First they had to plead with their bosses for a few days off work. Then a bunch of Horowhenua-Kapiti lads, including a well driller, a yoga instructor, a roofer and a meat worker, boarded the team bus on a crisp Levin winter morning and headed north.
None will be paid a cent when they take on some Chiefs Super Rugby players and former All Black Brendon Leonard in Morrinsville today. The Horowhenua-Kapiti union and sponsors even shelled out $18,000 and entered a bidding process for the privilege. But the Log of Wood is at stake against Waikato. Say no more.
"We're 100 per cent amateur; a great mix of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers," said Horowhenua-Kapiti Rugby Union chief executive Corey Kennett. "Just your typical heartland lads that work hard and play their rugby, and had to sacrifice some time off work."
And, as Kennett notes, they're an eclectic bunch. Prop Aaron Kearney is the younger brother of Kiwis league coach Stephen Kearney and, at age 35, the personal trainer from Waikanae will play his 25th and blazer game for the province.
Of the rest of the tight five, hooker Luka Gibb is listed as a yoga instructor, prop Robin Praat a sheet metal worker and lock John Worgan an apprentice plumber. And Worgan's player profile states the following: "is now locking the scrum with his primary school bully". That would be Ryan Shelford (no relation to Buck), the only player on the HKRU payroll as the union's community rugby officer.
Coach Jared Tanira was given the option of summoning imports to bolster their squad, as all unions do for next month's Heartland Championship. He declined, and went 100 per cent local after 54 hopefuls turned up for the trials.
It's Horowhenua-Kapiti's third Ranfurly Shield challenge in 20 years. In 1993, Kennett was flanker for a team including a young Carlos Spencer which lost 80-17 to the All Blacks-laden, Graham Henry-coached Auckland in Levin. Their only challenge since was in 2007, when they lost 99-6 to North Harbour.
"We've had some fantastic players that have played for the union for seven or eight years that didn't even get the opportunity to challenge for the shield," Kennett said.
Ideally the game would have been played in Levin, but Waikato are only taking the shield on tour once, on July 30 against East Coast. "I put in a pitch for it but when you're competing against the might of Ruatoria...that's a special and unique place to play rugby."
The HKRU had to spend between $15,000-18,000 to send the team on the road. Local businesses got on board, with 15 of them each sponsoring a playing jersey.
So in the winter chill yesterday morning, the team boarded their bus for the six-hour trip north. They struck an early hiccup when news filtered through that the Desert Rd was closed, but it later opened and Kennett received a text late morning that they'd made it through.
A supporters group, including Kennett, flies north today, and the plea went out on social media for all 'expats' to descend on Morrinsville.
The TV cameras will be at Campbell Park but the match won't be screened live. And, despite the feelgood story, there could be carnage. Horowhenua-Kapiti finished last in the Heartland Championship last year, with two wins from eight. Still, the message for the lucky 22 is to create their own shield memory.
"We're going there to win; we're not going to just take part. We realise it's a Herculean task. It will probably be the biggest rugby upset in history but we think that mindset will hold us in good stead."
Waikato named Leonard at halfback and included fellow Chiefs Romana Graham and Joe Webber, and fullback Trent Renata from the Highlanders.
Waikato: Trent Renata, Semisi Masirewa, Dylan Collier, Joe Perawiti, Joe Webber, Wharenui Hawera, Brendon Leonard, Rory Grice, Jono Armstrong (c), Whetu Douglas, Romana Graham, Brian Alainu'uese, Fraser Armstrong, Vance Elliott, Latu Talakai. Reserves: Hame Faiva, Johnny Tu'ungafasi, Chris Middleton, Josaan Levien, Jono Malo, Marnus Hanley, Glen Robertson.
Horowhenua-Kapiti: Rob Millar, Lolani Tuiavi'i, Dave Thompson, Garry Phelps, Darryl Saunders-May, James Forsythe, Tainui Brown, Grant Robson (c), Lennon Carrington, Willie Lander, John Worgan, Ryan Shelford, Robin Praat, Luka Gibb, Aaron Kearney. Reserves: David White, Evan Bishop, James Karauria, Casey Watson, Rawiri Broughton, Sam Williams, Mason Pakau-Wallace.
- The Dominion Post
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