For 70 years, neighbouring Central Otago villages St Bathans and Becks have taken to the rugby field to battle for the Wooden Cup. It’s a modest trophy, but winning it means everything – and this year, victory was especially important. Mike White headed south to the St Bathans Domain for the annual match.
“It’s the winning and the losing of the game this quarter,” chipped in coach Steve Hore. “It’s fucking close. We’re going to use a lot of subs this quarter, but if you’re on the field, your job is to run like fuck, tackle like fuck, fucking go as hard as you can.”
“If we get penalties in front,” Clouston ordered, “we’ll take the bloody thing and make the three points.”
The surrounding Becks players sucked down more water, squinted into the sun, and set about motivating each other.
“Defence is going to win this fucking game… There’s going to be fists flying, fucking full on, fucking great.”
Clouston’s voice was as dry as the hills around him, hoarse from the past hour of lecturing the referee and encouraging his players from the sideline. He looked down the field to the ring of St Bathans players in their gold jerseys and knew they’d be desperate, knew they’d come back at Becks like nothing before. He turned to his team, as they inserted mouthguards and traipsed back to the halfway line.
“I’ll shout all night if you win this fucking game,” Clouston yelled after them. “And I ain’t joking.”
Beattie was a legend around St Bathans, a farmer whose family had been in the area for generations and had a road named after them. He’d been a decent blindside flanker, coach, and organiser of countless Wooden Cup matches, and had recently taken it upon himself to be groundsman. Each year, he’d fill in the rabbit holes, pick the pine cones off the paddock, mow it, clear it, mark it, and straighten the goalposts.
Beattie was winding down from farming, had bought a campervan and a bunch of new fishing gear, and was planning to explore the country. But in July, he came home for lunch one day and collapsed. The funeral was massive. And today’s match was all about honouring him.
His partner, Sue Ingram, had taken over his duties and spent two days cutting the domain’s grass, then six hours hand-raking it. On the touchline, a new trophy in Beattie’s memory sat on the bonnet of a Hilux double-cab. And beside it was the Wooden Cup, a 20cm-high goblet of polished wood that has been played for since 1948.
But the rugby rivalry goes back much further than that. Sometime in the 19th century, a rugby match started between the Irish goldminers of St Bathans, and the Welsh miners in nearby Cambrian Valley. After World War I, the encounter stopped, because so many local men had been killed. But in 1948, the publican at St Bathans’ Vulcan Hotel, Bill Houlston, decided to reinstate the match and got a carpenter on the nearby railway to craft a cup. Despite being named the Vulcan Cup, it’s been known as simply the Wooden Cup for as long as anyone can remember. And because the miners had largely left the area by then, Houlston decided to make the match between St Bathans and its closest neighbour, Becks, 15km down the road, with the dividing line set at Woolshed Creek, which runs through Lauder Station.
As the area’s population has dwindled, it’s often been hard to put out a team of residents, and in some years, “if you had legs you played”, locals reckoned. So the recruitment area is reasonably relaxed nowadays, although the basic rule is that players should have some connection with Becks or St Bathans, whether they’ve lived there, or worked on a farm, or had a relative who turned out for one of the teams. Even still, every year there are muttered accusations of unreasonable ring-ins – though All Blacks like Patearoa’s Andrew Hore, or Anton Oliver, who has a house in Cambrians, have never made the starting lineups.
There are only a few rules. It’s always played on the first Saturday in September. There’s no pushing in the scrums, no lifting in the lineouts, and they play four 20-minute quarters to give players a bit of a breather. And whoever wins, takes the cup back to their home pub – the Vulcan in St Bathans, or the White Horse in Becks – where it sits above the bar till the following year, when each side starts rounding up players.
“There’s no practices,” said St Bathans coach Phil Smith, “it’s just who turns up on the day.”
He carefully watched those filtering into the domain, counting until he knew he’d got a team. “Ah, there’s Seahorse, that’s good. We’d heard he might be off jet-boating, but he’s bloody useful.”
St Bathans’ oldest player was Robbie Calder, who was 46 and had been playing since his family bought Lauder Station 23 years ago. Smith, 50, played himself until a few years ago and had a fearsome reputation.
“The moment he stepped on the paddock, you didn’t want to be in the road because he caused more stitches than anybody else,” one local murmured. “He was like Jekyll and Hyde – he gets on the rugby field and goes nuts.”
In a region where players often move about, Smith was one of many with split loyalties. In 1992, his parents bought a farm near St Bathans, “and I’d only been here a week and my mum got a phone call from Rick Beattie and he goes, ‘Mrs Smith, would your husband be interested in playing rugby?’ And she said, ‘No, but my son would be.’ Rugby practice was seven o’clock on a Friday night at the pub – that was a bit of an eye-opener.”
Smith played for St Bathans for more than a decade, but then married wife Janet, whose father was the Becks manager, and moved to their farm by the Becks pub. He’s still there, farming 5000 sheep and beef, but his sporting heart has always remained with St Bathans, while Janet is a devoted Becks supporter. Things certainly get tense at home around Wooden Cup time.
Smith eyed the arriving Becks players as they grabbed their gear and headed over between the pine trees to change. They looked fresh, sharp and numerous.
Bill Clouston handed out Becks’ maroon jerseys, which bore the name of his silage and heading company, and wound insulating tape around his players’ arms, in memory of Beattie.
“There’ll be a minute’s silence when you get on the paddock,” Clouston, 69, told his players. “And then it’s all go. This is the year we’re taking the cup home. Play to win the bloody thing. We’ve got to go out there and give it everything – bit of mongrel for these guys. No stomping, but don’t go out as if you’re having a bit of a run.”
Coach Steve Hore, who owns an engineering firm in Ōmakau, took over and began detailing their defensive strategy. “Just drop the first guy, get him straight on the ground, and then get ready for the next one and just fucking knock them over. That’s the fucking key to the day, always is.”
The backs and forwards separated for a few warm-up drills across scruffy tussock speckled with sheep shit. By the time they regrouped, many were heaving, a year having passed since they last played. Hore returned to the day’s tactics: attack in groups of three; communicate; don’t overcommit to the rucks; and if you do, keep your hands out of it.
Mid-afternoon sun on their backs, the Becks players warmed to Hore’s plan.
“You’ve just got to fucking get in there, even if you’re a back,” one instructed.
“Make sure you just fucking blow them out at the rucks,” another reinforced. “We’ll have a beer with them afterwards, but there’s no fucking mates at the moment, okay. Let’s get fucking stuck in.”
Becks had won the toss and chosen to play with the wind, and within five minutes had scored, when halfback Tom Hutton nipped in by the posts. Another try followed in the second quarter, before Hutton spied an opening round a ruck and strolled in for his second, to make it 17-0. A dog ran onto the field and evaded the home team’s tacklers with similar ease.
On the sideline, St Bathans supporter Bill Mason kept faith with his team and predicted the wind was worth 20 points. At 81, he remembered the very first Wooden Cup, and hadn’t missed many matches since. “Oh, we’ve had some ferocious games.”
Mason, by all accounts, had been a party to past ferocity, with a reputation as a notorious crash-tackling second five-eighth in his day. “He didn’t take dummies – just, BOOF,” whispered one former teammate. “He was horrendous. When he hit them, they stayed tackled.”
Moments later, Mason was flattened himself, when play swung towards the touchline and a tackler came flying into the spectators. Mason picked himself up, picked a few tufts of grass from his jersey, and was handed a fresh beer. He was still tough.
Finally, St Bathans rustled over for a try. Referee Kieran Parker admitted the conversion “looked a bit scratchy. But both the touchies gave it to me.”
So when Parker blew for half-time, it was 17-7 and spirits had lifted among St Bathans supporters. “The second half is ours… stick it up in the air, get it high… it’s all downhill now… let’s go boys…”
Not long after the restart, a St Bathans player broke down the wing (“come on boys, come on…”); fended three Becks tacklers (“that’s the stuff…”); and plunged over (“you beauty!”). 17-12.
But as the wind fizzled, Becks muscled downfield and mulleted centre Jack Clark dotted down to make it 22-12. “Shit, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Bugger it, eh...” The ref blew for the end of the third quarter. St Bathans fans reached for another beer and assured themselves there was still time to come back. And Bill Clouston marched out to join the Becks players with a promise of beer all night if they could hold on.
As the final quarter got underway, a Becks player limped to the sideline, took off his boots and swapped them for slippers. “How do you get hurt playing a friendly game?” a mate puzzled. “It’s not friendly out there, trust me,” the invalid replied.
Bodies flew into rucks and were biffed out again. There was blood smeared on knees, arms and faces. Efforts to break the defence were desperate, and so were the tackles. “Ball, ball, ball... feet, feet, feet,” came the cries from the sideline. “Stomp on some hands to get it out… Get onside… Get out of there… That was forward – Jesus!”
As everything became more intense, supporters cribbed from the touchline onto the field, urging their players. “Go, go… get him, get him, GET HIM!” It was like Foreskin’s Lament played out on a tawny Central Otago stage. It was ritual, tribal, brutal.
St Bathans came again, but spilled the ball; lost a lineout on their throw; tried to run it from their goal line but were smothered. Even the breeze seemed to conspire against them, swinging to the west and sweeping across the field, and the score remained 22-12.
“Starting to run a bit short of time now,” Phil Smith admitted. “Actually, Becks are playing bloody well – pinching the ball all the time, which is usually our strong point.”
Eventually, as play broke down on the halfway line, Kieran Parker blew fulltime. St Bathans players’ hands dropped to their knees as they gathered their breath. Bill Clouston’s hands shot skyward in triumph.
“Good shit, boys… well done, fellas… fucking, you beauties!”
The Becks players hugged and back-slapped and gathered in a circle and raised three cheers for St Bathans. “And one for the ref... ’RAY… and one for Rick... ’RAY.” St Bathans replied in kind, and then the teams filed past each other for handshakes.
“Good stuff, Jimmy… well done, Gerry… cheers mate… stop gloating, you bastard.”
Before long the Wooden Cup was awash with beer and shared around the Becks players, as they posed for photos.
Tom Hutton was voted Becks’ player of the day, Seahorse (Dave Kenny) was St Bathans’.
Robbie Calder was rewarded for being the oldest player (“He’s got another five years in him, easy”), and Logan Byers got the prize for best tackle of the day (“Jeez, fuck, it was too”).
The new Rick Beattie memorial trophy was awarded to St Bathans stalwart Beaver (Steve Lithgow) for his contribution to organising the game, and a framed St Bathans jersey was presented to Beattie’s partner, Sue Ingram.
“He’ll be up there looking down saying, ‘Why didn’t you buggers win?’” she told the crowd.
The shadows that had edged over the sideline by the match’s end crept towards midfield as the players leant on utes, cradled stubbies and relived the encounter.
“Some guys, this is the only time of the year you’ll see them,” noted Steve Hore. “Wooden Cup and duckshooting. It’s just a bloody good community thing.”
Becks lock/flanker/fullback Willie Clouston lit a cigarette and drained a Double Brown. He runs the family farm in Becks with his dad, Bill Clouston, and this was the 16th consecutive year he’d played in the Wooden Cup. “The body will feel it tomorrow – it’s bloody fierce and physical. We’re all mates that want to go out and beat the shit out of each other and then sit around and have a beer.”
There wouldn’t be too many beers tonight though. Willie’s wife was off to the Pink concert in Dunedin, so he was heading home to look after their kids.
His daughter, Harper, was riding round on her bike. Other kids were playing in the pile of grass that had been raked from the field. A few lads booted wobbly dropkicks between rickety goalposts. The players started to drift away, off to Moose’s woolshed for a shower, up to the Vulcan for a feed.
Phil Smith was gutted but doing his best to be gracious. “They were younger, fitter, faster. But it’s got to go around.” His wife Janet was, however, buoyant. Becks had won the curtain-raiser women’s hockey match 11-8, and now they’d regained the Wooden Cup. “You want a ride up the road, loser,” she yelled, rattling the car keys. Smith winced, realising he was in for weeks of ribbing.
A few orange peels lay scattered around the 22m. A weakening sun picked out the snow that reached halfway down Mt St Bathans. The last utes pulled out, a cold wind chasing the dust from their tyres.
“This was our day,” crowed Clouston. “I had a feeling it was going to be. I’ll have another one please,” he said, sliding his handle across the varnished bartop to Meatloaf.
Try scorers Tom Hutton and Jack Clark were the toast of their table, still wearing the playing jerseys a grateful Clouston had gifted them.
“Yeah, got a couple of meat pies [tries],” laughed Hutton, whose family has a farm in the Ida Valley. It was his first Wooden Cup but he swore he’d be back. “Bloody oath. It was a bloody classic old match, really. Bloody hard case.” Meatloaf drained the last of a bottle of Drambuie into the Wooden Cup, which was already three-quarters full of beer, and the trophy started another round of the bar, everyone taking a drink as it circulated. Eventually it would be placed on the top shelf behind the bar, beside the women’s hockey trophy and underneath the photo of Bob Mee, the White Horse’s first publican.
But tonight it was the centre of celebrations, a small cup that had passed through countless hands, divided families, and unified communities for 70 years.
Bill Clouston leant over the bar to check his tab – true to his word, the drinks were on him. It wasn’t quite eight o’clock and the total had already passed $300. Clouston didn’t care. He didn’t have a care in the world, right then.
“It’s only once a year,” he roared, as the Wooden Cup reached him, he lifted it, drank to his team, and remembered his mate, Rick Beattie.
This article was first published in the November 2018 issue of North & South.