For the love the game - Div-3 rugby

Club rugby uncovered

ABBIE NAPIER
Last updated 14:00 22/06/2014
A fight breaks out during a match between Otatauhi and University
DANIEL TOBIN/Fairfax NZ

PASSIONATE: A fight breaks out during a match between Otatauhi and University div-3 clubs in May.

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Marist Beacons fullback Kris Elkington is already on the sideline with blood pouring down his face. He's been on the field about seven minutes but his game is already over.

A paramedic slaps on an icepack and soon his whole head is swaddled in bright white bandages.

"I basically took a full boot of sprigs to the face and it ripped my eyelid off," he says.

"Well, that might be a slight exaggeration."

Despite his shocking injury, he still claims it's not the worst he's ever had and with his team- mates looking on, scoffs at the suggestion of a hospital visit.

He rejoins the line of players in team colours, watching the game out of his good eye.

Elkington is one of many Division-3 rugby players to be sidelined by injury every season. Whether it's a bad tackle, an unlucky fall or a moment's inattention, these guys are putting their bodies on the line.

For what?

Div-3 rugby holds little glory for most. They are there, week in and week out, good weather and bad, for the fun of it. They're there for the satisfying slog of a tough training session, for post- match beers in the clubrooms, and for the feel of mud on their knees and the pride of a win against the odds.

When all is said and done, Div-3 is grassroots rugby in its purest form, played by blokes who play the game for the game's sake.

John Hamilton and Albyn Leslie have a grandson in common. Josh "Bieber" Hamilton plays hooker for Christchurch Football Club and works fulltime as a carpenter.

John Hamilton is on the sidelines every weekend, rain or shine, propping himself up with an all-terrain walking stick.

Albyn has come down from Blenheim to watch Josh play, and is promising him a "thick ear" if Christchurch loses.

Fortunately for Josh, they're up about 19-3 and are teaching the Marist Albion Beacons a lesson.

The two old supporters couldn't be prouder of their grandson, eager to recount his playing history and point him out on the field, covered head to toe in mud.

"These guys are enjoying themselves," Albyn says. "They're Division 3, but they get a lot of fun out of it.

Lined up beside John and Albyn are the younger members of the team and a cluster of their mates, joking and shoving and winding each other up.

There's a deference and respect for the grandfathers and a gentle ribbing of "Bieber" is laced with soft, almost- apologetic laughter. The old blokes, in their thick knit jumpers and polarfleece jackets, are an integral part of the team wallpaper and it's supporters like them who are keeping the game alive.

"It's social rugby really - the camaraderie," says John. "Everyone yells at them from the sidelines and they all know their nicknames."

There's a place for everyone in the team at Division 3 level, and many can count generations of family members loyal to the same game-day shirt.

Between the two teams playing, there are six knee braces on the field. It may be social, but everyone turns up to practice, and everyone plays the game.

That in itself takes a certain level of commitment and while these guys aren't the club's top picks, they play with the same determination and drive as their Div 1 counterparts.

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"We've followed Josh around the country," says John. "He's played all over the place. The oldies like us get as much fun out of it as the players really."

John represents a family line of community rugby players. He played once, "many many years ago", and now it's his turn to make sure the next generation sticks with it.

The sideline is scattered with huddles of supporters, from young mums in puffer jackets with kids around their feet, to blokes in Red Band gumboots and Swandris.

Each is focused on the game and the air is peppered with muttered advice and screamed encouragement. Like any division, injuries and fatigue keep a steady rotation of players loping on and off the field.

At halftime, the team huddles are tight, serious affairs, with each coach barking out orders and rallying for the final effort.

It's freezing, muddy, and grey.

Seven-year-old Zinzan Bondarenko-Leatua darts around the legs of the Christchurch players. The cold air has whipped his cheeks pink and he is puffed, his steps more laboured as the game rolls on.

Drink bottle clasped close to his chest, he dodges in and out of the huddle until he spots his target.

Nedlands Leatua is wearing the No 10 jersey and playing fly- half for Christchurch. Thanks to a steady series of tries, he's been kicking conversions all afternoon and his success is keeping Zinzan busy.

"I asked someone today if I could take a drink bottle and tee out to my dad," he says. "Then I liked doing it, but it's my first day."

Leatua coaches Zinzan's Under-8s team and his son will one day play for the club in the mens' grade, like his dad.

However, at 7, Zinzan's main motivation for running the tee is the promise of hot chips at the club after the game.

Kids on the sidelines are a regular fixture at the Div-3 matches. Toddlers roll spare rugby balls along the grass and the older kids man the drink bottle stations, refilling bottles and running after stray balls.

When Otautahi (OT) play University, the winter sun brings out a crowd of kids in tiny team jerseys and gumboots. Miniature camps are set up along the University edge of the field complete with comfortable chairs, extra blankets, and a packed afternoon tea.

However, there is tension between the teams on the field, mirrored by the supporters on the sidelines.

At the Otautahi end, supporters are standing close together, careful not to get in the way of the coach.

At first, Ken Brown could be mistaken for an overzealous father, bellowing commands and throwing his hands up in disgust at every fumble or missed opportunity.

He cuts a striking figure in tight, full-length hi-vis overalls. The boundaries of the field are of little consequence to Ken as his passion for the game spurs him into the thick of things.

"Run you c...s!" he screams, pacing the sideline for effect. The crowd subconsciously moves with him, surging up and down the field and lending their voices to Ken's not-insignificant efforts.

"Come on ref! OT get a move on!"

Perhaps quelled by Ken's single-minded enthusiasm, the University supporters are a quiet bunch, happy to watch the game rather than try to guide it.

Otautahi blindside flanker Jamal Kite sits on the sideline with an icepack taped to his back.

His mum, Holly Nesbit, also has a partner on the team.

"The other teams always think there's biff coming from OT, and they bring it to us," she says. "But we're a fun-loving bunch."

"People always think OT have issues with anger and wanna fight, but the boys are trying to change that image.

"People try and aggravate the situation on the field, but our boys keep their cool."

No sooner has she finished talking, a fight breaks out on the field and a University player falls to the ground clutching his head.

The fight halts play and each team is called off for a huddle.

The University shouts at his team to: "get up their arses!"

After the fight, the mood shifts again, both sides kick the support up a notch, but as quickly as it flares up, the heat dies down and the players are distracted with the sheer task of getting the ball down the field.

Otautahi bencher Ray takes the opportunity to advertise for his future girlfriend.

"I'm Ray, I'm single, and I'm looking for ladies between 18 and 25 with a bit of brains. Put that in the paper!"

Team-mate Adam Cooper runs off the field with a sprained finger.

"It's not that bad. I'll be right, just strap it up," he puffs to the guy holding the tape.

Cooper's been in the club since he was a "young fella". He's a lecturer in te reo and sets something of an example within the team.

"We're trying to bring about a sense of community and family," he says.

At the end of the game, all teams line up to shake hands and get back to their jobs and families - after a quick stop for a cheap pint in the clubrooms, of course.

This is a team sport, and every man on the field has made a commitment to something productive - to training, to club fees, to games and to their team- mates. They may never wear the black jersey but they keep the game, and the community, alive.

This is rugby.

- The Press

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