He is one of the unsung heroes of New Zealand rugby so Alex Chapman caught up with Ash Dixon to find out what makes the Māori All Blacks skipper tick.
It’s five days after the Super Rugby trans-Tasman final.
Highlanders co-captain Ash Dixon’s in Wellington with the Māori All Blacks, the wounds are slowly healing, but he’s considering ripping off the plaster one more time.
Even if it is a bit sadistic.
“This one is hard to flush to be honest,” he concedes.
“I haven’t watched the game so I’ll end up watching it. I’ve just let it sit there but I’ve got some thoughts in my head that just simmer away. So I need to watch it just to understand where we didn’t quite go right and where we could’ve done better. Then I’ll be able to go forward to Māori rugby. But the good thing is there’s something there for me which is really good, so it’s a dream result to come in here and be able to do that.”
The revelation of needing to heal in this way is a revelation - not much is known about the 32-year-old.
He keeps a low-profile, though when he does speak, holds the room. There’s a natural charisma and mana there and a tinge of humour too, after all this is the same man who after the trans-Tasman final, talked about only having one “shitter” in the lead up to the game.
But there’s more to Dixon than just the well-spoken, at times dry-humoured hooker. Though as he repeatedly says, he’s just “trying to be me.”
Firstly, there’s Ash Dixon - footy player.
Born and raised in Christchurch, Dixon’s found a home in Dunedin. Having played for the Hurricanes for two seasons, he was stuck behind Dane Coles, who during the 2013-14 period had usurped Keven Mealamu as the All Blacks starting rake. Having also spent time with Auckland, Dixon’s provincial ‘home’ has become Hawke’s Bay.
But he’s now most-associated with the Highlanders.
“The difference that I’ve noticed is that we’ve never had the resources, [Text Wrapping Break](just ask about the toilets) and we’ve never had that many big city names, apart from Aaron Smith, Lima Sopoaga and Ben Smith. But we’ve always had a forward pack that was willing to give to the team.
“Our whole persona and culture is based on a no-ego system. It doesn’t matter if you’re an All Black, a Māori All Black, a New Zealand schools rep, a New Zealand under-20’s player, everyone’s on the same level and that’s how we treat everyone. No one is higher than anyone else.”
The pride he has in the jersey and his teammates is clear, as if talking like a proud big brother.
“We’ve built a culture based on hard work and working hard for each other, and putting everything towards the team. It’s become more fulfilling and rewarding when you know that everyone’s working towards one common goal. And whatever the purpose of the team, it’s to win the title.
“All the other teams I’ve been involved with are like that too, but we’ve also got guys with chips on their shoulders, who have been left out of other teams, that want to come down and prove something. That edge creates a competitive drive and creates a really tight group of boys. We have hardly anyone from Dunedin, everyone’s from outside the region, so we spend a lot of time together. We’ve got to understand each other and the kids. The boys in their spare time actually hang out together - we go out for dinners, there’s surf groups, there’s hunting groups, and that’s the real difference. It’s become a really tight family.”
“No way,” is Dixon’s forthright in his answer when asked if he has any animosity towards All Blacks selectors who are yet to pick him for that other black jersey. It’d be understandable if there was, having been a consistent performer for the Southerners, you’d think he would’ve had a crack by now.
“Why would I be angry that I haven’t been picked for a team that I’d love to be a part of, when there’s genuinely incredible players in front of me? I accept that. I don’t ever hold a grudge against other players and what they do. That’s not me. Colesy, Codie [Taylor], and Asafo [Aumua] are incredible athletes. To be judged against the quality of those guys and still not be able to make it, or be in the picture, I don’t see that as a bad thing."
It’s a refreshing perspective, and one that comes from a place of pride, both in his country and himself.
“I’m very grateful for what I’m doing, and I’m just trying to do me. I’m not trying to do them, or their game. I’m not trying to emulate those guys because I can’t be those guys, I just be me. I just be Ash Dixon and that’s me and that’s what I do and bring.”
Then there’s Ash Dixon - Māori.
Of Ngāti Tahinga descent, the fulfilment he gets from his whakapapa is clear.
“It’s pretty cool bro. It’s identity, which is massive. It’s who I am. I get to play for something that’s bigger than me. It’s not just about what myself and my immediate family are doing, but also where I’m from. Our maunga [mountain], our whenua [land], our awa [river], everyone’s all involved, and I get to represent that which is a cool feeling.
While Dixon’s understanding of being Māori is now greater, it’s been a journey, paddling his waka towards the land of knowledge.
“I knew my identity, my parents obviously told me about it but I didn’t know a lot about it. I’ve learnt more and more about it and who I am and where I’m from. But I’d like to take my initial family back to where I’m from and check out where it all began for us.”
While immensely proud to be the kāpene [captain] of the Māori All Blacks, like a lot of New Zealanders, Dixon says being an All Black was initially more of the goal.
“That’s obviously the pinnacle and is what we all see. Identity is massive in here and we have the chance to show it and prove it (but) we still encourage the boys to go to the All Blacks. Look at someone like Quinn Tupaea, who got named in the All Blacks when he was in camp with us. Everyone was watching on TV and everyone was absolutely stoked for him. The pinnacle of rugby in New Zealand will always be the All Blacks, but Māori rugby is still right up there and we’re trying to inspire Māori and youth to believe in what they can do and play footy.”
Finally, and arguably most-importantly, there’s Ash Dixon - whanau man.
Dixon’s desire to stay in New Zealand has been further enforced with having a family. He and wife Mikayla are childhood sweethearts, though he was stunned to learn that was known by this writer.
“Who’d you hear this from?” he laughs. “I’ve known her for a long time. We grew up in Christchurch together and have been together a long time. To be honest, when was it? I can’t even remember, but it was years ago. It slowly progressed, and then one thing led to another, I left Christchurch for Hawke’s Bay and she wanted to come up and I was like 'oh yeah, ok.’ She does an awesome job though. When I’m out doing my thing she holds down the fort, I’m pretty lucky to be honest.”
The couple have two children; nine-year-old Paiyton and Boston who’s six.
“My daughter, she’s what you’d call a goody-good, everything is by the book, she doesn’t want to put a foot wrong. She’s very kind, very caring, she’s got such a good heart and a soft soul. She’s not a kid that’s going to say a lot unless she knows you well, so she’ll be pretty quiet and just do her own thing. My son is quite abrasive. He’s a dude where once he makes up his mind, he’s off. He’s quite an explorer, quite a risk-taker. They’re chalk and cheese, those two, and they really love each other and care for each other. It’s awesome.”
The last words though, are left for someone who knows Dixon as well as anyone. All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith has known him since they won the under-20’s world title together in 2008. It’s a team that included several future stars Zac Guildford, Sean Maitland, Ryan Crotty and Sam Whitelock. Now, 13 years on, Smith and Dixon are co-captains of the Highlanders.
“Scott McLeod, our now-All Blacks assistant coach, was with the Highlanders for years, and he used to use his hands a lot to give examples and explain things… Ash would mimic him. But the funniest thing is he’s always bloody sore. His back or neck or something. At training, he’s either limping or a little bit gimpy, but then come game-time, he’s running around like a 20-year-old. So I always give him stick around that like ‘what’s wrong today mate?!’ He’s like ‘Nuggy, you don’t have to scrum and maul’.
“The best thing about Ash is his honesty and loyalty. He’s always a good friend, he’s been there like a brother to me for 12 years and we’ve grown up together. He’s always got your back, on the field, no matter what. Off the field, he’s very kind, very loving, very caring about you and your family. I remember one time he came and said hello to my mum and dad, just the little things guys don’t have to do. He’s just a solid individual.”