Sam Parkes Driving Ngāti Porou East Coast to greater heights

h 00096180

The experienced pair are the only two players to win the Meads Cup, Lochore Cup and Bill Osborne Taonga in the Heartland Championship. 

The duo were also involved in the longest first-class losing streak in New Zealand rugby. Between 2013 and 2021 Ngāti Porou East Coast lost 54 consecutive matches but Parkes never entertained ideas of moving or quitting. 

“I’d rather lose with the Coast than win with somebody else,” Parkes said.

“Tolaga Bay is my home. I grew up on a family farm and play for Uawa where everybody knows everyone and there is a real sense of community.

“There wasn’t a specific low point in the losing run, but it was certainly tough. I think after the 2012 Meads Cup win, we had no succession plan and then there was some poor management which worsened the problem.”

Under the tutelage of former Poverty Bay first-five Kahu Tamate, director of rugby and former All Blacks Winger Hosea Gear and technical adviser and former world secondary school championship-winning coach Kim Harris, Ngāti Porou East Coast are resurgent.

Following their Lochore Cup triumph in 2022, Ngāti Porou East Coast has started the 2023 Heartland Championship with two wins in three matches. A narrow loss to Wairarapa Bush (31-32) was followed by victories over Mid Canterbury (19-8) and North Otago (38-29).

Saturday’s win over the Old Golds, who’d outscored their first two opponents 93-27 combined, was built on resolute defence and ensured the Bill Osborne Taonga stayed in the trophy cabinet another week.

Parkes scored one of the hosts' five tries and his 66 matches of experience provided mature leadership under pressure.

“We defended bloody well, smothered them, rattled them, and showed a lot of mental toughness with 13 players at one stage,” Parkes said.

Sam Parkes leads his team out against North Otago

“North Otago was a daunting side. They had a beast No.8 (Junior Fakatoufifita) and second-five (Aleki Morris-Lome) who were a real handful.

“We must have only had 30 percent of the ball, but the boys dug deep and took their chances when we had them.

“Our culture is strong. We're fitter and better prepared than what we’ve been in the past.”

Even the carnage of Cyclone Gabrielle hasn't diminished resolve.

"Personally, I wasn't badly affected but the family farm took a lashing and I know a lot of people who are hurting, " Parkes said.

"The road in and out of Tolaga Bay was cut off and the club season was delayed a month with only a single round."

Sticking together and looking out for each other is what it's about on the Coast."

Back in 2012 at a packed Whakarua Park, Ngāti Porou East Coast had to abandon all caution when behind 3-27 to Whanganui in the Meads Cup final.

Parkes, a year out of Gisborne Boys’ High School, came off the bench in the 55th minute and was part of one of the most extraordinary comebacks in Heartland history.

“The Māori Gods must have been on our side that day,” Parkes laughed.

“I was a second string, but came on earlier than normal because we were losing by so much and the coaches must have thought, ‘bugger it.”

“We made a couple of breaks, closed it to 27-10 and then 27-17 and you just felt this shift that was unstoppable, a real hostile atmosphere for the Whanganui boys. Before the end, the police had to keep the crowd off the field and when we won it was just absolute madness.”

Hosea Gear arrived as coach in 2021, initially via Zoom in Queensland.  A delightful and illuminating documentary, East Coast Rising charts the challenges and changes that led to a turnaround in fortunes.

On October 16, 2021, Ngāti Porou East Coast finally won a game, the first in eight years, when they beat Buller 50-26 at Whakarua Park. Parkes celebrated his 50th appearance with two tries. Even Gear and 103-Test All Black Ma’a Nonu got on the field.

“When I started, I was a new kid on the block, and it was all a bit heady. I’ve grown up in this team so I try to be the best leader I can,” Parkes said.

Bill Osborne was an imposing and successful All Blacks midfielder whose immense service to grassroots rugby was acknowledged in 2021 when a Taonga (played under the same rules as the Ranfurly Shield) bearing his name was put forward for competition. 

Poverty Bay was the first winner but relinquished the Taonga 12-10 to Poverty Bay on September 10, 2022.

Ngāti Porou East Coast resisted challenges from West Coast (29-27) and Wairarapa Bush (20-15) to retain it for the summer. 

Better still they won six matches in 2022, all by less than a converted try, culminating in a 25-20 Lochore Cup final triumph over Mid Canterbury on October 23 at Whakarua Park. 

Parkes was all energy and hustle behind a dedicated pack and fittingly kicked the ball into the grandstand to terminate time to trigger wild celebrations and the obligatory Ruatoria horse invasion. 

In the 37-30 semi-final victory over Horowhenua Kapiti Parkes scored three tries.

Winning is a habit and Parkes has suddenly gotten used to it again. Before he was a first-class player, he helped Gisborne Boys' High School First XV win their only Super 8 title in 2011. 

A decade later while playing for Uawa he kicked a penalty for the ages to win the Rangiora Keelan Memorial Shield final for the third time in four years against Tihirau Victory Club (TVC).

"That was bloody ridiculous. It happened after 100 minutes. It was dark, the rain was horizontal, and she was blowing a gale. It was 45 metres out, but it gets further every time I talk about it,” Parkes laughed.

This weekend in the Heartland Championship Ngāti Porou East Coast travels to Westport to tackle Buller.

“They’re coming off a couple of tough losses. It’ll be a challenge down there, but the boys are showing real character and are ready to have a crack,” Parkes said.