9 Feb 2016

First test for rugby gang patch ban

9:31 am on 9 February 2016

The first test for Northland Rugby's gang patch ban is looming, after it was brought in to save a division of minnows from falling apart.

rugby ball

Photo: 123RF

Rugby league great Graham Lowe believed the deal he brokered would hold, and Whangaruru - the team at the centre of the ructions - was promising there would be no patches.

The true test will come when Southern Districts Division 2 restarts next month.

The division appeared doomed last season when half the clubs boycotted Whangaruru over the team's links to the Head Hunters gang.

The Northland Rugby Union sent an SOS out to Lowe.

He waded, pro bono, into the welter of claims and counterclaims amid the rivalry of smalltown grassroots rugby, talking to all nine Division 2 teams and to Head Hunters gang members.

"The Whangaruru Club, you know, there was a player there that had been part of the organisation and I mean I was very, very impressed by the nature with which they accepted the criticism," Lowe said.

"They fully understand they are only guardians of the game and that history's got to be protected at all costs, and compliance is set down by the governing body and that's got to be adhered to at all costs."

Graham Lowe (pictured during his time coaching Bay of Plenty in the New Zealand Rugby League, in 2008)

Rugby league great Graham Lowe was asked to sort the situation out. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Lowe heard last year from the four boycotting clubs - Tomarata, Southern, Ruawai and Kaihu Valley - about tension on the sidelines and threats to stab or shoot players, along with punches and kicks on the field.

"Clubs feel like they are turning up to a boxing match, not a rugby game," his report said.

The Whangaruru team, though, got only two yellow cards all season, and told Lowe they were mystified and that the accusations were aimed at upsetting their game.

"There wasn't any foul play but there was hard play," Whangaruru coach Hepi Haika said. "I coach my guys to be one of the best tacklers in the competition."

Lowe said some clubs saw it as intimidation, other clubs didn't. "If there had of been some video evidence it might have been easier. I'm sure there were incidences that happened that were nasty, or weren't good. That's been understood, I think, and it's been sorted out."

His report was unequivocal - Whangaruru, it said, needed to know there can "never be any gang patches at games and that this is non-negotiable".

'No patches'

In response, the Northland Rugby Union has changed its code of ethics, for everyone.

"There are no patches to be worn in clubrooms at after-match functions," the union's chief executive, Jeremy Parkinson, said. "Clubs that do own their own grounds, we'd like them to enforce that as well. That's in all competitions throughout Northland."

Many clubs, though, including Whangaruru, played on council grounds and a patch ban could not be enforced on the sidelines there.

"We can't stop that," Mr Parkinson said. "But what we are hoping, and all the clubs have agreed, is that we will have good quality referees. There will be ARs [assistant referees] on the sideline to ensure that the game is played within the spirit of the game.

"Whangaruru have said to us they are going to be working in their community. There's actually only three, my understanding is three patched gang members in their team."

Mr Haika said his players had already agreed to their own patch ban before the union brought in its one.

"I made a call with our team that if we want to play in the competition then that's what we're going to need to do and they agreed with it, they will not wear their patches at any of our games.

"I've only got three players in my team that belong to the gang, they actually put their gear on when they leave, they don't wear it in the club."

He said all supporters knew, too, they must not wear patches.

Lowe's report said many rugby clubs in the north were open about their strong links to gangs, but they did nothave a patch problem.

Mangakahia Rugby Club co-caption Tame Te Rangi said the Lowe deal protected a proud rugby history and there were good commercial reasons for it to stick.

"If there is an attempt to deviate from that potentially our clubs run the risk of jeopardising sponsorship arrangements," he said.

In addition to the patch ban, Southern Districts Division 2 would have a clearer way of making complaints: All Black great Bruce Robertson would step in as the go-to man for any complaints.

Also, four teams would not travel away to Whangaruru but play on a neutral ground, and one team, Kaihu Valley, was going to play away at Whangaruru in the first round and see how it went.