Still rolling

LISTEN UP: Waikato Roller Mills team training at Marist Rugby Club ahead of the Roller Mills tournament.
DONNA WALSH/ Waikato Times
LISTEN UP: Waikato Roller Mills team training at Marist Rugby Club ahead of the Roller Mills tournament.

People looking for a guide to how New Zealand will perform in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan would be well advised to head to Thames next week.

Likewise predatory overseas coaches looking to lure our top players to represent their countries through sometimes dubious family connections or rugby league scouts looking for the next Lance Hohaia or Thomas Leuluai.

Thames – known for its historic gold mines – will uncover another rich vein of rugby talent next week when it hosts the 86th Roller Mills rugby tournament.

YOUNG TALENT: From left, Connor Collins, 13, and Tamehana Hohepa, 12.
DONNA WALSH/ Waikato Times
YOUNG TALENT: From left, Connor Collins, 13, and Tamehana Hohepa, 12.

The tournament – named after Auckland company Northern Roller Milling, which presented the tournament shield in 1924 – is for players aged 13 and under and weighing less than 55kg from Waikato, Thames Valley, King Country, Bay of Plenty, Auckland, Counties-Manukau, North Harbour and Northland.

Aside from the Ranfurly Shield, it's the country's oldest rugby competition.

For many of the young players, it's the first step into the world of representative sport and memories of next week's tournament will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

And for some, Roller Mills will be the start of a pathway that leads to higher honours, with it almost guaranteed that several players running around in Thames next week will wind up representing the All Blacks.

Many of the greats of New Zealand rugby got their first taste of the big time through Roller Mills, including Sir Colin Meads, Sir Wilson Whineray, Mac Herewini, Waka Nathan, Grant Fox, Bryan Williams and Warren Gatland.

Wales coach Gatland was in the last Waikato Rovers side to win the competition. His his son Bryn was in the 2008 team.

Of the current All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad six players – Sonny Bill Williams, Anthony Boric, Isaia Toeava, Richard Kahui, Keiran Read and Keven Mealamu – first made their mark in Roller Mills. There are five more former Roller Mills reps in the Manu Samoa squad, two each with Tonga and Japan and others representing Ireland, Australia and the USA at the Rugby World Cup.

And if that wasn't testament enough to the quality sportsmen playing Roller Mills, there are as many again who have gone on to represent New Zealand in other areas.

Bowler Rowan Brassey, rower Rob Waddell, sprinters Gary Henley-Smith and James Dolphin, league players Hugh McGahan, Lance Hohaia, Tawera Nikau, Gene Ngamu, Kurt Sorenson and Thomas Leuluai, cricketers Mark Richardson, Blair Pocock, Daniel Flynn and Kane Williamson and singer Awanui Reeder (Nesian Mystik) all went through Roller Mills.

Current Waikato captain Alex Parton, 13, from Fairfield Intermediate, says he doesn't know a huge amount about the history of Roller Mills but is well aware "a lot of good players have played in it".

He'll know a whole lot more by the end of next week, after co-coaches Barry Jennings and Wayne Booten have instilled in the 22-strong squad what it means to represent the region at Roller Mills.

"They learn the culture of the jersey, the people who have been before them and what that means," Jennings says at one of the squad's final training runs ahead of departure for their tournament base at Miranda Hot Springs from tomorrow.

For years that Roller Mills culture included two Waikato teams: Rovers from Hamilton and the northern sub-unions, and the southern Rangers.

The two were merged in 2008 in a move which doesn't find favour with former Rangers player Craig Innes.

"I was quite saddened to hear they've done away with Rangers. Rangers was everything for kids from Tokoroa, Matamata and Putaruru," the 17-test All Black says.

The Innes family holds a unique place in Roller Mills history. Innes captained Rangers in 1982, just as his father Ross had done in 1958 while two brothers, Mark (1984) and Andrew (1986) also captained Rangers.

"I'm not sure about Dad but we might have all won it as well," Innes says.

Despite it being nearly 30 years ago, he still has fond memories of the tournament.

"Yeah, it is really the start of it all, the start of all the rep stuff. Rangers were going through a period when they cleaned up, there was a guy called Joe Anderson, a teacher at Matamata Intermediate. He died a few years ago now, but he was a big scary bugger and he got you on the right track. In those days it was so important to be part of the team and I've got really fond memories. I still remember parts of games."

He says it was only later when he started progressing through the ranks of representative rugby that he realised plenty of other top players also went through Roller Mills as well.

"You get down the track, even with the All Blacks, and you discover guys you played against but never knew it. It was a great thing."

All former players seem to retain fond memories of the tournament no matter what they may have achieved later in life.

Olympic gold medallist Rob Waddell still considers representing King Country at Roller Mills one of the favourite memories of his illustrious sporting career.

"It was massive really, a highlight I look back on still," the two-time world champion rower says.

"It was one of the first big things in sport and we had a great team that year. We genuinely believed we could go all the way."

He proudly remembers being presented his jersey by Colin Meads but admits he may have cost his side a place in the finals.

"We were undefeated going into the semis and it was 0-0 against Auckland. It was my first year of rugby so I didn't know the rules that well and I was the idiot who gave away a penalty. A young fella named Jeremy Stanley waltzed through and scored the points."

Another with good memories of Roller Mills is 46-test All Black Grant Fox, who played for Rangers in 1975 when the tournament was hosted in Otorohanga.

"Some rugby memories are a bit hard to remember but Roller Mills wasn't," Fox says.

"We got billeted out, I don't know how they billeted so many kids out in Otorohanga but they did.

"I'll tell you what, for lots of young kids it's their first foray into rep rugby so it's a big thing for a kid, and for their mums and dads. For those who get to the other end of the scale and might be fortunate to be selected for the All Blacks, all those guys will remember their Roller Mills time like I do my time."

Fox says the tournament remains an important part of New Zealand rugby.

"Because it's still going for one thing. But they play it because they love it. I don't think anyone seriously thinks it's a career option at that stage, they just love it."

Thames Valley Rugby Union chief executive Geoff Sanders agrees and says it's more likely to be parents thinking about future careers than players.

"The kids have a good time. This is the last year before they head off to the big stuff. It is a career option these days and this is the first stepping stone to a career in rugby but they are playing because they love it. They're not thinking about careers, they're having fun, it's their parents who might be thinking that."

And current Waikato captain Alex Parton, 13, from Fairfield Intermediate School, backs that view when asked what he's most looking forward to about next week's tournament.

"The best thing will be going away on camp for a week," he says.

"We're thinking about the future but we're still kids and we just like playing with our mates."

Despite that, Jennings says it's easy enough to spot the players who have that something extra at Roller Mills.

"Not so much the skill but the attitude and the desire to do well. They start to stand out.

"There are some who you may not think are that great but then they get to the tournament and just fly.

"But for some it will be the highest level of rugby they will play. You never know how they are going to grow and that's important.

"Some players won't realise the importance of the tournament until it starts.

"You can talk all you want but they don't grasp it until they get there, then they realise."

He says the players are on the cusp of entering high school when rugby can take on a more serious tone and it's often the first time many will have been pushed.

"It's changing from having fun to having a bit of fun but learning how to work hard, how to apply themselves. We teach them how to tackle hard, how to be aggressive.

"You never know how far they can go."

Jennings and Booten look to have their squad in good shape.

The drills they run at training are as sharp as any you're likely to see and the players hang off every word from the coaches.

"You fellas on D, D it up good and tight," Booten shouts.

"Nice, looking sharp. Nice offload, you looked for the offload and it was there."

Jennings reckons they've got a good team this year which has come together well in the six weeks they've been training together.

"We should do OK. We're quite strong, we've got good, fast wingers, strong loose forwards and an excellent midfield.

"They are starting to use their vision, so that's really good."

What remains a challenge is the 55kg weight limit, with players weighed in at the start of the tournament and again on Thursday.

"Most of them are OK now. I tell them to imagine it's like the olden days where there are no takeaways and they just eat fruit, veg and meat.

"Once the tournament starts it's not too bad because they're working hard but we keep an eye on them."

He says teams need the bigger players to compete with the traditionally strong teams from Auckland.

Stories of players battling weight issues are legendary throughout the tournament's history.

Current All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu apparently had to lose 10kg to make the squad when he played and Innes says he still remembers trying to lose weight just hours before kickoff.

"On the morning of the final I was out in the mud at Onewa Domain in gumboots and wearing plastic bags trying to lose weight," he says.

"You'd give everything to win the shield, it was the be-all and end-all."

And it still is, he reckons.

"I think when you see what it produces, it's still valuable. It's a valuable part of our rugby culture and you don't mess with that."

Waikato Times