I lived in the Tron during the halcyon days of Waikato Rugby. An amazing era, never to be repeated when Waikato won the Ranfurly Shield several times, including that epic 17/6 victory over the All Blacks – sorry I mean Auckland on Eden Park – winning the 1992 National Championship title in a canter, demolishing Otago 40/5 in the final as well claiming international scalps of Argentina, Wales, Canada, Scotland, Australia, and the British Lions.
A Waikato home game was a regional event to be savoured. It felt like the entire province wanted a piece of the action. All roads led to the Tron on match day. Convoys of buses, vans, and cars from the province’s outposts of Tokoroa, Matamata and Taupiri would descend on the Tron, eventually parking up on the old Fraser Tech training pitch.
After jugs of Waikato Draught were quaffed inside the nearby Tech clubrooms, a critical mass of Mooloo fans would stagger across the road to Rugby Park, like a herd of Jersey cows traipsing off for their afternoon milking.
Rugby Park in the 90s was dilapidated, disjointed in layout and desperately in need of a spruce up. In other words, it was fit for purpose. The perfect stadium for its era.
The old grandstand, which has since been refurbished, faces directly into the afternoon sun, so all of the punters who had shelled out for premium seats, had to spend the majority of most matches shielding their eyes with their official matchday programmes.
At the eastern end of the old stand was Referees Corner and the Waikato Supporters clubrooms. At the Frankton end of Rugby Park was the big tuck shop from which the delicious aroma of piping hot Oxford Pies, freshly baked on nearby Te Rapa Straight, would waft across the playing arena towards the terraces.
Those infamous terraces with their outdated wooden bleachers and steep gravel slope were a real den of iniquity; not surprisingly it was where my mates and I preferred to watch that incredible Waikato reign. When the old Rugby Park was demolished, sections of the timber seating were transformed into collector’s edition garden furniture and sold for a King’s ransom.
I must admit I was shocked that those bleachers were good for anything other than bonfire fuel, considering the amount of rot they possessed and damage they endured. Leigh Cooksley. the Rugby Park groundsman, must have spent half his working life repairing the terracing.
I can’t remember anyone remaining seated for long and saw rows snap clean in half when the games got exciting and drunken fans began leaping and hollering.
There was intoxication on the terraces, nudity, altercations, the odd puff of green smoke, even trips being taken (it was the 90s after all); it was a no holds barred highly festive environment. The definition of open slather. It was where the real people watched their rugby.
These days we have all been banished to the open grass terrace, known affectionately as The Greenzone, by the giant Waikato Draught scoreboard at the Seddon Road end of the ground.
Staunch Waikato fans are a rare and interesting breed. With their red, yellow and black boiler suits, Bogan black Levi super taper jeans, steel capped work boots, camo bush shirts, flowing mullets or dreads, wraparound Mobil sunglasses and homemade cowbells, your average Mooloo man is a law unto himself. Waikato folk know how to support their team through both thick and thin, make a hua of noise while they’re at it and are adept at draining a bar completely dry.
Hijinks aside, the Waikato provincial side from the late 80s to the late 90s became a serious force to be reckoned with. Their humongous pack, spearheaded in the early days by the likes of Richard Loe, Warren Gatland, Graham Purvis, Buck Anderson, the Gordon brothers, Richard Jerram and our balding, broken toothed, cauliflower eared captain John Mitchell.
They were all hard men.
Mitchell copped huge criticism during his tenure as All Black coach, but he was revered throughout his playing days in the mighty Waikato. Waikato were initially a no frills team with the best rolling maul in the country. It’s fair to say the backs weren’t quite as capable; they weren’t always to be trusted and as a result saw far less of the ball.
I remember watching the Waikato forwards, playing up the jumper, grinding a helpless Otago pack directly from the kick-off, sixty metres up field before scoring to the right of the posts. Otago prop Steve Hotton, himself a tough old cookie, was said to have been so exhausted following that shellacking, he was taken back to the team accommodation shortly after full-time and put himself straight to bed before the sun had even set.
Waikato’s best player of that era – perhaps of all time – was a quiet and unassuming Morrinsville truck driver by the name of Duane Monkley, whose continual snubbing by the All Black selectors defied belief around the rugby world.
Without sounding overly dramatic, Duane Monkley is still the epitome of Waikato Rugby, representing everything that the union proudly stands for. Not a big man by any metric, Monkley was a one man gang, a human heat seeking missile of mass destruction. He outplayed every flanker he opposed; even the incomparable Michael Jones had to be at his best to match him. Monkley played 135 games for Red, Yellow and Blacks, and was the lifeblood of the province. Just a gutsy bastard.
I remember interviewing Duane once, at my kitchen table of all places as he recalled his working life in the amateur era.
“Between the age of 21 and 26, I drove trucks for Scott Transport, delivering kegs throughout the Thames Valley, King Country, and Waikato. I knew every bar, Fire Station and RSA in the region.”
Tuesday and Thursday were rugby nights, so I knew when I left the yard at 7am in the morning, my Taumarunui run consisted of 506km and about 28 deliveries. If everything went well, I would be back at Hamilton by 5.45pm for training. I was flat out every single day. The Thames Valley run was about 490km, and I would be back by 5.40pm. That was my life.”
“I did a bit of coaching in the professional era and one thing I struggled with is you get cocooned with the same people all week. You don’t really mix with the outside world. That’s what I loved about my truck driving days. People in the pubs were always happy to see me and wanted to have a chat about my rugby. It also gave my life balance”.
Those brief, positive interactions between players like Duane Monkley and everyday provincial people going about their daily business, is exactly what made the NPC so special. The stars were accessible to the public; they worked in your town, they played for your local club.
That connection between player and fan was the reason 20,000 people would flock to Rugby Park, transforming the rickety old ground into a cauldron every Saturday. These days the union, who are also competing against Sky TV, ironically one of NZ Rugby’s main sponsors, would be grateful with a roll up crowd of 5000.
As the NPC was neutered and marginalised, that mystical, unquantifiable provincial pride slowly but surely evaporated. New Zealand Rugby’s strength has always been its people. We have lost our way in the professional era, lost what made our game so special and the envy of other nations. The New Zealand game can be revived. But there is no time to waste.
We need to get back to basics.
To be Continued: