Thursday, June 13, 2024

Plummer digs deep: An insight into grassroots rugby

By BENJAMIN PLUMMER

Photo Wayne Martin

Following a family affinity for sport, BENJAMIN PLUMMER, is on the ball in more ways than one. Now a journalist working with EastLife’s parent company, Times Media, this former semi- professional rugby player reflects on the (sometimes) rough ride involved with achieving his sporting goals.

Contacted by Australian rugby clubs in Sydney’s Shute Shield competition towards the end of 2021, I jumped at the opportunity to play semi-professional rugby. I had just finished studying at university, didn’t have a job and wanted to travel – or so I thought!

Once money was offered, it clouded my ability to weigh up the pros and cons. I thought I’d be living close to the beach in a beautiful apartment; on arrival, I realised the club resided in Western Sydney, near Parramatta. We had a six-bedroom house in Guildford, which happened to be one of the largest gang areas in Australia – pure luck right?

Rugby in Australia is a private school sport, one of the reasons rugby league is so much bigger over there. While the players tended to be smaller, not as physical as in NZ, they were fitter.

Overall, I would love to say my trip to Sydney was the greatest experience of my life, but it wasn’t. Rugby became my escape in Australia – my family is close so I missed them from the minute I left until I came back home.

My relationship with rugby has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, playing since I was five and having the privilege of being much closer to the game than most Kiwi kids. My father, Mark, has been involved with Auckland and the Blues as a physiotherapist and my brother, Harry, has been with the Blues’ squad for the past four seasons.

After I finished school (St Peters College), I planned to stop playing rugby – it wasn’t for me and I wanted to settle into university life. However, when I went for a job at the Waiau Pa Four Square, the owner (Bevan Leckner) told me I could play for Ponsonby if I wanted to, so I decided to give it a go.

With Ponsonby, 2019 was a bit of a breakthrough year for me and I was selected to represent Auckland at the under 19 Jock Hobbs Memorial tournament. This led to more opportunities with the club’s premier side in 2020 and 2021, when the season wasn’t affected by Covid. I also played in the first (and only) Sky Sport Super Club Rugby U21 Championship.

One of the toughest parts about rugby is the injuries. These can impact work, school and life in general. Unfortunately, I’ve had absolutely terrible luck! I suffered a shoulder dislocation, requiring surgery and nine months’ recovery, a broken wrist, two patella dislocations and a handful of concussions as well. The funny thing is that all these injuries occurred in the last game of every season, so perhaps my luck could’ve been even worse!

Like many Kiwis, I had dreams of playing in the All Blacks from an early age. My parents even set up rugby posts in our backyard to keep my brothers from damaging furniture and the walls when we were playing knee rugby inside.

However, my aspirations changed when Harry became a professional for Auckland and then the Blues. Witnessing his trials, physically but (more significantly) mentally, put me off the professional game. It’s one of the main reasons I decided to come home from Australia.

New Zealand is one of the friendliest countries in the world… until you have a poor performance! During Harry’s Super Rugby debut (against the Crusaders at Eden Park), he missed a match-winning kick. The attempt was from, roughly, fifty metres out, but he still copped a lot of flak.

Harry now has four seasons with the Blues and, despite successes along the way, he still receives abuse and even threats. Having said that, I believe the abuse has actually brought our family even closer together.

We laugh at keyboard warriors who write as if they know everything because they played back in their day, but it’s not easy for players. I have now taken a different approach to rugby, as a journalist. I hope to use my experiences to be more sympathetic in my approach when covering sport.

As for my playing days, they’re not over yet. I’ve always told myself that once I stop enjoying rugby I will stop playing. The game does come at a cost – it’s a massive time commitment, there are registration fees, fuel costs and balancing work and a social life on top of all that. But I still find playing at club level is a good way to stay fit and active and escape the pressures and stresses of life.

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