Week 2: The Two Ruggers
Our second week in Hamilton quite literally got off to a quick start, as we had speed testing at the Chiefs facility at 6:00 am Monday morning. Last semester, my Yale teammates had christened me with the nickname, “The Fat Back.” I believed this epitaph to be an indication of my versatile playing style, with both the physicality of a hard-shouldered forward and the quickness of an agile winger. The rest of the team suggests that it has more to do with the extra pounds I gained over Christmas break and my insistence that I can play in the back line despite lacking all necessary physical qualifications. After Phil and I finished completing our 5, 10 and 20 m sprints, I sadly realized that the second interpretation of “The Fat Back” might have more validity.
Over the next few days, George designed a program for us based on our baseline strength, conditioning and speed numbers. Once again, I was surprised how similar our weight-training program was to the work that the Yale trainers have us doing back in New Haven. In addition to an upper- and lower-body day, however, we also spent one day of the week working on speed, agility and power training. This included an introduction to some Olympic lifting exercises. After every exercise I made sure to do my best impression of a Mr. Olympia/Arnold Schwarzenegger pose*, though I was barely lifting more than the bar.
Phil and I decided to immerse ourselves in the local scenery and took a trip to the Hamilton Gardens on Tuesday. This destination is well known among botanists, florists and garden enthusiasts as having some of the most impressive “theme gardens” in the world. A theme garden is a garden that is grown in a particular style that may not be traditional of the region in which it is located. For example, there were gardens inspired by the Japanese, Chinese, British, Italian and American style and each one featured unique architecture that was representative of the time period and location after which it was modeled.
The gardens also provided us with an introduction to New Zealand weather. There is a pithy expression in Auckland: “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” In a single day, the weather might change drastically from cloudless skies to torrential downpour seven or eight times. While we entered the gardens with the sun beating down on our backs, we left completely drenched.
The other highlight of the week was the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Out in the countryside, there are miles and miles (or I suppose kilometers and kilometers) of rolling, green pastures. Underneath these hills are hundreds of caves, many of which were discovered by Maori tribes hundreds of years ago. We signed up to go black water rafting, which admittedly was more like tubing, and we descended into the caves equipped with our flashlight helmets and wet suits. For the next two hours, it felt like we were in an Indiana Jones movie; we crawled, jump and floated through this cave that was illuminated only by our flashlights and the glowworms overhead.
We were told that this trip through the caves would be particularly exciting because it had flooded the day before. As a result, the water would be racing along the floor of the cave and there would be portions of the tour where our faces would be mere inches from the rock ceiling. The tour guides were engaging and extremely knowledgeable about the history of the caves. We learned that there was, in fact, no such thing as a glowworm. They are actually defecating maggots; their by-product is what glows. In addition, we learned about the Maori cultural history concerning the caves and current conservation efforts.
Over the weekend, the Marist Club had their Sponsors Day, which is very similar to the Yale Alumni Weekend. The A-side had a very challenging match, but emerged from the contest victorious. Once again, the B-side showed a lot of heart and skill but unfortunately came up short. As we met current and former players of the club, Phil and I finally began to feel part of the Marist family. Mike Honiss, the head of the club, introduced us to sponsors of the team who spoke with such an enthusiasm and passion for the club though they had not seen the field in decades.
Unlike many teams in America, the local club teams in New Zealand have players as young as 18 and as old as Ralph Bosch, which creates an extremely strong community. It was truly a fascinating experience to watch players come into the locker room for a practice; some would arrive from a long day at school and others showed up in full suits after a hard day at the office. For the players on the team, rugby was an essential part of their identity whether they were working to become a professional player or were getting in their last kicks at the twilight of their career.
Beyond the community at the club, I feel it is also important to mention the ubiquity of rugby in New Zealand culture. Anyone who has been to the country knows that rugby is literally everywhere. It is playing on every television in every restaurant, there is a team flag in every window, and the entire nation comes to a halt to watch an All Blacks test. When we first went to the grocery store, the woman at the checkout counter lit up when we told her we were playing for Hamilton Marist and she was absolutely floored when we mentioned we were training with the Chiefs. More so than any single sport in America, rugby is a major component of the national culture whether you’re from the North or the South Island, from the city or the countryside. It is essential for any player who wants to understand rugby as more than just a game to experience the New Zealand environment.
*For those unfamiliar, see the documentary Pumping Iron
Tales from Arlington Court:
Two Ruggers in the Land of the Kiwis
Week 1: The Fellowship of the Scrum
(I apologize in advance for the unnecessary amount of LOTR references throughout this piece)
We began our adventure to the Southern Hemisphere aboard several planes as we journeyed from New York to Los Angeles to Sydney to Auckland. It became evident as we transitioned from domestic to foreign air travel that international airlines provide a quality of service unfamiliar to our American sensibilities. A huge shout-out to Qantas Airlines for their extremely friendly service- they even gave us words of encouragements as we competed against each other in the in-flight trivia game (let the record show, I edged out Phil 2110 points to a valiant 1965 points).
Upon landing in Auckland, the largest city in New Zealand, we were struck by the number of familiar American restaurants within the airport and surrounding areas. Similar to Americans, the Kiwis love KFC and Dominos just as much as we do. Being the avid travellers that we are, we agreed that our first meal should be something representative of New Zealand that would expose us to the tastes and flavors of the local cuisine. We went to McDonald’s.
As we waited for the bus that would take us from Auckland to Hamilton, we met a young woman who works as a photographer for the Waikato Times in Hamilton. She explained to us the geographic layout of the city from its hopping downtown area on Victoria St. to its sprawling suburbs that are becoming more popular housing options for commuters to Auckland.
Upon our arrival in Hamilton, we met with the coach of the Hamilton Marist Rugby Club B-side, Martin Gaines (who will be henceforth referred to as “Gainsy”). He generously escorted us to our temporary residence and gave us a brief tour of the city. We met one of our hosts, Dave, who warmly welcomed us to our new home. Dave is originally from Auckland and currently serves as the flanker on the Marist A-side. Currently, he is looking to break into the ranks of the Waikato Team, the premier regional rugby club; however, he has also expressed interest in looking at rugby opportunities state-side (don’t worry Greg, I’m already on recruitment).
The following day we had our first training with Hamilton Marist. It was very interesting to note how similar the structure of the YRFC’s practices was to Marist’s routine. Our clubs practice many of the same drills and utilize very similar offensive shapes, sometimes even with the same calls. However, the most striking differences were the physicality of play and the individual game awareness. New Zealand rugby prides itself on a fast and very technical style of play; every player on the field is extremely proficient in passing with both hands (which is rare to see in the US) and there is a strong emphasis on hitting the rucks efficiently in order to maintain speedy ball movement. It was extremely satisfying to reflect on the fact that this style of play is the same style that the coaching staff and senior players of Yale Rugby have worked to instill in our program for the past two years and will be one of the strengths of the club against Ivy League competition.
The weekend was full of exciting New Zealand firsts from a pro rugby game to our trip to the zoo. Saturday morning we met with our trainer, George, who works with a professional rugby team, and our friends, the Chiefs. He worked with us to outline our weight lifting and skills training over the next five weeks and graciously offered us free tickets to that evening’s match against the Rebels from Australia.
After our meeting, we departed for Otorohanga where the Hamilton Marist club was facing off against the local team. As we had only one practice under our belts, we were unfortunately not selected for the B-side squad that day. However, we were able to enjoy a full day of rugby entertainment from the stands, watching the U21, B-side and A-side teams (who won an important victory over Otorohanga). Following the A-side match, the host team treated us to a delicious meal of meat pies, chicken and other delectable dishes at their clubhouse. We were able to interact with some of the senior members of the Marist club and listen to the post-match presentation, which featured many toasts and honors similar to YRFC’s experiences in South America last year.
On the bus ride back to Hamilton, Phil and I had the privilege of gracing the members of the Marist club with some personal stories and jokes from America- needless to say to my rugger readership, general merriment and jolly good times ensued. When we reached Hamilton, we made our way to Waikato Stadium to see the Chiefs-Rebels match. It was an incredible experience to see such an advanced level of rugby and also be a part of the electric crowd that evening. The Chiefs achieved a commanding victory over the Rebels in a dominant display.
As outlined in the timeless rugby song, Sunday was indeed a day of rest. George gave us a tour of the Chiefs facility, which is located in an agricultural research park. He explained that this gives the organization a degree of privacy and also a beautiful environment to train in. The weight-training facilities and physical/human resources of the Chiefs are very impressive; however, the organization prides itself on humility and its dedication to the community. Unlike the headquarters of many American professional sports teams, the Chiefs facility is a humble building, unadorned with excessive decoration or ostentatious monuments. Instead, rooms were relatively plain and fitted only with the necessities of the purpose of the space. The only additions to the rooms were celebrations of the team’s impact on the local community: letters of thanks to players who had made an impact on a child, images of training camps to promote youth rugby, signed jerseys and balls that would later be distributed to loyal fans. Beyond the physical nature of the space, we experienced the community-oriented mindset of the Chiefs in the way that players and members of the organization greeted us warmly as if we were old friends even though they had no idea who we were.
We concluded the day with a trip to the Hamilton Zoo, where we came face to face with giraffes, tigers and chimpanzees, which you will see in the pictures associated with this post. Though we were disappointed that we didn’t see any kiwis, many more opportunities to do so would come. However, those stories and more! will have to wait until the second installment of this blog: The Two Ruggers(again apologies for the deplorable manipulation of LOTR movie titles).