Shield of dreams: The rugby hopes of young men

by Mike White / 18 January, 2017

Every year, on the first Tuesday of March, four Wellington colleges compete in athletics for the McEvedy Shield. It’s the most important sports date on their calendar. It’s also one of the most spirited and special sporting events anywhere in New Zealand. Mike White witnessed the 94th McEvedy Shield and tells the story of battles, brotherhood, teen dreams – and a day in the lives of these young men.

“Okay boys, quieten down. Take your bags off,” says Leigh Lidstone, head of phys ed and athletics coach at Wellington’s St Patrick’s College.

“Stand up and tuck yourselves in,” he continues, weary at endless entreaties about neatness. Lidstone’s own shirt is hardly a model, half stuffed into his shorts, but the 60 kids in the classroom slowly obey and oblige him. They’re the St Pat’s track and field team, the kids who’ve made it through eliminations to be in the top two in their age and event for the school.

They’re a fidgeting mix of dweebs and heavyweights, all hair product and Roman sandals, and suffused insecurities. Tomorrow, they’ll join boys from brother school St Pat’s Silverstream, Rongotai College and Wellington College in front of 4000 spectators to compete for the McEvedy Shield, a rivalry that’s run for nearly a century and has evolved into an extraordinary pageant of youthful machismo and school pride.

“To win a McEvedy, guys,” begins Lidstone in earnest, “all the stars in the universe have to be lined up – it’s that hard. To win a McEvedy, you have to perform to the best you can be – it has to be a personal best tomorrow.

“Guys, I will feel it, I’ll know if we’re going to win it. I’ll know it if I see someone dying to get up from fifth to a fourth. I laugh sometimes when people say, ‘Oh, I was unlucky.’ Well, guys, top sportspeople make their own luck. And last year we let ourselves down.”

Last year, St Pat’s were gunning for an extraordinary fourth title in a row. They had the strength, on paper, and were coming off a record-winning margin in 2014. But things went askew in the lead-up: one star broke his leg playing sevens, another gashed his foot the weekend before McEvedy. In the end, Lidstone had five former champs sitting injured in the stands. Things went wrong on the day, too. Boys had peaked too early, some dropped their head after a couple of duff throws or jumps, and they lost to Wellington College by just 11 points.

“We let it get away from us, to be honest with you,” remembers Lidstone. “No question about it. And that’s the sad thing, because we knew we had a real chance. But maybe it was a case of Wellington College wanting it more.”

Lidstone knows all about wanting to win the McEvedy. St Pat’s had won the shield the year Lidstone joined the school in 1998. For the next 10 years, with Lidstone in charge, they didn’t win it again. That was a hell of a drought for the school and a hell of a time for Lidstone. People began murmuring, then they started speaking out, and a few fronted Lidstone, suggesting he wasn’t up to the job. In the end, Lidstone offered his resignation to the school’s rector (principal).

It wasn’t anything to do with commitment or effort – he was out there during lunchtimes, after school and at weekends with the athletes, driving them on and up and further. “I can remember my daughter ringing up one Saturday morning saying, ‘Dad, you said you were only going to be two hours,’ and I’d been down at the track from nine to 12.30, with the babysitter at home.”

The rector didn’t accept his resignation and Lidstone changed his approach – called in others to help and to spread the coaching load. In 2008, St Pat’s finally won back the shield.

“When you lose, you walk round the track pretty lonely and empty. I can remember in 2008 walking round that track and I was feeling pretty empty – but it was a different sort of empty, just drained, holy heck, but it was an amazing feeling.”

Since then, Lidstone and St Pat’s won the shield four more times. The loss in 2015 hurt everyone, and this year they dubbed their campaign “The Resurrection”.

But Lidstone admits they are up against it. They are weak in the junior grades, particularly the middle distance events, and are going in as underdogs to Wellington College. “We know that. But we’ve still got the belief, there’s no question about it. If everything goes our way and everyone does their best, collectively it will come together for us.”

At 55, Lidstone hasn’t got an illustrious athletics career to draw on, though his mother was a New Zealand 60-yards sprint champ. “My brothers were fast, my sons are fast, but you could beat me.” He reckons the fast-twitch genes triple-jumped him.

He’s got four children, including six- and eight-year-old boys, and a full roster at school, yet for two months before McEvedy he’s squeezed in five extra training sessions a week. “Why do I do it? The philosophy is that if you can help a young guy to do their best, it’s a highlight. I don’t want to be on a New Zealand coaching panel, I want to do my best for my college and these young guys that come to St Pat’s. To be honest, if our team captain holds up that shield, that would be an incredible highlight for me.”

Siosaia Paese

That team captain is Siosaia Paese, a top rugby player who is also a talented sprinter and jumper. As the St Pat’s athletes prepare to go to a final assembly where they’ll be hailed by the rest of the school and perform a charged haka from the stage, Paese rises and congratulates them all for making the team.

“Be pumped, be excited about it. But just remember – be humble. Gracious if we lose, humble in victory tomorrow. Just keep that in mind. Say your prayers before you go to bed.”

Winning the McEvedy Shield is a sporting pinnacle for any of the colleges but perhaps has more significance for St Pat’s. Patrick McEvedy, a prominent doctor and St Pat’s old boy, donated the shield in 1922. McEvedy had played for the British Lions rugby team, been chairman of New Zealand’s Rugby Union and Boxing Council and sought to encourage sport and sportsmanship among college students.

“If McEvedy came back and looked at where it is now, he’d be amazed at what it’s turned into,” says Lidstone. “It’s really important to our school, and his name’s mentioned all the time at assembly and what his values mean to us.”

What the shield has become is the largest annual athletics event in New Zealand, five hours of relentless competition, cheered and chanted from the stands and embankments of Newtown Park by each school’s pupils, staff and old boys. It’s manic and raucous; chaos cordoned by watchful teachers and repeated reminders of the need for decorum.

But it’s bigger than just the day or the race – it’s a platform for school rivalry, an arena of teenage tribalism. And sometimes, things spill over. There have been graffiti attacks, food fights, damage to buses, exuberant public haka, chants that slid beyond decency. Wellington College has sometimes banned its students from attending, due to their behaviour. This year, there was a major spray-painting attack on Wellington College a week before the event, with whoever did it signing off “SPC” – St Pat’s College. Then someone tagged St Pat’s in reprisal, leaving their own mark, “WC”.

In an effort to calm things, each school’s principals and head students visited the other colleges and pledged to act responsibly. But beyond the assemblies and solemn undertakings, kids seethed and tensions grew. On social media, bravado and bullshit flew. It had become more than a game. As one Wellington College pupil wrote, “This means war.”

A Wellington College pupil drums in support of his team.

War began punctually at 9.30am with the under-14 boys 3000m. True to Lidstone’s predictions, Wellington College filled three of the first four spots, diminutive winner Felix Williamson able to grin and raise his arm as he skipped to the finishing line. But St Pat’s hit back in the field events, Zion Trigger-Faitele smashing the McEvedy under-14 shot put record in beating second place by four metres, then following that with victory in the discus. After the first round of events, St Pat’s had nudged to a narrow lead.

But the fiercest battles, and the ones that make McEvedy unique, were taking place off the track, with nearly all the four colleges’ pupils having converged on the park. St Pat’s boys had arrived first in a wave of blue blazers, the “Dooley boys” hanging their banners on the perimeter fence and taking up position on the bank beside the grandstand. Rongotai students filled half the stand and St Pat’s Silverstream boys bussed in and settled on the bank. And then came Wellington College – “Coll’”, “Dub-Cee”, the boys school of choice for the capital, the one that if you’re in its zone, your borer-kissed bungalow goes up by $100k.

As per tradition, they’d marched the 4km from school en masse, a black “WC Hoorah!” banner at the front, boys making “W” signs with their fingers. The chanting was shrill and constant. “If I should die before I get old,” yelled the leader, the refrain echoed by the 1000-strong contingent, “wrap me up in black and gold.” It was all done to the cadence of Marines on drill, the lyrics adapted, but the energy overwhelming. “I don’t need no teenage queen, just my boots and a field that’s green.”

Teachers and police cars kept them in reasonable order, but they overwhelmed the suburbs they passed through, they overwhelmed the park as they entered, they overwhelmed the grandstand as they filled its eastern end, all grey shorts and shirts and die-for-my-school spirit. “See this emblem on my chest,” they chorused, “everybody knows Dub-Cee’s the best.”

They swayed in unison, there were choreographed moves as the sprints started, there was a dose of Dooley-bashing, and a curious and fevered homage to SpongeBob SquarePants. Beside them, Rongotai answered the challenge. “Who stole our chants? Coll’ stole our chants.”

The intensity of the St Pat’s boys lifted and they whipped their ties in the air, crying, “We’re from St Pat’s, mighty, mighty St Pat’s… we bleed blue,” taunting opponents to “get down and boogie with the blue and white Dooleys”.

The chants had been practised for weeks at lunchtime meetings, and now the boys barely paused. It was a pulsing cacophony. It boomed past the surrounding pohutukawa and pine trees, it drowned out the late-summer cicadas, it spread over Wellington’s southern suburbs like a squall sulking along the horizon. It was mad and magnificent.

“They mightn’t remember their maths lessons, but they’ll remember this,” bellowed St Pat’s rector Neal Swindells in the din. “And it’s got this whole traditional Wellington history, where all the 40-year-old accountants are having coffee arguing about who should win, because they’re all old boys of one school or another.”

By lunchtime, Wellington College had taken the lead from St Pat’s.

When the St Pat’s team met that morning, Lidstone had predicted this would happen, that they’d have to chase down Wellington College in the afternoon, claw back points in the 400m and hurdles races.

Father Matt Crawford had read from St Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith…” He’d then led a prayer and, heads bowed, the boys intoned, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee…”

Lidstone reiterated they’d win by accumulating thirds and fourths, by everyone snatching every point available. Even as those points slipped away and Wellington College pulled ahead, Lidstone remained positive. “You’ve got to absorb it. What we’ve got, I’m delighted with. It’s not easy to win.”

His Wellington College counterpart, Chris Wells, paced the track’s edge anxiously, one eye on a thrilling four-way finish in the senior boys 3000m, the other on his charge in the discus.

“Oh, it’s five hours of nerves, but it’s five hours of excitement. It’s a great event – best event in the country.”

His principal, Roger Moses, sidled over to check on progress. It was Moses’ 21st McEvedy and he still loved the intensity of competition. “Look, it’s the best and worst of a boys’ school. It’s fantastic – the enthusiasm is brilliant. But sometimes the shenanigans leading up to it test you. It’s more than an athletics event, it’s a celebration of school pride.”

And really, did it matter who won?

Moses paused for a moment. “Oh yes. Of course it matters,” he said, bursting into the brilliant laughter of a man who knew his school was well in the lead.

Wellington College athletes celebrate with their team captain, Liam Webb, and the McEvedy Shield.

Hurdles. It has to be the cruellest event. Ironically, the McEvedy Shield itself features three hurdlers at its heart, frozen mid-leap, graceful in silver. But there’s a mere millimetre between effortless floating and ungainly catastrophe. And it all happened in the home straight, in front of the baying grandstand.

At the blast of the starter’s gun, the under-14 boys raced from their blocks, roared along by the crowd. The Wellington College lad in lane one cleared from the field, cleared the penultimate hurdle – then catapulted into the final obstacle. The rest of the runners swept past him, his dreams of being a champion, just metres ahead, having vanished with a single misstep.

Every kid who comes to McEvedy has dreams. Why not? What’s sport without being able to glimpse glory, however improbable?

For St Pat’s sprinter Yasheek Rosario, it wasn’t improbable. One of the country’s fastest college athletes, he’d been run down in the last metres of the 200m, banging his fist into the track as he collapsed over the line – but still came into the 100m as favourite. A split-second before the starter’s gun fired, Rosario bolted. He immediately knew what he’d done, knew there were no second chances and he’d be disqualified, and tore off his singlet in agonised frustration. Inconsolable, he pushed aside teammates who sought to comfort him and had to be led outside the stadium to settle. Nobody had anything but sympathy for him – these things mean everything.

When the race restarted, St Pat’s captain Paese gave consolation to Rosario’s distress, winning by six-100ths of a second.

But it was never going to be enough. As the afternoon continued, Wellington College went further and further into the lead. At first 30 points, then 40, then 60. “Look at the scoreboard,” clap-clap, clap-clap clap, “Look at the scoreboard,” their supporters chanted from the stand.

In the day’s final event, Paese anchored St Pat’s senior 4x100m relay team to victory and, as had been the case throughout competition, immediately turned to congratulate the other finishers. That cross-college spirit had been distilled in the under-15 hurdles when a Rongotai runner tripped on the third-to-last hurdle. He got up, clambered over it and the remaining two hurdles, and finished 30 seconds after the winner. But waiting for him, to shake his hand and commiserate, were all the other runners.

That’s the McEvedy. A day of hugs and heartbreak and heroes. 

St Pat’s Joshua Nairne wins the open 400m, a St Pat’s runner collapses over the line after crashing out of the hurdles. Wellington College pupils react as one of their hurdlers fall.

And history. That modest oak shield has been clasped in countless sweaty teenage hands over nearly a century. Wellington College captain Liam Webb was the latest to hoist it in victory, raising it with his left wrist still in plaster from a hurdles calamity a month before.

His teammates piled on top of him, his school mates in the stand hoorahed in jubilation, and everyone grabbed selfies.

Then the haka, each team challenging the others and then turning to their supporters who responded likewise. As a finale, it eclipsed “rousing” – it was emotional and immense. The athletes mingled, the stand emptied, volunteers swept up rubbish, and a few boys hung round the caterer’s van hoping for leftovers.

Paese shrugged off any regret. “Nah, I’m proud. As long as the boys did their best, that’s pretty much what we ask. Hard out. Yeah, I’m proud.”

There was rugby to focus on now, with first XV trials on Thursday.

Leigh Lidstone.

Leigh Lidstone denied disappointment, too. “No, no, not at all. We gave it everything but they just had too much depth, too much talent in certain areas and we couldn’t do it.”

He glanced at the points board and did a quick, uncomfortable calculation of the gap. “Two-twenty, what’s that – sixty – yeah, that’s too much to make up. Deserved winners, to be honest.”

Lidstone left the stadium, a pair of fluorescent track shoes in one hand, the other on Paese’s shoulder. He’d have loved to have won, of course. But more important was how the boys, these “young Marist guys”, handled themselves whatever happened. After everything in the lead-up, the tagging and slagging, he felt they had a lot to make up to the community.

He’d have been proud of the short-stuff who left the park just after him, a St Pat’s boy with shirt tucked in, greeting every Wellington College student he encountered with, “Congratulations, congratulations on your winnings.”

Some of these boys will end up in high places, some will end up in courts, others may die young in tragedies. Some will flare for brief moments, others will spend lifetimes in suburban anonymity. But for one day, this was something special and good they were involved in and shared.

The last boys meandered out, a mix of the delirious and disconsolate. For the first time since early morning, you could hear the cicadas.       

 


Jock Ryder, 82, who competed in the 1950 McEvedy high jump, with 2016 high jump winner Isaac Miller-Jose.

McEvedy Stats

The McEvedy Shield has been battled for since 1922, by a range of Wellington colleges, but for the past 35 years has been contested by:

St Patrick’s College- Also known as “Town”, with a roll of just over 800, and the oldest Catholic boys’ school in New Zealand. Students are nicknamed Dooleys in a nod to its Irish-Catholic origins.

St Patrick’s Silverstream Town’s brother school in Upper Hutt, with a roll of 720.

Rongotai College - A state school in south Wellington, with a roll of 650.

Wellington College  Located near the Basin Reserve, dating back to 1867, and with a roll of around 1600.

Other schools have sought to join the annual competition, including Scots College, a private school which opted out after 1980, whose pupils again this year petitioned to take part.

Each school enters two athletes in each event (three for the 3000m). There are four grades – U14, U15, U16 and open. The winner gains four points, second place gets three, third gets two and fourth place gets one point. There are no heats – every race is the final.

Wellington College has won the shield 50 times, St Pat’s Town 20, St Pat’s Silverstream 14 and Rongotai seven.


 

This article first appeared in the May 2016 issue of North & South.
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