We just happen upon it.
Driving back after a holiday in stunning Central Otago, we spy two rugby teams playing in front of a crowd alongside State Highway 1 in Milton.
We quickly pull over and find a park. Getting out of the car, at once we hear that very Kiwi sound of men grunting and calling for the ball.
Four or five boys sit on a bench below the wooden scoreboard, which they manually change as needed. They seem to be having a good time.
The 8-11 scoreboard shows that this energetic game is between Toko and ‘Visitors’. We are Otagoites, so know the former means Tokomairiro. Later I discover the official name is actually the Toko Rugby Football Club. No need for my Te Reo Māori class pronunciation here.
We remain none the wiser as to who the visitors are. Toko wears yellow and blue and the Visitors, red and blue. Both teams consist of men of various shapes, sizes and ethnicities and loads of gumption.
My husband Kel and I plonk ourselves behind a fence close to the action, like many others. After five minutes, I realise we’re blocking the view of a couple in a ute behind us. They haven’t complained or even politely requested we move. Perhaps they are busy abusing us on their social media networks. I doubt that.
We move leftwards along the fence and become more engaged by the game, which has progressed nicely to 11-11. The players’ grunting and calling continues.
The smell of pies threatens to distract, as does the crisp charm of wintry light filtering through trees. While the sky is beautifully blue, everything else says the afternoon is cold, including the players’ long winter shadows.
I take the chance to check out the crowd of at least 200. Cars and spectators line three sides of the paddock and all generations sit in the faithful old grandstand. I conclude that we’ve ended up on the Toko side.
Older kids looking after younger kids roam the perimeter, coming and going in that gently moving people-stream so familiar to sports grounds.
When I wander to the toilet block beside the grandstand, a sponsor’s sign proudly claims “satisfaction guaranteed”. I have no opportunity to test this because the loos are locked.
Can’t find a toilet anywhere, however the flasher building on the other side of the ground contains a kitchen and a friendly woman who directs me to very clean toilets, complete with Covid-19 preventing hand-wash.
Beyond this building, six or seven boys aged between about 9 and 14 practise their goal kicking in an empty field.
The action intensifies
Half-time comes and goes with the score 11-14 to the Visitors, then suddenly it’s all on.
No longer playing into the sun, Toko scores a converted try. Sometime amid much action, an injured Visitors player has exited, players exchange a bit of biffo and spectators good-naturedly insult the ref, including advising him to go home and play his banjo.
The rugby is now even more intense and a woman shouts “C’mon Toko” several times. This support seems to come from a dozen men and women who’ve parked their utes on a bank by the grandstand and are standing drinking beer and having a good time.
Speaking of good times, those lads at the scoreboard are remarkably swift to record the next local try and conversion.
To quote the later-discovered Toko Rugby Fan Club Facebook page,
cult hero Arnold Dinh latched onto an intercept and raced 50m to potentially take Toko to a unassailable 25-14 lead with 15 mins to go.”
This lead indeed turns out to be unbeatable, although the Visitors score and convert a try almost on full-time. At the end of an exciting match, the scoreboard boys slot in the final numbers: 25-21 to Toko.
“It was a good game,” a girl comments in southern understatement. Tired players troop off the field.
With thanks to that Facebook page, we now know that the Visitors team Toko beat was Owaka.
The club’s website notes that “Toko Rugby has a proud tradition in Milton, and a handful of All Blacks and many representative players can trace their beginnings back to grassroots Rugby played at their old stomping ground of Toko.”
We’re glad we stopped.
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For a more detailed match report, check out the Toko Rugby Fan Club Facebook July 11 entry.