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Double century of Wellington Premier club rugby matches up for James Coburn

James Coburn, playing against Norths in round five at the start of this month. Photo: Stewart Baird. 

  • By Steven White

James Coburn runs out on to Ngati Toa Domain for his 200th Premier match on Saturday, for Paremata-Plimmerton against Johnsonville in round nine of the Swindale Shield.

Joining the 200-club would perhaps have flown under the radar if not for Paremata-Plimmerton manager Frazer Edwards letting him know that the milestone was approaching.

“I have been playing for a long time now and I knew I was up there but Frazer rang me a couple of weeks ago and told me it coming right up,” he told Club Rugby this week.

This is because it is spread out over four clubs, Tawa, Northern United, Wellington and now Paremata-Plimmerton.

He has played by far and away the most of these matches for Tawa, the club he joined out of school at nearby Tawa College in 2011, and for whom his father Shane played for in the front row as well for many years in various teams.

He has also played by far the most of these appearances in the front row, predominantly at tighthead prop but occasionally and often more recently at loosehead prop

James made his debut for Tawa in round one of 2011 and he went on to win the Hardham Cup in his first season.

During the 2013 season he moved up to Norths, at the time citing  increased playing opportunities – Tawa’s captain Taniel Koroi was also tighthead prop, in a season in which Tawa did the Swindale Shield-Jubilee Cup double.

He rejoined Tawa in 2014 and stayed there until 2021, along with his younger brother by three years, Tony, also a front rower and a hooker and loosehead prop and whose career has been interrupted by shoulder and knee injuries. James was starting tighthead prop when Tawa won the Jubilee Cup for the second time in 2016, beating Marist St Pat’s 24-20 in the final.

It is also very much a family affair with the Coburns and rugby in Wellington. “My father started it off when he moved up to Wellington and to the Tawa club from Dunedin when he was 16 and played right up through to Presidents grade.”

Two of his three sisters, Bailey and Georgia, have also played rugby in the front row for Tawa and Norths teams, so combined the family has played many seasons and countless matches in Wellington club rugby over the years.

Action during the Jubilee Cup semi-final premier rugby match between Paremata-Plimmerton  v OBU, on 15 July 2023, at Ngatitoa Domain, Mana, Wellington, New Zealand. Final score Final score 31-29 to Paremata-Plimmerton.

Younger brother Tony running it up in last year’s Jubilee Cup semi-final against OBU.

In early 2021, James and Tony moved to the Axemen. “The connection there was Murray Mexted. His dad used to coach my dad. They had been talking for a while and we were thinking about to do next, and Murray rang us up and asked us to come play for them for a couple of years so we did.”

The brothers joined their current club Paremata-Plimmerton in 2023.

The connection there was Pare-Plim Director of Rugby Gerard Fasavalu, who asked Tony to join, having coached him at Norths a few years earlier.

But not James – and for good reason.

“In my second year at the Axemen [2022] I was playing Heartland Championship rugby for Wairarapa-Bush. I tore my bicep, and I thought that was it, I was retired.

“I went and watched Tony’s first game for Paremata-Plimmerton against the Upper Hutt Rams when they lost by one point [34-35] and I was at training the following Tuesday and in their team the next Saturday!”

James, with ball in hand, and Tony alongside him, in their recent fifth round match against Norths. Photo: Stewart Baird.

The move to Paremata-Plimmerton also brought on a switch in position. “I was predominantly a tighthead prop but we had Pasi Tosi from the Hurricanes often playing so I changed to loosehead where I tend to play more now. It changes every week, also depending on where Tony is at in the starting team or on the bench.

“We have that mentality where as long as we are on the field it doesn’t matter where we are.”

The brothers are firefighters – both at Thorndon Station and on the same watch.

There are several current and former Wellington club players and referees also working at either Thorndon or Wellington Stations. As well as the Coburns, these include Chris Middleton (Tawa), Matt Treeby (Tawa), Jono Boyd (Tawa), Ryan McLean (Paremata-Plimmerton and referee), Matt Perry (referee) and Ihakara Masoe (Wellington).

As well as on-field highlights, such as winning the Jubilee Cup and Swindale Shield titles, it’s the experiences that rugby has provided that are highlights from Coburns career.

“The biggest highlight would be playing with my brother, and that is why I am still playing. But playing rugby has let travel the world. I have played in Scotland, the Netherlands and Japan.”

Having played for four clubs in Wellington and for 13 seasons and counting, has the competition changed in Coburn’s time?

“It has got younger. When I first started 30 was a typical age of players around you, now 30 is old.”

And the lack of depth across the board. “I used to play against players like Alfred Perenise, Donal McNamara, Jacob Ellison, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Mike Kainga, Jonathon Fuimaono, Whetu Henry – all these guys in their prime were tough opponents. We used to have a prop called Juice (Livingston) and guys like him were the stalwarts of the teams. It is less that way now.”

Needless to say, Coburn enjoys playing at home for Paremata-Plimmerton at Ngati Toa Domain where the crowd is close and the atmosphere often electric.

Not least alongside some of his teammates. “It’s always good to come out of the scrum and see our backs halfway down the field and guys like Esi Komaisavai and Louis Northcott lighting it up.”

James Coburn running freely with his new clubrooms and vocal supporters as the backdrop. Photo: Stewart Baird.

Paremata-Plimmerton are at home this weekend against Johnsonville, the first of three home games to come. The others being against Old Boys University and Wellington.

They beat Marist St Pat’s 31-25 this past weekend and Hutt Old Boys Marist 24-12 the week before that, but Coburn has been around long enough to know that Paremata-Plimmerton needs to keep winning games, not only to have a chance of defending the Swindale Shield but also of securing their place for the upcoming Jubilee Cup round.

Paremata-Plimmerton v Johnsonville, Swindale Shield Round 9, Saturday 1 June, Ngati Toa Domain, 2.15pm.

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