Great Southern Man

Neil Reid
Written by
Neil Reid

Author short introduction. Three to five lines of brief description.

“They asked me if they could name the park John Sturgeon Park. I said, ‘No, I am not going to have that’.(Photo by Marty Melville/Getty Images)

West Coast are yet to have their name written on a Heartland Championship trophy. But, as Neil Reid explains, the South Island province is a breeding ground of top talent – including eight players to make the All Blacks from the team - and it also possesses some of the country’s most passionate supporters of heartland rugby.

John Sturgeon didn't want it. Having a rugby ground with his name on it didn't sit well with the down to earth former miner.  

One of the great givers to the national game, Sturgeon said for many years the best recognition he would want to receive were approaches from players he had previously coached or managed as young men still wanting to catch up with him for a cuppa or a chat.  

And it was only after rugby officials pulled on his provincial heart-strings that the heartland hero agreed that West Coast’s much-loved home of rugby would carry his name.  

Since 1931 the venue in suburban Greymouth had been called Rugby Park.  

But in 2018 – three years after the West Coast Rugby Union celebrated its 125th jubilee – it was renamed in honour of one of the region’s most loyal, popular and supportive rugby figures in Sturgeon, who’s long list of achievements includes being one of the All Blacks' most-popular managers.  

The 86-year-old is no stranger to gaining recognition for his standing in the game.  

In 1992, he was awarded an MBE, was given life membership of the New Zealand Rugby Union in 2012, and in 2018 received an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to rugby.  

But the idea of renaming the sports ground where he had watched his beloved West Coast take on provincial rivals – and some of the best international touring teams to visit New Zealand – was originally a no-go for Sturgeon.  

“I didn’t want to do it really and I certainly didn’t do it for money, that’s for sure,” Sturgeon laughed.  

“It was unbelievable to be asked. I had the chairman and a couple of other young fellas, they came here and asked me if they could name the park John Sturgeon Park. I said, ‘No, I am not going to have that’.  

“I like to fly under the radar; I don’t look for bloody kudos.  

“My first reaction was that a lot [of people] had done a lot more than me. I had played a fair bit of footy until I was about 30-odd, only club football. And we have had some good players down here too, don’t you worry about that, the likes of Ken Beams, Gavin Cook and those guys.”  

Sturgeon – who managed the New Zealand Sevens team before taking on the All Blacks – said he realised the move would also honour other members of his sporting family who had given a lot to their province.  

That includes his wife, Mary, a former top netball umpire and coach who in 2011 received a Queen’s Service Medal for services to the community.  

The All Black sides Sturgeon managed included legends such as Sean Fitzpatrick, Sir John Kirwan, Buck Shelford, Zinzan Brooke, Grant Fox and Joe Stanley.  

But he says players in the West Coast teams he earlier managed were no less determined than the ABs.  

Some faced return road-trips of up to three hours for training with little, if any, financial reward on offer.  

"It is the love of the game, mate,” he said of motivation for local footy heroes.  

“It is about camaraderie. All the old guys, the ones I coached as school boys or managed in the Coast team, they still visit me. The friendship and camaraderie is still there.”  

Greymouth-based West Coast rugby superfan and historian Adam Gilshnan is the founder of the West Coast Rugby Museum.  

His vast collection of West Coast rugby memorabilia include blazers, almost 700 match programmes, jerseys, ties, caps, pins and other precious items includes some treasured items from Sturgeon - or that feature him.

“I have an old John Sturgeon bubble gum card and got Sturge to sign it. I always said to Sturge that you have made it when you have a bubble gum card with your face on it,” he laughed.  

“He is huge on the West Coast. Growing up here, when I was at high school, he was like a rock star to me. When he was the All Black manager, to me he was like an All Black.  

“He is an incredible person.”  

Gilshnan started supporting West Coast when his family moved to Greymouth in 1979 when he was seven, but he really caught the ‘West Coast rugby bug’ when they beat an All Black-stacked Counties 10-6 in Greymouth in 1982. Three days earlier Counties had drawn 15-15 in its Ranfurly Shield challenge against Canterbury.  

“We were supposed to lose quite heavily but ended up beating them in a massive upset,” Gilshnan said.  

"From that moment on, it was like ‘Wow’, and the local guys became our heroes. It takes one game I suppose to get hooked. And for me, that was it.  

“There is just something a bit different about heartland rugby. Obviously, the All Blacks are superstars but living in a small area you don’t get to see them that often. But the local guys you can cheer, and the local kids can aspire to be just like their local heartland players.”  

The keepsake from the Counties match features proudly in his collection, as do two other items he picked up as a teenage schoolboy; match-worn Wallabies shorts and socks from players who played in the 62-0 win over a combined West Coast-Buller team in 1990.  

“I was involved in the curtain raiser for the West Coast Secondary Schoolboys, so we were hanging around at the ground and managed to pick up a few souvenirs from two of the players,” he said.  

The early programmes he picked up as a schoolkid are now part of a collection totalling 680 and dating back to 1926.  

Historic programmes include one from the combined West Coast-Buller match against the 1937 Springboks, and an after-match dinner menu signed by some of the Springboks.  

His blazer collection includes historic West Coast Rugby Union rep formal jackets, as well as various clubs including the now-defunct Waita side. The club was formed by roading gangs working on the Haast Highway, a major roading project which was completed in the 1960s.  

Last year, the family of former West Coast backline star Joe Gillan gifted Gilshnan a South Island jersey he had worn in a North-South clash. Gillan – also an All Black triallist - was twice selected for the South Island, in 1950 and 1951.  

“He was a hell of a player and his daughter Judy thought it might be something I would give a good home to,” Gilshnan said.  

Recently former West Coast first-five Gavin Cook – who played 78 matches for the province between 1972-84 – donated his 1975 New Zealand Juniors team blazer to Gilshnan’s museum. Cook also played for the New Zealand Colts, had an All Black trial in 1975 and was also a member of the West Coast team which played the touring British Lions in 1983.  

Another of his cherished items is local hero and New Zealand Sevens star Craig de Goldi’s jersey from the gold medal-winning campaign at the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games.  

Some of the older items chronicling West Coast’s proud rugby history have literally been saved from the dump.  

"I know it has been saved from being thrown away,” he said. “And I have heard some horror stories of what has actually been turfed out.  

“I just try to assemble as much stuff as I can to preserve our history for our future. That is what it is all about.”  

Sturgeon has watched first-hand many moments of West Coast history being played out which are now preserved and honoured in Gilshnan’s museum.  

That includes watching the combined West Coast-Buller selection beat the touring Wallabies 17-15 in 1949.  

"Bob Pratt was the referee that day and sent one of the props to the sidelines,” he remembered. “We hadn’t had sinbins until then, so we were the first sinbinning in the country.  

"West Coast rugby, back in the 1950s and 1960s when we used to get international sides here like the Lions, the Wallabies and South Africans, [was amazing]. That is what is missing these days.”  

As the goalposts are packed up for the season, and attention slowly turns to 2022 – which will be the 132nd year of the province’s official footy history – the West Coast rugby and community stalwart says the real grassroots of our national game should never be overlooked by New Zealand Rugby HQ.  

“Some of our best players come out of the scrub. If you go back to the beginning of time, some of our top All Blacks like Colin Meads, Brian Lochore and Ian Kirkpatrick and guys like that, they were all country boys.  

“These guys we have today [in the professional game] we don’t find them coming out of the scrub. It is really just straight off the school bus.”  

[To find out more about the museum and West Coast rugby history visit: www.westcoastrugbymuseum.co.nz ]

Neil Reid
Written by
Neil Reid

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