League

Hands up for elite sport: the volunteers

Robyn Colman hardly ever says no.

If someone needs a hand, Robyn will be there at the drop of a hat. It’s the way she was raised, in the tiny Queensland town of GinGin, population 1,190. When the good folk of GinGin needed something done, they asked her dad, Herbie, for help.

These days, anyone holding an event in the Waikato knows to give Robyn a call.

The sporty 65-year-old adopted Hamiltonian has put her hand up to help out with the FIFA U20 World Cup, Cricket World Cup, World Masters Games, Child Cancer fundays, Arbour Day planting, Weetbix Triathlons, food vans, children’s parties, AMP shows and – as her application to be a volunteer at the forthcoming Rugby League World Cup states: “etc”.

Colman might just be New Zealand’s greatest volunteer.

“I just thoroughly enjoy doing volunteer work,” she says.

“My husband died 12 years ago. I think you get to a stage of ‘what are you going to do?'

"I work two days a week as a visitor host at the museum in Hamilton. And so what do you do for the rest of the time? I do run, do quite a lot of sport and that. But how can you just sit at home?”

"Rugby league definitely runs in my blood."

Blase Dowall

Volunteers like Colman are the grease on the cogs that ensure events run smoothly. Those people checking passes, showing people to their seats, handing out sunscreen, driving VIPs to their hotels, and making sure teams get on the right buses – most of them will be unpaid volunteers.

They might be in plain sight, but they’re very much an unseen army, with the ranks filled by people from all walks of life.

At Rugby League World Cup 2017, 172 Kiwi volunteers are sweeping into action at the seven games hosted in Auckland, Hamilton, Christchurch and Wellington. Their occupations range from supermarket checkout supervisors to policemen, retirees, students and teachers.

Some will be hard core rugby league lifers, keen to get amongst the action in some small way themselves. Others wouldn’t know a footy ball from a tennis racquet, but simply like being part of something.

The volunteering urge doesn’t discriminate.

An associate principal at Hillview Christian School, Blase Dowall will assist with team operations for the match between the Kiwis and Scotland on November 4 at Christchurch Stadium, and during the quarterfinal at the same venue on November 18.

“Rugby league definitely runs in my blood,” he says.

But it is through his pioneering efforts in the little-known sport of fistball - a game similar to volleyball but played on a bigger court outdoors - that Dowall learned the value of volunteers.

“I love sport. I played basketball for the Canterbury Rams for a couple of seasons. That was the pinnacle of what I achieved. I used to play a bit of Canterbury league, underage rep stuff as well. But every guy’s dream is to represent their country.”

While watching Kiwis win gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, he realised that that dream had probably passed him by.

“But being a bit stubborn I went on the internet and looked up a bunch of sports that New Zealand had no association with. I stumbled across these Aussies who were just Average Joes who established the Australian Fistball Federation. Next thing you know they were off to Argentina representing their country.

“I thought ‘we could do that too’.”

So he did. Dowall established the New Zealand Fistball Association, installing himself as president. At the time, he didn’t quite realise what he got himself in for.

“I learned how massive an undertaking it is to run a sport, to get people involved, work with media, fundraise, the whole thing. It gave me an appreciation that these things don’t just happen. There are people behind the scenes driving things.

“It helped me understand the value of volunteers. You normally just see the guys running out on the field and you support them. People don’t see that there is a big machine behind it making it work.”

While Dowall will toil in the background, welcoming and wayfinding assistant Gareth Hunter will greet people at Christchurch Stadium, helping them negotiate their way around the venue.

The 21-year-old commerce student volunteers at major sports events because he ultimately wants to have a career working in the industry – and he prefers being part of things than looking on from the outside.

“It’s been a dream of mine for 10 years to bring the Commonwealth Games to Christchurch."

Gareth Hunter

“There is this atmosphere you get every time a major event happens,” the veteran of the cricket and Fifa U20 world cups says.

“You get this certain buzz I don’t think anything else can give you.”

His experience working as a supermarket checkout supervisor comes in handy when dealing with fans at sports venues. The intersection with humanity is broadly the same.

Hunter also has big goals.

“It’s been a dream of mine for 10 years to bring the Commonwealth Games to Christchurch. Naturally I think you want to make things better, and with the earthquakes and everything…”

Hamilton City Tigers player and committee member Terry Kopua has landed one of the more sought-after roles in event volunteering: a VIP assistant.

"If you preach a lifestyle of Māoritanga, being warm and welcoming ... I thought I’d put my hand up to see if I could help.”

Terry Kopua

The husband of former Silver Ferns captain Casey Kopua, Terry is pretty comfortable hanging out with sporting celebrities.

“I’ve had the opportunity to be on the other side of that with my wife with her sporting background,” says Kopua.

“It’s something I’ve seen and been involved in before so I think I can do that job well.

“Casey loves rugby league as well, so she is more than willing to help out too.”

Kopua’s major motivation for volunteering was to live up to the values of Māoritanga.

“Being of Māori heritage and believing in the strong values within Māori culture I kind of thought ‘you’ve kind of got to live by the sword’. If you preach a lifestyle of Māoritanga, being warm and welcoming and trying to look after people that come here, I thought I’d put my hand up to see if I could help.”

Volunteers celebrate at the conclusion of the 2011 Rugby World Cup hosted by New Zealand. Photo: Getty Images

Rebecca Beals, a 41-year-old environmental manager, started out volunteering for the cancer society in Marlborough. As a Wellington City ambassador, she’s spent the last six seasons welcoming people coming off cruise ships and giving them advice about how best to experience the city.

She was a fan services team leader at the Cricket World Cup and will again be wrangling spectators at Rugby League World Cup.

She has no particular affiliation with the game – it’s the pleasure derived from meeting a diverse range of people that draws her to volunteering.

“Some people are retired, some people have full-on day jobs, some are stay-at-home mums. It’s great,” she says. “You’ve got a common denominator when talking to them but it might actually be just for that moment.”

A passion for their city is the one key trait major events volunteers share.

“I love showcasing Auckland,” says sports junkie Carina Rozjin.

The 63-year-old discovered her passion for volunteering as a host at Eden Park during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

“Volunteering is in my blood. It’s me all over.”

Carina Rozjin

The veteran of Auckland’s professional tennis opens, two Volvo Ocean races, the V8 supercars and NRL Auckland Nines is currently recovering from a hip operation, but can’t wait to get back on her feet for the Rugby League World Cup, when she’ll give up her time to work as an accreditation assistant.

“Every event is a highlight for me,” she says. She started volunteering primarily to get out and meet new people.

“Volunteering is in my blood. It’s me all over.”

Vikki Thomson has spent 20 years coaching or managing at the Ellerslie Eagles rugby league club.

“League has always been by number one sport,” she says. She followed a boyfriend into the game, but her interest now centres on her 12-year-old son.

She’ll work in the tournament’s accreditation department thanks in part to the generosity of her employer ANZ bank, which gives its staff a day off each year to conduct volunteer work.

“My boss is even nicer and I can wangle that up to a week or so,” says Thomson.

As for super-volunteer Robyn Colman, there was one time Colman did actually say no – when she was asked to help out at the opening of Hamilton’s shiny new Avantidrome by Prince William and Kate Middleton.

“I said, ‘look I’m not really a royalist so ‘no’.”

The organisers kept asking. Colman relented and ended up patrolling the locked down venue to prevent people taking photographs. It turned out to be pretty good fun, she recalls.

* Steve Deane is a venue media manager at Rugby League World Cup 2017

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