The gathering of some of the most well-known names in Highlanders rugby – including Ben Smith, Kees Meeuws and current Otago coach Tom Donnelly – took place in Dunedin last month, just after the region went back up to alert level 2.
Organised by former players John Blaikie and Neil Brew, the original plan was to bring about 100 ex-Highlanders together.
Flight cancellations from the North Island reduced the eventual number to 50-60, but that was still more than enough to make sure some stories were told, and lessons were passed on to the blokes heading towards retirement.
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“There were plenty of yarns told, and some probably not so truthful,” Blaikie tells Stuff with a laugh. “It was a good way to reconnect.
“We were quite lucky in some respects that there were a few players contracted over to Japan, Tom Franklin, Ben Smith, Richard Buckman, Dan Pryor…who were still in New Zealand [due to Covid].
“One of the main reasons to get this up and running is to talk to players and share experiences about the challenges that we faced when we retied.
“The successes, and mistakes we’ve made along the way.”
Retirement is every player’s greatest challenge. Suddenly, all form is structure is gone, friendships can drift apart and income drops.
As such, gatherings such as the Highlanders old boys’ catchup aren’t just middle-aged blokes reminiscing over a few cold ones – think of it as an unofficial support network.
“When you’ve been involved in a professional team there is that camaraderie, and then all of a sudden you’re left to your own devices,” says Blaikie, who won 53 Highlanders caps in the engine room and played in the 1999 Super Rugby final.
“Securing employment as well. That can be a bit of a challenge.
“It’s easy to find a job when you’ve got a job. You’re not going to find your dream job from day one, but it’s about getting yourself going. The financial challenges as well. It’s about recognising that, and planning for the drop of income.
“And it’s about trying to get some structure in your day. When you are professional rugby player everything is set out for you. When that ends you can be at a loose end for a while.”
Bliaikie, now 46, considers himself to be one of the lucky ones.
He started playing the game just before professionalism, with all its opportunities and pitfalls. That meant he already had one foot in ‘real world’, unlike the full-time professionals who followed him.
“A lot of us were either at university or had jobs,” Blaikie says.
“We had something to fall back on. I chipped away at a degree.
“The players’ association has done a fantastic job getting systems in place for players now, but probably in those early stages when the players’ association was just getting up and running, there might have been a few people that struggled.”
Former players face another challenge when they exit the game. After years of being in a dressing-room culture, where humility and a ‘team-first’ attitude is prized, they often “undersell” themselves to prospective employers, Blaikie says.
“When you’ve finished up, you have learnt some pretty good skills, such as time management, performing under pressure, working as part of a team, working with different personalities,” he says.
Highlanders chief executive Roger Clark is already planning for a second Super Rugby Aotearoa competition in 2021 because of travel and border restrictions.
“You’ve learnt some pretty important skills that employers value. You don’t want to undersell yourself, and that’s hard initially.”
Blaikie never quite cracked the All Blacks, and spent a few years in France after leaving the Highlanders.
Post retirement, he studied at Cambridge University, and played for the university’s famous rugby team.
He remains an avid follower of the game, however, and he marvels at the athletic and bruising crop of new forwards coming through.
“The depth is incredible,” he says. “That younger generation look great, the Cullen Graces … he’s a machine isn’t he?
“I remember talking to [Crusaders coach] Scott Robertson about him.
“It was a preseason game earlier in the year in Wanaka. He said, ‘wait to you see the next generation’… the Sam Darrys, the Cullen Graces … the next wave are next level’.
“It’s frightening when you think about it.”