Saturday, June 22

Lifeblood – the rise, fall & reboot of New Zealand rugby
Prologue part two: the Hopa years

I have always thought that Waikato and Otago share plenty of common traits. Hamilton and Dunedin are similar sized cities, both are the epicentre of strong rural bases, blessed with vibrant universities, and the local rugby teams are sponsored by iconic provincial beer brands.

The rugby parallels don’t end there. Waikato and Otago are unions who have experienced short bouts of intense success, punctuated with decades of heartbreak, misery, and struggle – Otago winning the NPC in in 1991 and 1998, Waikato following suit in 1992, 2006 and 2021. Lacking the depth, resources, and allure of the big three; Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington mean both Otago and Waikato have learnt how to scrap for survival on and off the field.

From the verge of bankruptcy, Otago bounced back in a matter of years, to win the Ranfurly Shield, coincidentally off Waikato in 2018, for the first time since 1949.

Waikato have been relegated twice to the NPC 2nd Division. Despite their demotion they still sensationally beat Auckland for the Ranfurly Shield in 1980.

Both Waikato and Otago have fanatical fan bases. The Mooloo Men had Possum’s blaring chainsaw up in the cherry picker cajoling the masses below with their cowbells, while their Dunedin based counterparts were treated to the gravelly tones of Denis Henderson, decked out in oilskin jacket and hat with steel guitar, belting out the Southern Man anthem to thousands of well lubricated scarifies on the terraces at the Brook.

Otago and Waikato have also produced some of the most iconic players in the history of NPC rugby. David Latta, a veteran of 161 matches in the Doctor Suess striped, blue & gold jersey, known to all and sundry as ‘Crazy’, was an undersized, tireless hooker.

Whenever the Otago scrum was outmuscled by much larger opponents, Latta refused to bow. He knew how to take his mind to dark places, thrashing his body with an indefatigable work rate to counter the set piece domination.

Latta quickly became one of Carisbrook’s favourite sons. A South Otago product, he made the 160km round trip from his hometown of Balclutha to Dunedin for NPC training thousands of times, after spending long days on the tools as a chippie.

He experienced heartbreak regularly in his rugby career, being penalised with time up on the clock, denying Otago a famous Ranfurly Shield victory over neighbours and arch rivals Canterbury.

Latta was also ever present in three of the Otago provinces greatest days – victories over the Springboks and British Lions and the 1991 NPC title.

Crucially Crazy Latta was a leader of men off the field. He was a true kaitiaki, instilling a sense of pride in the cherished Otago jersey that rookies Anton Oliver, John Leslie and Mark Ellis who had moved down to Dunedin to enrol at the University, would adopt under his tutelage.

Latta also knew how to have a good time. His infamous “Two Duckies” KFC plastic mugs filled with homemade bourbon would be passed around after 80 gruelling minutes of provincial rugby. Those were the days when it was common for a keg of Speights to find its way into the Carisbrook changing sheds.

Waikato have had their own ‘Crazy’ Lattas, staunch leaders like John Mitchell and Deon Muir who set the standards for their chargers to follow. One outstanding loose forward, whose time on earth was tragically cut short, could have been one of the great All Blacks, possessing the mana and humility distinctively elevating him above the rest.

Aaron Remana Hopa.

If God wanted to create the ultimate Waikato man, it would have been in the form of Aaron Hopa.

A huge, skilful Māori loose forward who hurt helpless opponents, tackling as if bags of Bowers Bros cement were sewn onto his shoulders, he was a fearsome proposition. A torso full of rugged, unfashionable tattoos were hidden from view under his playing jersey, as were those long flowing locks concealed by the iconic red, yellow, and black headgear.

Born in Hamilton, he spent three years at the unfashionable Fairfield College, located amid a tough suburb, peppered with pockets of state housing and dairies with roller doors.

Hopa was renowned for the intense loyalty he showed everyone in his circle. He lived a no-frills life – there was no silver spoon treatment in his world. A member of the Taupiri Motorcycle club and a rubbish collector by day, he was working class, authentic and intensely proud of his roots.

On the field he was a wrecking ball, not a man to be messed with. After an All Black lock kept obstructing a rookie forward in club rugby, Hopa intervened, calmly warning his opponent to back off. The antagonist chose to ignore the friendly caution and at the next lineout, continued his intimidation. Unfazed, Hopa intervened, leaving the high profile forward lying prone on the soil. Legend has it that Hopa leant down and uttered the immortal words “Don’t Fuck with Taupiri” to the injured party, before calmly rejoining the next phase of play.

His level headed approach to life was the ultimate lesson in humility. I remember Hopa being called in to train with the All Blacks before they played Argentina in Hamilton. The very next day, I drove past him throwing bags of waste into a rubbish truck along Heaphy Terrace in Hillcrest. No ego, no frills, not one to let things go to his head. Back to work.

Hopa was also a genuine individual, who gave anyone the time of day, even while ten deep in Waikato Draught, hours after a Ranfurly Shield game. I had just finished relieving myself against a wall adjacent to the Hamilton Museum car park after midnight one Sunday morning, when Aaron Hopa unexpectedly strolled past, resplendent in his Waikato tie and blazer.

The big man paused momentarily to give me a “Howsit Bro” while tilting his chin to the stars and raising his eyebrows. As a Waikato fan, it was a great memory. Without breaking stride, the big man headed off into the night, crossing Victoria Street in search of his next bar.

In total, Hopa only played thirty-two matches for Waikato scoring ten tries, seven games of Super rugby for the Chiefs and four mid-weekers for the All Blacks. Who knows what he could have become if fate didn’t intervene?

His electric forty metre burst, surging towards the Auckland tryline on Eden Park, remains one of the iconic plays from the Mooloo Mens 31/29 sensational Ranfurly Shield victory. After playing against Canterbury for the first time, two seasoned opponents, Steve Surridge and Todd Blackadder were said to have marvelled at Hopa’s size, skills and physicality.

Waikato held the Ranfurly Shield for a 21 game reign during those Hopa years, a remarkable achievement. With just three notable veterans in the side, captain Ian Foster, Todd Miller at fullback and prop Graham Purivs who had returned from retirement, a feature of the side was the injection of youth. Waikato suddenly possessed an electric backline, exciting players including the likes of Rhys Duggan, Roger Randle, Bruce Reihana, Scott McLeod who changed the way Waikato had traditionally played.

Waikato continued to evolve their style over future years, culminating in their 2006 title with Warren Gatland at the helm repeating the act again under the guidance of Ross Filipo in 2021.

Playing club rugby in the Waikato against the likes of Graham Purvis, Richard Loe, Keith Robinson, Scott McLeod, Rhys Ellison, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Liam Messam or Roger Randle, shaped players and further developed their passion for the province.

The New Zealand game is in great health when the stars are free to play club rugby. Their involvement leaves a marked impression. After training at Morrinsville Sports one evening, while the rest of us trudged back inside for a shower and a beer, I noticed Duane Monkley remaining on the field by himself to pick up the leftover cones and hit pads. One of the biggest names in Waikato rugby staying behind to tidy up. Always doing the right thing, the unglamorous tasks for zero reward, when nobody was watching.

Rugby isn’t about how big or fast you are. It’s about how much you can give of yourself for the betterment of your team. I remember Carl Hoeft telling me how there were plenty of props who were bigger or could lift more in the gym than him. Yet Hoeft is one of just eight New Zealanders to have played over four hundred first-class games. Success requires repeated effort, consistency and selflessness. The All Blacks I have been lucky enough to play club rugby with all possessed those qualities in spades, rubbing off on their amateur teammates.

Understated provincial players like Dave Latta, Aaron Hopa and Duane Monkley inspired the next generation of Waikato and Otago players. They were the bedrock of the clubs and provincial teams they represented. How they lived their daily lives, with integrity and humility, made them leaders who others willingly followed. They remained unflappable through the hard times and the good. The legacy they set is still the blueprint for New Zealand rugby’s future.