Mike McRoberts - Rugby and whanau.

NZ Rugby World team

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

In another of our For the Love of the Game pieces, Newshub’s Mike McRoberts writes about how his passion for rugby is whanau inspired and how much he loves seeing his son’s joy for the game.

Mike McRoberts led Newshub’s coverage at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

There was 15 minutes to go. The All Blacks' one point lead in the 2011 Rugby World Cup final is under real threat  as French replacement Francios Trinh-Duc attempts a 48-metre penalty kick.

From our seats at the back of Eden Park’s Upper West Stand my eleven-year-old son Ben and I are in perfect  position to judge its accuracy. If only we’d had the courage to watch it.

Having worked at three previous World Cups including the gut-wrenching semi-final loss to France at Twickenham in 1999 and the disastrous quarter-final loss, again to the French, at Cardiff in 2007, here we were again. In prayerful silence, we sat, The Father, The Son and the Rugby Ghost.

Trinh-Duc missed, but the relief was short-lived.  

Those final, excruciating minutes were in stark contrast to how our match experience had started. In a nation obsessed with rugby we were amongst the lucky few, about to witness history first hand.  

In the seats next to us were two friends who, defiantly, hadn’t watched an All Black game together since they’d travelled on “the trip of a lifetime” to the 2007 Rugby World Cup!  

This little gem only came to light after Tony Woodcock sauntered through the French lineout to score an early try for the All Blacks. Surely there’d be more tries, surely it was in the bag.

I don’t know if the two mates felt they were somehow to blame for what we were all enduring towards the end of the game. But they didn’t utter a single word for the entire second half.

Rugby has been such an integral part of my life over the years, as a player, a reporter and a fan.

In the 1970’s and early 80’s the Suburbs Rugby Club in working class Rowley, Christchurch was a beacon for the community.

From our earliest days wearing plastic boots and socks that rose to the bottom of our shorts, my brothers and I proudly wore Suburb’s red and gold hoops. Morning games on rock hard, frost bitten grounds, then back to the club afterwards.

It was often standing-room-only at the Mathers Road clubrooms and the place hummed with match post mortems, pint pours and meat raffles.  

As kids we’d always gravitate towards three giant wall plaques celebrating Suburb’s only All Blacks - Lyn Davis, Wayne Cotrell and Stu Cron, and we’d dream of one day joining them.

Kerry, Jayson and Mike McRoberts never made an All Black side, but it’s hard to imagine it would have been any more thrilling than when we made our first Suburbs senior team together.

It was the good old amateur days when All Blacks played for their clubs, and you’d rub shoulders together at the aftermatch.

My brothers went on to play more than 600 senior games between them, they’ve both coached the club’s top team at various times and still work tirelessly as President and board members. Suburbs is now an inclusive, family centric club that measures it’s wins, not just on the field but in the way it serves it’s community, and I couldn’t be more proud of them for that.

Playing rugby gave me many things - confidence, determination, leadership and an appreciation of what it means to be in a team. It also gave me a relationship with my dad I might not otherwise have had. Mac McRoberts was a renowned junior coach, particularly of my brothers’ teams. Our house was often full of players past and present, and Sunday brunch ran like an army mess hall. We loved it.

Dad never coached me, but I’ll always remember him losing a much needed day’s pay to watch me play a midweek game with the Canterbury Secondary Schools team. I was so overcome with what that meant it almost put me off my game.

It was around this time rugby had me hooked. I remember screaming at the live radio commentary as Canterbury lifted the Ranfurly Shield from Wellington in 1982. And I was at Lancaster Park a week later when a Robbie Deans penalty drew the match with Counties, and more importantly kept the Log o’ Wood in Christchurch.

One of my best mates' dad was a board member of the Canterbury Rugby Union and for a short period that summer he had New Zealand rugby’s most coveted prize tucked away under his bed. When his parents weren’t home we’d pull it out and pour over it like some ancient treasure.

1983 was my final year at Hillmorton High School, a low decile state co-ed school with a roll of around eight hundred. Against all odds our 1st XV shared the secondary school championship title with St Bedes, and for our mahi we were granted an incredible opportunity.  

Our school was chosen to host an All Blacks morning training session as they prepared to play the British Lions.

They probably regretted that decision instantly as they stepped on to our bog of a field, but they were incredibly gracious and joined our team for morning tea afterwards. As skipper I got to shake hands and chat with All Black captain Andy Dalton, but the biggest thrill came in meeting Steven Pokere. I’d idolised him for years. He was Māori, played centre and had unbelievable ball skills, so we at least had two things in common.

As a journalist with Radio New Zealand I inevitably drifted from news into sport, and by my early 20’s was running the Christchurch sports office. Rugby was a staple, and the fact I was still playing helped immeasurably.

When Canterbury lifted the Shield in Hamilton in 1994, I watched, at the teams invitation, from the reserves bench. I still remember hulking prop Tala Kele squeezing over to make room.

Two years later I was touring South Africa with some of those same Canterbury players in my role as rugby editor for TVNZ. It was the last proper All Black tour, four test matches and four midweek games spread across one of the greatest rugby road trips going.  

Having never been further afield than Australia or the Pacific, South Africa was such an eye-opener for me, and a catalyst to pursue more opportunities like it. And they’d come thick and fast in the future, not so much with rugby,  but covering numerous conflicts and natural disasters around the globe. Rugby gave me that start.

As a rugby player you always have the opportunity to make some impact on the result. As a rugby reporter you’re a working observer and analyst win or lose. But as a fan you have no control, no objectivity, you’re laid bare.

I felt all of that, that night at Eden Park ten years ago. To make it worse I knew my son Ben did too. Over the years I’d encouraged and nurtured his love of the game, through coaching or refereeing his games, or simply watching matches together. He saw my passion and ran with it.

Even at age eleven Ben knew enough about the game to realise the All Blacks could lose at any moment. Their World Cup hopes could be dashed. Waiting on the clock to run down was torture.

I have never watched a replay of the 2011 Rugby World Cup final, to be honest I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the movie dramatisation some years later.

My lasting memory from that night will always be the tears of relief Ben and I shared when the final whistle blew and the All Blacks were victorious.  

Me and my boy had been all in. We’d dared to believe ….and won.

Mike has asked NZ Rugby World to donate his fee for writing this piece to NZ Women’s Refuge and we are delighted to do so.

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