Loose forward Jack Richardson was a close friend of Robert Tuari and was overcome with emotions after his team won the Lochore Cup. Photo / Neil Reid
After the tragic death of a local rugby identity shortly before kickoff in a curtain-raiser for the Lochore Cup final, this was a game Ngāti Porou East Coast were never going to lose. Neil Reid
was at the emotion-charged Ruatoria day.
Robert Tuari had just run onto Ruatoria’s Whakarua Park on Sunday when he collapsed.
Within seconds, teammates from the Ruatoria City Centennial XV and opposing players from Ruatoria City’s 2022 team came rushing to their stricken mate’s aid.
Tuari was among a host of current and former players with either Ruatoria City or East Coast links lining up in the festival match, which was one of the main events of the club’s three-day 100th birthday celebrations.
When the Ngāti Porou East Coast provincial team secured a home Heartland Championship final, hosting Mid Canterbury for the Lochore Cup, the match was upgraded in status even further and became the final’s curtain-raiser.
Tuari, aged 54 and remembered over the past few days as a “legend of East Coast rugby”, had joked prior to the game that he wanted to score a try.
The Tokomaru Bay-based fencer’s beaming smile was on show from the time he donned his playing gear for the day, and then after the team had warmed up for the match.
In the final team huddle before the side ran onto Whakarua Park just after 10am in hot conditions, one of his teammates told the gathering that the next 80 minutes was all about having fun.
The result didn’t matter, he said, but stressed what did was that everybody on both sides got through unscathed.
Tragically, that pre-match wish couldn’t protect Tuari.
Given the centenary of Ruatoria City – one of the country’s smallest clubs – and the fact the area’s provincial team also had a home final, the weekend was always going to be emotional.
But as medics tried to bring Tuari back to life, a handbrake was slammed on the upbeat emotions from earlier in the weekend.
Hard, hard rugby men started crying around Whakarua Park; men who would give no quarter on the rugby field. Some didn’t want to know the identity of just who was down as they didn’t want to feel “broken” on what was supposed to be a special day.
Family members of all players involved in the curtain-raiser – including some on a flatbed truck parked near one of the ground’s corners – embraced and wished for the best.
The local rescue helicopter was dispatched from Gisborne and being prepped en route to rush him back to Gisborne Hospital.
Members of both teams formed a circle around the stricken player as the chopper flew in, while a marquee had also been carried onto the field to keep the sun off both Tuari and those desperately trying to revive him.
Towards the end of the agonising period when every effort was being made to save Tuari’s life, the Ngāti Porou East Coast side started arriving at Whakarua Park ahead of the 1pm Lochore Cup kickoff.
One of the first sights they witnessed was the Gisborne-based rescue helicopter parked near a set of goalposts with its rotor blades moving and two ambulances nearby.
Among the squad was flanker Jack Richardson; one of the nicest men to have proudly donned both the Ruatoria City and Ngāti Porou East Coast jerseys.
Richardson knew not just of Tuari’s legendary rugby status on the East Coast but was also a close mate; including staying with him at Tokomaru Bay when learning the art of farm fencing.
“Me and Rob Tuari, we lived together for two years. I was really close to him… he taught me how to fence,” Richardson told the Herald on Sunday.
“When I saw him down on the ground, it was f****** really hard, eh. The emotions were running.”
As the helicopter’s engine continued to roar, many in the ground retained hope that Tuari could be saved.
But when the chopper pilot later turned off the machine, that hope faded.
Then tragically, at 11.58am, an announcement was made over the Whakarua Park PA system that the player had been pronounced dead on the field.
“It was huge [when we found out],” Richardson said.
The earlier emotions of excitement ahead of the Cup final turned to sadness. It was like the initial happiness that engulfed viewing areas around Whakarua Park had been sucked into a vacuum.
Players, still circled around their mate and “brother”, said their final farewells to Tuari as his body was respectfully taken from the field.
As a karakia was performed near where Tuari collapsed, tears flowed amongst fans who had arrived at the rural ground in cars, utes, and even on horseback.
Inside the Ngāti Porou East Coast camp, a steely resolve was adopted to try and do their best to put the tragic events aside until after fulltime.
“Even though it was so sad, we had a job to do,” Richardson said.
“And our job was to get the Cup and finish it off for our iwi… and I know that is how Rob would have wanted us to do it.
“The way we prepared mentally [in the week leading up to the final] helped me with that tragedy on the field.”
That had included coach and former All Black Hosea Gear working on how to block out any outside influence pre-match; but clearly, the scenarios Gear had worked on didn’t involve the death of someone near and dear to the players right in front of them on matchday.
Richardson’s own lead-up had been fraught.
Even on the eve of the final, he was an uncertain selection, with his place in the matchday 23 up in the air after he suffered a serious knee injury in the previous weekend’s titanic 37-30 semifinal win over Horowhenua Kapiti.
“I had been worried I might not be able to play,” he said.
“I’ve been doing as best as I can with recovery. I had a week off work just to heal it and do exactly what our physio has told me to do.
“I just wanted to do everything that I could to get on the paddock.”
At 1pm, just over an hour after Tuari was pronounced dead, the Ngāti Porou East Coast and Mid Canterbury teams ran onto Whakarua Park.
The ground is the spiritual home of East Coast rugby. On Sunday, the number of fans inside the ground was estimated to be three times bigger than Ruatoria’s population of about 750.
Both teams observed a minute’s silence before Ngāti Porou East Coast unleashed their pre-match haka.
And almost immediately as the haka challenge was being laid out by the men in Sky Blue, Whakarua Park came back to life.
Proud Coasters unleashed their own haka from their vantage points around the ground.
And as referee Mike Winter prepared to blow time on for the final, the shouts of “Naati” and “Go Sky Blues” started booming across the ground, while those behind the wheels of vehicles parked around the field started tooting their horns.
The support was loud and proud as Ngāti Porou East Coast first built up a handy lead, before the scores were locked at 10-10 at halftime.
During the break fans spoke of how – given what had tragically happened earlier in the day – this was a game that Ngāti Porou East Coast were never going to lose.
And they didn’t, holding on in the second half to win 25-20.
Milner’s whistle blast for fulltime unleashed a ground invasion from fans; many of whom were delirious with emotion.
In the lead-up to the final, Richardson – who talked to the Herald between hugs, hongi and high-fives from friends and family – had urged East Coast “cowboys” to ride their horses to Whakarua Park.
“Bro, it is magic, kill,” he laughed.
“I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. This place has really opened me up to a new world and I don’t ever want to leave it.
“I can’t explain any more feeling that I feel at home here, I just love this place. This place is… Cowboy, Ngāti Porou, East Coast, all day… yeah!
“This means the world, bro. And it means the world to our players and our iwi. I can’t explain it more than that…”
As Ngāti Porou East Coast players mixed with family and friends on Whakarua Park in the first couple of hours after fulltime, one of the biggest smiles on show belonged to team veteran Perrin Manuel.
The frontrower has pretty much seen it all in his long association with the province and the rep team.
During his father Joe McClutchie’s legendary coaching stint – which included 1999 and 2000 NPC Third Division titles, and making the 2001 NPC Second Division final – he was a familiar, young smiling face around the team.
As he looked through the crowd trying to spot his very proud dad – who had watched on from the sidelines – he said it was the greatest day of his sporting career.
“I’ve got my own medal now,” Manuel laughed.
“I was actually at home the day before the final and was looking for a jersey and saw the old man’s medals. I thought I wouldn’t mind having my own after looking at them.”
And Manuel – who travels to training and matches from Hawke’s Bay – had every right to celebrate.
Along with fellow veterans Sam Parkes and Verdon Bartlett, Manuel had been a member of the Ngāti Porou East Coast team throughout their eight-season horror run – when they lost 54 competition games in succession.
Giving up while the team he loved so much – from a wee boy and now into his 30s – was never an option during the tough times.
“I just love coming home, eh bro,” he said.
“It is like something else playing in this jersey. And going right back to the old man’s era, playing in it is something that I always wanted to do.
“I got my 50 games this year, and have got this medal now. I think I could retire at peace now.
“It feels good… there have been a lot of bad times over the years that I have been playing for this team, so I can now celebrate something worth celebrating.”
Being able to win the title on his beloved Whakarua Park made the triumph even more special, Manuel added.
“We love this stuff [the fans’ support]. We look forward to it and were hoping for it,” he said.
“It brings out a different element… it is like a fortress to us as we know what is going on. There’s a bit of an intimidation factor and we like it.”
There were plenty of beers drunk in Ruatoria in Sunday.
Many of course were for the historic triumph on Ngāti Porou East Coast’s hallowed home turf.
Just as many were downed in toasts to honour Tuari.
The sweetest were those drunk straight out of the Lochore Cup, with players offering drinks to their hearty fans as they triumphantly displayed it around Whakarua Park.
It wasn’t just drinks being gifted. Some players also handed over socks, shorts and even their match-worn jerseys to those who had cheered them on.
And as the post-match celebrations kicked off, Richardson summed up the feelings of not just the Ruatoria City club, but also members of the wider East Coast community who knew and loved Tuari.
“Now is the time to celebrate tonight, send Rob off, and then after that, we will mourn for him.”