- By Kevin McCarthy
Well they’re laying Brian BJ Lochore to rest today, with a funeral at Memorial Park in Masterton.
If you’ve never been, it’s a modest but proud small field. There’s medium sized stand on one side, but no other seating or an embankment, just touchlines, surrounded by surburban homes.
I was there nearly 38 years ago, 1981. Most games, there’s be a thousand spectators maybe, all in the stand sheltering from a nasty wind. This was second division, North Island, rugby, with teams vying for the first division big league.
Not that Wairarapa-Bush, in their frankly ugly green jerseys and red shorts, could seriously be more than an also-ran.
Except that in 1981, the coach was BJ Lochore. And something was happening. Wairarapa-Bush was playing fast, attractive, high tempo rugby and making a run for the first division.
Except that Taranaki was coming to town, and they were the super team of the division. With two All Blacks, in Graham Mourie, and Dave Loveridge, they were expected to dispose of the red and green pretenders.
Except that they didn’t. You couldn’t get a ticket for the stand. So it was along the sidelines to watch. A sunny day, and I don’t know, maybe 8,000 watching. It was capacity anyway.
It’s a cliché but I can still remember the enormous roar when our side hit the front. 15-6 in the end. Not even close. The players that day say they knew they couldn’t afford to lose, given the support.
There’s more to the story yet, but just some context. This is 1981 remember. Rugby and the Springbok tour are dividing this country like never before. I was a young reporter on the local paper. We’d had a pro-rugby march come past our offices, and our editor was on the steps watching.
“Come and join us,”someone yelled.
“We’re in the middle of the road,”replied the editor.
“So are we,”shot back the marcher.
So hardly batons and blood in small town Masterton. The place was struggling with more than politics and sport, with the local meatworks, a major employer, on the ropes, and the economy none too flash.
Then along came this unlikely sports story. The cast resembled some hokey movie. None too fit, and pretty unacquainted with winning. But in the first season with the ex All Black in charge, the side began to flourish. Finished third.
And the next year, 1981, after beating Taranaki, to become North Island division champions, they had to dispose of South Canterbury, the south island equivalent winners. Job done, they then had to travel to Invercargill and play Southland in a promotion relegation match.
Tough? You bet. All those three games were played within ONE week.
Little wonder that at halftime, Wairarapa Bush were trailing and flat. And then another movie scene. BJ, never the hair-dryer sort of coach, absolutely let rip at the players.
They were shocked. And went out in the second half and did the job. First division promotion, and in the following seasons, under Lochore and then Lane Penn, they were credible at the highest level.
Needless to say this was like a Ranfurly Shield win for a small community like the Wairarapa. BJ was always the self-effacing sort, but literally if he walked into a pub in 1981, all eyes turned. He was the Miracle Man – and of course, the success he had led him to 1987 and World Cup triumph.
Hard to say what long-term effect it had on the local community but short-term, it was a huge buzz. Rugby isn’t always a force for good, but in 1981, the year of division and rancour, the flip side happened in Wairarapa.
So when they lay BJ to rest today, it’s time to remember what else has already been laid to rest in New Zealand rugby. There won’t be any more fairytales of promotion – the system won’t allow it.
It’s gone in the name of sustainability and efficiency, and well, the commercial world of pro rugby.
There’s still the Shield to galvanise communities, although realistically the minnows will never hold it again.
So that’s just the world as it is, and it’s not coming back. But amid all the talk of world cups and who plays where, and the player drain, it’s always special to remember that rugby and sport at its best is still about when the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
So thanks BJ and the team of 1981. That’s what you call a legacy.
Read about the 1981 Wairarapa-Bush team below: