man
Leicester Rutledge bursts into laughter when he reminisces on one of Jimmy Cowan's earliest games for the Southland Stags.
Playing against Wellington in the capital in 2001, Rutledge, who was coach at the time, sent out the message that Cowan was to replace starting halfback, Jason Harrison.
Cowan stripped off his tracksuit top in readiness to take the field, but in his pre-game excitement, had forgotten to don one essential piece of clothing.
''All he's got on is a set of shoulder pads,'' Rutledge recalls.
''I said, 'What the hell's going on here'. He's all set to go on the paddock and he didn't even realise, he had no jersey on.
''That was his first trip away and he'd never been on an aeroplane before. He was as green as grass.''
It's fair to say, Cowan has come a long way as a rugby player and individual since that comical gaffe.
The 30-year-old is in line to join an exclusive club during this year's national provincial championship. He's racked up 51 tests for the All Blacks, played over 100 games for the Highlanders, and is six caps away from becoming just the 11th Southland centurion. Former All Black captain Tana Umaga is the only other player to have achieved that illustrious feat with Wellington and the Hurricanes.
Rutledge and Stags' co-coach Mark Seymour, were the ones to pluck Cowan from club rugby with Mataura into the Southland NPC set-up.
He says Cowan had the raw ingredients to be a future star, but admits he was clueless at first, when it came to conditioning and how much dedication was required.
''He had size, he had speed and certainly had character,'' Rutledge says.
''He had no idea, at that time, about what was going to be involved in playing rugby at the top level. He had no idea about work. He'd never really worked.''
Cowan was given a rude awakening when he went away to the New Zealand under-19 trials in 2000.
One year after finishing up at Gore High School, the 18-year-old's name was put forward by the Southland Rugby Union, as part of the national talent identification programme.
He linked up with aspiring young talents from all over the country, but found the going tough, and quickly discovered he was off the pace.
''That was a real shock to the system. I went up there and did the testing times and strength testing and was way behind what everyone else was doing,'' Cowan says.
''I didn't know how to train my body. When I was at school, they never had the gym and academy programmes, they have now.''
He was told in no uncertain terms to go away and sort himself out ahead of the final trial, if he had any aspirations of making the cut.
Leicester's son and Southland hooker, Jason Rutledge, was assigned as Cowan's personal trainer, with the pair sweating it out around the Queens Park running tracks daily, in a bid to lift his fitness.
Cowan returned for the next camp and ran one of his quickest ever 3km times, winning over New Zealand under-19 coaches Dennis Brown and Aussie McLean, with his stunning transformation.
He was named in the squad for the 2001 junior world championships in Chile, starting in every game, in New Zealand's march to the title.
Cowan was one of nine players from the New Zealand under-19 side to go on and represent the All Blacks. Brown says his combative playing style and tenacious attitude set him apart from many of his team-mates and opponents.
''He was very, very competitive. He's one of the best competitors, I've been involved with over the years.
''He's the kind of guy, you want to go to war with ... He was certainly seen as someone, who could carry on and go all the way.''
Since then, Cowan has never really looked back.
Talk to those, who know him best, and all of them will tell you, his strongest quality as a person, is his loyalty.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Southlanders Jeff Wilson, Justin Marshall, Mils Muliaina and Corey Flynn all shifted north to play for larger unions, as they looked to advance their prospects.
It didn't appear that a player could progress onto the All Blacks, by playing for what was then, a lowly Southland side, battling to win games.
At the beginning of his career, Cowan received several enticing offers from Super Rugby host provinces, but knocked them back to stay with the Stags.
Cowan and loosehead prop Clarke Dermody were early trail blazers in showing Southland players they could remain in the region and go on to represent their country.
Southland and Highlanders captain Jamie Mackintosh believes the province owes a great deal to Cowan for bucking the trend.
''Jimmy was at the forefront of that and that's why he's been such a special person for Southland.
''For the Southland Rugby Union, that's huge. Players knowing they can achieve their ultimate goal without leaving the province, and giving something back.''
Cowan says it was always an easy decision to make.
''I couldn't bring myself to leave. Looking back, it's probably been the best thing, I've done.
''Something I really value is loyalty. That's what I'm about. I'm passionate about it.
''It just proves to the youngsters out there, you can make it from a small union. It's all in front them, if they're prepared to work hard.''
Few players are more devoted to the maroon jumper than Jimmy Cowan. His appearances for the Stags have been restricted in recent years due to his All Black commitments, but whenever possible, he makes himself available, or shows his support from the sideline.
A perfect illustration came in 2009 when he rushed back from an All Black camp to act as water boy for the Stags, when they wrested the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury. It was the first time, Southland had won the Shield in 50 years, and a moment he will always treasure.
''It's a jersey, I'm proud of,'' Cowan says.
''For me, when you're playing for Southland, you're not just playing for yourself or your family, you're playing for the people of Southland. You feel that when you're playing. They're passionate about their rugby.''
Cowan's career hasn't always been plain sailing. Four years ago, he was on the verge of having his contract ripped up by the New Zealand Rugby Union after a string of alcohol related incidents in Dunedin and Invercargill. The NZRU placed an alcohol ban on Cowan, fined him $3000, and ordered him to undertake counselling.
Looking back on that period in his life, Cowan acknowledges he made some poor decisions, and feels deeply indebted to the NZRU for standing by him.
''I was very lucky for rugby, because it was my saviour,'' he says,
''The one thing, I said to myself and the close people around me is, 'The only way I can repay people back is through my rugby, and that's what I did'.
''I'm a great believer, 'If you don't make mistakes, you'll never learn'. Certainly, I made mistakes along the way, but I think I've learned from them.''
Being an All Black is a privilege, and with it comes expectations and added responsibility.
His message to young, professional rugby players, is to still go out and have fun, but surround yourself with good people and drink in moderation.
''I wasn't doing that at the time. I was getting caught by myself (in bars).
''It's probably how I was drinking and where. It's hard to do it out in public, when you're an All Black. There's a lot of eyes on you and it certainly makes it tough.''
Cowan went on to play a further 42 games for New Zealand, following the dramas of 2008, to take his tally to 51 tests. He restored the faith the NZRU showed in him, by establishing himself as the All Blacks' first-choice halfback from 2008 through to the start of last year's World Cup.
Out on the rugby paddock, Cowan always wears his heart on his sleeve, and never takes a backward step.
It's a characteristic, which has always been apparent, right from his formative days in the backyard of his family's Mataura home.
Cowan, and his younger brother and Stags' team-mate, Scott Cowan, fought out many epic games of rugby, cricket, and tennis, after school in their youth.
''We used to come home from school and play in our uniforms and in our socks. We used to get pretty muddy and bloody,'' Cowan says.
''That's what brothers do growing up - pretending you're Jonah Lomu, or whoever.''
Fortunately for the Cowan boys, their mother, Bronwyn, was a drycleaner, and didn't mind doing the washing or patching up any ripped clothing.
Scott says Jimmy has always hated losing, which often led to disagreements.
''There were a lot of nights, where we'd go to the tennis court and if I won, I wouldn't be getting a ride home in his car. He was very competitive.
''We loved the sporting side of things. There wasn't too many video games for us when we were young.''
Mackintosh has spent most of his career, playing alongside Cowan. The born-and-bred Southlanders flatted together for six years in Dunedin, as members of the Highlanders.
When Mackintosh was a training partner with the team in 2004 and 2005, Cowan and housemate, Dermody, let him live in their lounge. He still remembers that kind gesture and describes Cowan as one of his closest friends.
''They involved me in everything and made me feel pretty special. He's always been a great mate to me and that's something, I'll never forget,'' Mackintosh says.
''People see Jimmy every Saturday on the rugby field and he's pretty fired up. He's a huge competitor. People judge him like that.
''Off the field, you couldn't be further wrong. With the younger players in the squad, particularly with Aaron Smith (in the Highlanders this year), he's an awesome team guy.''
All Blacks first five Dan Carter first crossed paths with Cowan at a South Island under-45 kg rugby tournament as a 13-year-old.
Carter, who was playing for Canterbury Country, remembers marking up against a young Cowan, who was running around in the midfield for Southland.
The pair struck up a friendship after being named in the South Island under-45kg team, and would also go on to play against each at age-group representative cricket tournaments.
''He used to think he was a pretty fast bowler. He used to storm in, off about a 50m run up, and roll the arm over,'' Carter laughs.
Carter played alongside Cowan in 38 of his 51 tests for the All Blacks. He rates Cowan as one of the best defensive halfbacks going around, and says it was like having another loose forward in their side.
''He was so strong around the breakdown. When you had big ball carriers coming down that channel, he'd stop them. He used his strength and size to his advantage.''
The bond between the two men was reflected late last year, when Cowan served as a groomsman at Carter's wedding.
''He's been a long-standing friend of mine. We've played a lot of rugby, not only with each other, but also against each other. We've known each other for years,'' Carter says.
''He's a guy, you can really trust and rely on. He's one of my best mates.''
Former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry says Cowan was one of the most well-respected players in the national squad and that he had the rare ability to relate with everyone in the team.
''He was an extremely popular guy in the All Blacks. Probably, if the All Blacks had to vote on the ultimate team man, I think he would get the prize.
''He was a team member, who gave everything he could for the team ... He was passionate about playing for the All Blacks, so he was a key member, over the time I was involved.''
Away from rugby, Cowan is a quintessential ''Southern man'', who loves the outdoors and spending time with family and friends.
He is a more than handy golfer, formerly playing off an 11 handicap, and is an avid admirer of old style cars and motorbikes.
Two of his proudest possessions are his Chevy Impala, and the latest collection to his garage, a 2011, 1580cc, Harley Davidson Fatboy Lo bike. Cowan regularly rides up through the Catlins or Central Otago area on a clear day, when he gets time off.
''He's a really good family man and he's a real loyal person,'' Scott says of his brother.
''He loves his sport. He's always on the golf course or out on his motorbike.''
Cowan will begin the next phase of his life after this year's NPC, when he departs for England to take up a two year contract with Gloucester.
After 12 years of elite rugby in New Zealand, he concedes the time is right to move on, and is excited about the chance to experience a new lifestyle in the Northern Hemisphere, and test himself in the English top-flight.
Before that happens, Cowan has the small matter of helping the Stags regain their status in the premiership division and bringing up that all important 100th game milestone.
He was the youngest Southlander to bring up 50 games for the union in 2004, aged 22, but since then, it's been slow going.
''One hundred (games) would be nice to get. I'm here to give something back to the Southland Rugby Union. I want to leave on a high note,'' he says.
Cowan will be remembered as one of the greats of Southland rugby, and Mackintosh says he should be delighted with what he has achieved.
''There's bugger all people in New Zealand, touch wood, that can say they've played 100 games for Southland, 100 for the Highlanders, and 50 for the All Blacks. He's had a pretty good knock.
''When he's sitting back as an old man, he'll look back and reflect, and be extremely proud of what he's done.''
- © Fairfax NZ News
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