The times are a'changing at the Oamaru Old Boys Rugby Football Club

by Lisa Scott / 30 September, 2017

A congregation on the grass as players gather for a moment of prayer after the game.

It's a case of old boots for new, in Oamaru.

In this North Otago town, where the long, flat, slow main drag is cruised by bogans in matte-black Holden Kingswoods – from the industrial north end to the Victorian precinct fringing the sea – the preponderance of Oamaru stone makes everything very white. Except at Oamaru Old Boys, where every single player is Tongan or Samoan.

With each player two axe-handles wide, the team’s front row must weigh at least 400 kilos. No wonder the tussock jumpers from down the line wince at the thought of tackling one of them; it must be like going up against three refrigerators. When the scrum packs down, mullets meet cornrows and afros, and the opposition pop up like corks.

The new face of Oamaru is reflected in the young brown faces that smile and laugh on the sidelines. No crossed arms and stern faces here; the Spartan helmet on the OB crest is an emblem of affable warriors. At the end of a match, as the last rays of sun paint poplar shadows across the dairy-green grass, heavenly singing breaks out – accompanied by cupped-hand clapping: the islands have come to Oamaru. And how can you beat a team that harmonises?

Players kneel on the cold concrete floor of the changing rooms.

In the past 10 years, Old Boys have won the North Otago club rugby Citizens Shield seven times, and today’s away game against Kurow is another pasting: 61-12. (As the visiting team, the OBs arrived at the after-match function in fancy dress – a North Otago tradition that meant the home town of Richie McCaw played host, surreally, to a Tongan dressed as a banana.)

Such changing times at the club don’t rest easy with everyone.

(Clockwise) The split shift at the local freezing works takes out a lot of players and spectators during this part of the season; club president Tonga Havea tends the post-match barbecue; brothers-in-arms on the field; a visitor poses with a pair of future props, twins Quinn and Taine Tohill.

“It took some teams a while to get used to the idea,” says Barry Meikle, a life member and patron (seven Meikles are listed in the Oamaru Old Boys’ roll of honour, representing several generations).

Meikle often relays the score to the local radio station from the sidelines. But while he just sees winners, for others being walloped by a tumble of Tongans is hard to take in this era of uncertain farm succession, the death knell of old certainties. “Yes, there is a lot of racism,” admits Old Boys captain Ralph Darling. “We just get by. It’s only words at the end of the day.”

A congregation on the grass as players gather for a moment of prayer after the game.

The team has bonded to forge its own community. And with the same line-up for the past six years, it’s been almost unbeatable. The Tongan population in Oamaru is now more than 2000 strong, thanks to jobs at the freezing works and an open, multicultural council. “Our club would have folded years ago if they hadn’t turned up,” says Meikle. “The Kiwi boys just aren’t interested now.”

Maka Lea grins after the win.

After home games, players put on a feed for the visiting team. There’s a mutual struggle to pronounce names and toys are scattered all over the clubroom floor as kids run in and out.

Some old-school traditions remain, straight out of the 1950s: the handshakes and quaintly formal post-match speeches. But these days, the Old Boys wear black lavalavas, white shirts and jandals, ladies are welcome inside and there’s very little drinking.

“It’s all about family,” says Meikle.          

Right: Old Boys captain Ralph Darling, a seventh-generation “Oamaroovian”, whose mother is Samoan. Below right: Barry Meikle, club patron and life member. Meikle men have played for Old Boys since 1941.

This was published in the September 2017 issue of North & South.

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