Dedicated Blair McIlroy makes big impact for Buller in Heartland Championship
Blindside Blair McIlroy has clocked up over 30,000km in his truck to play for his beloved Buller in the Heartland Championship.
The concrete contractor lives on the opposite side of the Southern Alps to the Westport-based team but has no problems driving over three hours each way for the cause.
The Heartland Championship rules allow each side to have three loan players, a role McIlroy has played for Buller since 2010.
The 33-year-old still plays his club rugby for Darfield but proudly pulls on the red and blue hooped jersey every representative season.
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"I'm proud to have been given the opportunity, the whole exercise has been fantastic."
McIlroy said there was just something about playing for Buller, the country's smallest rugby union.
"It's special, they are special people."
He was due to hang his boots up at the end of last season, having been capped 50 times, but the coaches persuaded him him to have one final season.
"It was pretty cool to make 50, there are a few in the team that have done it."
McIlroy makes the Friday morning drive over to the West Cost these days with his 2-year-old son Jack and wife Kelly.
"They are pretty family friendly over there. Practice used to be on a Thursday night but it's Friday afternoons now because of the guys that travel."
The affable blindside said he was first talked into playing for the province when he ran the renowned Buller marathon.
"A mate Josh Bell planted the seed and I thought 'why not'. I didn't expect to still be playing there seven years later to be honest."
McIlroy also loves the camaraderie of the team.
"They are just bloody good people, its a lot of fun. The coaches are special characters, the boys love playing for them."
He and long serving prop Phil 'Dozer' Beveridge keep each other on their toes.
"Yep there is a bit of banter but its good fun."
McIlroy still also retains his nickname 'Sheep' from his school days.
Easily explained he said. "My hair doesn't grow down really, it's tight curls like a sheep, but don't print that."
This season McIlroy has also been called to play in the unfamiliar role of openside for Luke Brownlee, a Buller legend, who has been capped over 185 times.
"Luke's copped an injury, which is unfortunate, so I've been filling in."
McIlroy admits one of his biggest highlights was playing the Meads Cup final against Wanganui in Cooks Garden last year.
"We were on the wrong side of the result but I was proud to get there.
"We lost by a point, sometimes in a final it might be better to get pumped, it was so close."
Buller co-coach Craig Scanlon said they recruited McIlroy while he was playing for Darfield in the Ellesmere competition.
"A friend of a friend suggested him as a player we would be interested in."
Scanlon said it had proved a brilliant move.
"He keeps coming back because he and his family are a big part of our culture, and Blair is a quality person on and off the field."
Scanlon said on the paddock he added immense value.
"Defensively he is the most aggressive defender I have coached on a consistency basis.
"He just doesn't put one good contact in a game – he puts plenty. It is no wonder he has buggered shoulders.
Off the field, he is very obliging and a great team member, Scanlon said.
"His coffee's and "darts" are legendary. He also has a great sense of humour.
"Deep down I am sure he really enjoys Dozer giving him a hard time."
Scanlon said he McIlroy just adds value everywhere.
"Blair is also is very good at paying $50 for the team funds, when his phone goes off in team meetings. He was even set up by the team on one occasion."
Scanlon acknowledged McIlroy's huge sacrifice to continue to play for Buller.
"One of the great things about sport and rugby is the opportunity to meet quality people, and the Buller community have meet a quality family in the McIlroys."
On Saturday, the unbeaten Buller side head to Paeroa to take on Thames Valley.