The Legend of Marty Banks

Alex Chapman
Written by
Alex Chapman

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

Marty Banks, of the Highlanders, looks on prior to the pre-season Super Rugby match (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

His Mum loves it, but Marty Banks finds it all a bit embarrassing.

There’s a Facebook page devoted to rugby’s much travelled (and clearly much adored) first five and fullback that has a steady stream of content and almost 65,000 followers.

“Mum loves it probably more than anyone,” Banks, who is back with the Highlanders for Super Rugby Pacific, says of the page, titled The Legend of Marty Banks.   “She thinks it’s God’s gift. Me, not so much.”

Banks accepts it is hugely popular, but that hasn’t convinced him to get involved.  “Alex, the guy that runs it, asked if I wanted to run it and I just couldn’t do it. There’s no way I can sit and provide that content.

“And it doesn’t sit that well talking about myself. It’s a strange feeling. I’d rather just give back to the kids and sign a few autographs and take some photos.”

It’s an attitude that isn’t surprising given Banks’ upbringing.

He’s from Reefton, on the West Coast, and was born into a family of coal miners though Banks found out pretty early in life that rugby fields, rather than the mines, were more for him.

“It’s a pretty special and straightforward way of life isn’t it? You either get stuck in and get your hands dirty, or you don’t get any coal. I think the old man worked out pretty early though that I was more of a pen-pusher than coal miner.  

“I got to experience it a bit when I was younger. I’d get in and go underground and rub my hands over my face to make it look like I’d done some work. It’s cool though, it makes me respect where I am now. I know I’m lucky to be playing footy for a job and it’ll end at some stage, but I won’t be on the end of a shovel or pick when that day comes.”

But despite not fitting in with the local occupation of choice, Banks loves his home town of Reefton and quickly notes that basketballer Phil Jones, who had 14 years in the Tall Blacks, is another local lad.

"I don’t want to admit it, but I grew up idolising him. I remember I was a young bugger and used to see him every chance I got. Whenever he’d come back to town, I’d be trying to steal some sort of top or get a photo.  

“ He calls himself ‘Reefton kid mark one’ and me ‘Reefton kid mark two.’ He enjoys rubbing in my face that he’s more important.

“Reefton as a whole though is just your typical Kiwi town. It’s run on people who volunteer a lot of time just to make the community tick. Everyone sort of knows everyone - you know the bloke going to post his mail, or I’d have a raspberry coke with the old man at the pub and you’d know everyone sitting there. It’s just a humble little place trying to reignite its light.”[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]There’s a pun in that - Banks is proud to share that Reefton was the first place in the Southern Hemisphere to have electricity.

But aged 20, for whatever reason, he decided that was enough. Most people from small towns escape to the nearest city, or maybe at a push, head to Auckland. Not young Marty Banks though. With a trip across the ditch his only international travel, he set off for, of all places, Russia and there are tales to tell of  marijuana, AK47’s and Siberia.

“Yeah, every day was an eye-opener. We got put into this little community and I didn’t know what marijuana looked like but it was just grown everywhere. It was pretty much either lawn or weed.”

As for the guns, Banks concedes to being too scared to shoot one.

“Whenever I watch a movie and see those mafia scenes, although you don’t see it over there, you know it’s happening. It could be conjured up in my head but I feel like it was all going on, there’s some deep, dark secrets in there.  The whole experience shaped who I am as a rugby player and a person.”

Banks retreated back to New Zealand after the exposure of the other side of the world, and wound up at the Hurricanes in 2014 but after a poor season he thought his chances of playing Super Rugby were gone.

Then the Highlanders came calling.

“It wasn’t until I got a phone call from Jamie [former coach Jamie Joseph] and Brownie [current coach Tony Brown] that I realised how much sense it made. I already had some mates down there too. Jamie was straight to the point and asked if I wanted to go or not, and Brownie brought confidence out of me which I was struggling with, and I just gained a lot of respect for them and that’s what signed and sealed it.”

The lifestyle in Dunedin was also a big drawcard as it’s similar to the  closeness and laid-back nature to Reefton.

“I think it was the way the Highlanders did things which initially drew me to Dunedin. The team suits Dunedin to a tee. The way we play our rugby, there’s no frills, we get stuck into our work, but there’s that off switch. The Highlanders have always been about a good balance in life, and that suited me. I need that chance to get away and think about anything other than rugby. You walk through Dunedin and people just want to talk smack, and that suits me completely.”

Banks didn’t have to wait long to taste success with the Highlanders, though it wasn’t the celebration you’d expect after a team’s first Super Rugby title in 2015.

“I’d love to say we drank heaps of beer, but that wasn’t the case. Yeah we had a few Speights and it was long, but it was more the fact of enjoying what we had achieved. We had a long court session, but it wasn’t one where everyone’s walking out of the room absolutely hammered, in fact we were probably sober by the time we left. A few of the old guys like Marc Ellis came in and joined us and it was just pretty cool, nothing raucous.”

Banks believes the culture was a massive part of their success, which saw them go on a run of three upsets, beating the Chiefs, going to Sydney to defeat the Waratahs, before overcoming the seemingly unbeatable Hurricanes in the final.

Banks is back with the Highlanders after a couple of seasons in Japan and  playing for Southland in last year’s Bunnings NPC and he now sees his ability to make an impact off the field as just as important as how he contributes on it.

“It sort of hits home that I’m the old bugger now,” the 32-year-old reflects. “I started when I was 23 and these kids were still in primary school, so being able to try and help them a little bit early on in their career now, is why I chose to stay in New Zealand. I had some older fellas, who gave a lot of time and put up with me asking a whole lot of stupid questions, so it’s my time to repay whoever wants to have a yarn or pick my brain, and I’ll probably learn something too.”

And having played in Russia, Italy and Japan, and for Tasman, Buller, Southland the Hurricanes and Highlanders, Banks knows retirement is coming. He knows he’s not in the ilk of LeBron James, who is still playing in the NBA at 37, or Tom Brady, the 44 year-old Tampa Bay quarterback, or Brad Thorn who retired aged 41 after 22 years of professional rugby, but does take inspiration from his dad playing senior footy for Reefton when he was 55.  

“Maybe I’ll trot around for a club team, but I’m content with being close to the end. I’ve started planning for it now that I’m back home. Ideally, I see myself coaching, but I know it’s not something you go straight into where it can’t fund your living. I’ve got a couple of properties and see myself getting into business, maybe buying into businesses with mates who are doing trades.”

He’s not done just yet though.

“One more Super Rugby title would be great. I’ve got two years so maybe we can sneak a couple.”

Alex Chapman
Written by
Alex Chapman

Alex Chapman is a freelance sports journalist, broadcaster and commentator.

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