Take a man with vision and the determination to showcase the sports that built a nation; add the Topp Twins, three former All Blacks and hundreds of elite rural sportspeople, mix them in a variety of competitive endeavours in Queenstown under blue skies and sunshine and what do you get?
Organisers of the first ever Hilux New Zealand Rural Games confirmed it will become an annual event after attracting more than 7,500 spectators to Queenstown over the Waitangi holiday weekend.
An estimated crowd of 5,000 people lined the downtown streets on Waitangi Day to watch around 400 locally-bred merino sheep pass by in the Running of the Wools. The free event, co-sponsored by the Otago Daily Times and clothing and gift retailer, Global Culture, proved the perfect curtain raiser for the next two days of traditional sports and live entertainment staged on Queenstown Recreation Ground.
Snow on the mountains around Lake Wakatipu after storms earlier in the week quickly melted as the sun ensured a warm and sunny atmosphere for competitors and spectators alike.
Billed as a showcase for ‘sports that built the nation’, nearly 200 competitors took part in 13 national and trans-Tasman championships including sheep dog trials, coal shovelling, wood chopping, speed shearing, speed fencing and gumboot throwing plus the Wild Buck Challenge taking place in the beer tent.
Spectators were entertained on both days by roving MCs, musical comedy duo the Topp Twins, plus three former All Blacks in Jeff Wilson, Justin Marshall and Toyota ambassador, Marc Ellis who competed with and against each other in several events over the weekend.
Day one highlights included the North Island taking out the NZ Inter-Island Challenge Sheep Dog Trials in association with Ngai Tahu Farming while former NZ strongman champion and national Highland Games number two, Reuben de Jong winning the NZ Rural Highland Games ‘Heavies’ trophy. The overall title of this new addition to the NZ Highland Games calendar, presented in association with PlaceMakers, was decided over the four traditional events of caber toss, stones lift, farmer’s walk and heavy stone toss.
The ANZAXE Trans Tasman Wood Chopping Championship pitched the four top-ranked Aussies – Jamie Head, Laurence O’Toole, Brent Rees and Brayden Myer – against New Zealand’s reigning world champion team of Shane Jordan, Jason Wynyard, Adam Lowe and Kyle Lemon.
Queenslander, Jamie Head took the overall trophy from Kiwis Shane Jordan (second) and Jason Wynyard (third), while the home team won the team event.
Australia had more individual success in the New Zealand championships for coal shovelling on Saturday and cherry stone spitting on Sunday. The reigning Australian champions in each sport, Stuart Turner from New South Wales and Clint Thompson from WA respectively, will take the titles back across the Ditch with them.
Elsewhere on Sunday, the NZ Wine Barrel Racing Championship attracted a global field including entrants from North America, Europe and Asia as well as home grown talent. Eventual men’s winner, Csaba Szondi was visiting from Hungary.
In the throwing events, 10-year-old Adam Stevens from Invercargill won the Bill Tapley Trophy for cow pat tossing held as part of Jetstar Kids ‘n Country, a series of fun events for the under-12s.
Interviewed after his victory he revealed the secret of his success: “I chose a nice tight turd and threw it as far as I could.”
After speed competitions for hand milking in association with Fonterra (featuring a pair of specially adapted fibreglass cows), tree climbing, fencing (in association with Line 7) and gold panning there was victory for five-time world shearing champion, David Fagan in the NZ Speed Shear Championship in association with Toyota Hilux. The veteran from Te Kuiti will retire from competition in April at the end of the current New Zealand season.
In the Games’ penultimate event, an excited crowd witnessed a new national record for egg throwing and catching of 61.7m recorded by Justin Marshall (throwing) and Jeff Wilson (catching). Then the first NZ Gumboot Throwing Championship, in association with Skellerup, saw both men and women’s North Island teams (selected during last year’s Taihape Gumboot Day) win against South Island teams that qualified through Saturday’s regional champs.
Hilux New Zealand Rural Games founder and trustee, Steve Hollander was delighted with how the event turned out.
“What a weekend! We’re all taken aback by the New Zealand public’s enthusiasm for rural sports some of which have all but died out as spectator events. That’s our vision – to preserve the legacy of traditional sports for future generations, bringing them to the attention of the wider population and ensuring this country’s rural spirit is celebrated for many years to come,” he said.
“Huge thanks for everyone who competed and came along to make the event such a success, as well as our amazing volunteers and event crew. We’re already planning for next year so see you in Queenstown on Waitangi weekend 2016.”
Sky Sports will be showing an hour-long highlights programme of the Hilux New Zealand Rural Games at 6.30pm on Friday 13 February.
TV3’s coverage of the Games is here.
TV1’s coverage is here.
Steve Hollander has been working on the concept for about five years.
I became chair of the Games Trust late last year after most of the hard work had been done.
The last three days were a very good reflection on Steve’s drive and determination and the work he and his team had put in to dotting is and crossing ts.
Competition was fierce and competitors and spectators were treated to a weekend of excitement and entertainment.