Year of the Swamp Fox

In 2018, the ordinary men of Thames Valley rugby became local legends. Steve Hale was there to witness the transformation.

Try supporting a team that loses year after year, forever pipped at the post. That tiny flicker of expectation, of misguided hope that “this season will be different” is the rusty scalpel that slashes you marrow deep.

When the TAB and even the little man in your head tell you not to bother, but you still head out into bone chilling winds and driving rain because “this is the day your team will finally rise up” you do begin to contemplate what a martyr for punishment you’ve become. Reality is brutal.

Hi, my name is Steve Hale and I am a Thames Valley supporter.

There I have said it.

My indoctrination began on the second of September 1986. It was my mother’s fault, quite ironic, really, because she has always hated rugby with a passion. Doesn’t even pretend to like it.

Mum wrote the note giving me permission to leave Stanley Avenue School at midday and drove me to Rhodes Park in Thames to watch the touring Wallabies play Thames Valley.

Although my father worked for the Hauraki Catchment and his social club had a bus going to the game, it was clearly no place for an impressionable 12-year-old lad.

I was beside myself with grief, utterly disconsolate over my exclusion. I guess the trade-off was that Mum would chauffeur me to the match instead.

It felt like the entire population of Coromandel were there that day, decked out in Swanndri checks or matching yellow Skellerup apparel. The game itself was brutal. Bad blood had been brewing since Wallabies coach Alan Jones abruptly removed his team from the Brian Boru Hotel in Thames’ main street the previous evening.

Apparently, the facilities weren’t adequate for international sportsmen.

In hindsight, the Wallabies would have been better to suck it up and embrace those creaky bed frames and lumpy mattresses. It turned out the controversy had whipped the home team forwards into a piranha-like frenzy. To be fair, certain individuals like those Silvester brothers in the Valley front row were volatile enough, and certainly didn’t require any additional encouragement.

While the Wallabies won the war that day (31-7 according to the scoreboard) they lost numerous ugly battles. There were more skirmishes during those 80 minutes than a Saturday night in Gore after an AC/DC tribute band had played alongside a V8 burnout comp in a hotel carpark. Body parts of Wallaby winger Peter Griggs still remain in the pungent Rhodes Park turf. I went home deliriously excited, one very happy little Swamp Fox.

A year later, I saw the Valley thrash the pants off a star-studded Counties line-up to the tune of 25-7, to this day the biggest winning margin by a 3rd Division union over a 1st Division team.

“Usually when we played against 1st Division sides, subconsciously a little part of you thought about keeping the score down, but you would never admit it,” former Valley captain and number eight Butch Campbell says.

“But not that day. We gathered in the Council Chambers in Ngatea before the game and the mood in the team was just different. It was electric.”

The 1988 Swamp Foxes won the 3rd Division undefeated, barely breaking sweat. With a forward pack bigger than that year’s All Blacks, they scored 242 points, conceding a paltry 42. Campbell’s 12 championship tries that season were the most by any forward in provincial rugby.

Thames Valley had finally won a national provincial championship. They repeated the act again in 1990. And again in 1995. Incredibly, we stayed up in the NPC 2nd Division until 2004.

If the period between 1988 and 2004 could be termed the “glory days”, then let’s refer to the last 14 as the “highway to hell”.

Since the inception of the Heartland Championship, Thames Valley have only played four Lochore Cup semi-finals, losing each one. They had never made a Meads Cup playoff until this season. Since 2006 they have placed 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 10th, 7th, 11th, 8th, 9th, 9th, 11th and 9th.

Last year was the worst. Halfway through the competition (just before it turned to custard), we genuinely looked like Meads Cup contenders. Three heartbreaking losses to end the season saw Valley adopt their customary position.

Now, in the week following the remarkable claiming of the Meads Cup with an unbelievable performance against raging hot favourites South Canterbury, I’m still asking why and how?

After losing the first game at home to West Coast, with veteran Tairua fullback Lance Easton making an uncomfortable propping debut and two loose forwards filling in at lock, I was fully expecting to endure another unbearable season.

Head coach Matt Bartleet, his assistants Joe Murray and David Harrison (all three former Swamp Fox representatives) didn’t share my pessimism. They just rolled up their collective sleeves and went to work fabricating a side that played with tremendous spirit and self-belief.

By playing five loose forwards in the pack and selecting dangerous threats out wide, Valley became a potent attacking force. But it was the punishing defence in the last two playoff games that marked this Valley side as unique. Triple-peat Meads Cup champions Whanganui, playing on their usually indomitable Cooks Gardens fortress, couldn’t impose themselves for the entire 80 minutes, so relentless was the Valley defensive zeal.

To put the magnitude of the victory into perspective, the last time Thames Valley beat Whanganui was way back in 1988.

The 17-12 victory in the Meads Cup final was without question the most amazing game of rugby I have ever seen. I felt numb afterwards. Nothing will ever top that for me. I didn’t pop open a single beer that night. There was no need. I had already arrived at Cloud Nine.

Down 12-3 and living on scraps, the Valley seemed comfortable to tackle until the opposition finally relented. That takes some serious ticker.

When Easton and the burly Chilean Sergio De La Fuenhue were injected late in the half to replace the heroic starting props - 130kg Te Huia Kutia and the 150kg Sitiveni Tupou - the Valley pack simply didn’t miss a beat. The Swamp Foxes tore the bigger South Canterbury eight a brand-new one. Such was their dominance that Brett Ranga elected to pack another scrum just to run down the clock upon being awarded a penalty by referee Jamie Nutbrown. It was Boys Own annual stuff.

Half of the side boarded their flight home the next morning still wearing their grand final playing gear, with fresh rolls of strapping tape supporting various afflictions.

The beer is still flowing from Te Aroha, across the Haruaki Plains, over the windy Kopu-Hikuai and right up to Port Jackson. This tale will take some beating.

2018 -  The year of the Swamp Fox. A team full of ordinary blokes. A team full of legends.

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