Cripples of Wellington, NZ get one over Harlequins.

It’s halftime, and one thing is clear – these old boys need to make their move, and quick.

The Johnsonville Cripples pull in close, sweat pouring off their brows. It’s been 40 minutes since kick off in their game against the Milwaukee USA Harlequins, and to say they were getting hammered wouldn’t be overstating it.

“We’ve just got to play our own game,” one player says, gazing around the bedraggled group.

“Come on boys, this is schoolboy stuff.”

Heads nod, water is thrown back. “Come on suck it up guys, let’s go!” comes the call, and they’re back on the field – if you could call it that.

Sheep have been cleared from the Ohariu Valley Pony Club paddock for this one-off clash between the two teams, whose players have an average age of around 45 years.

About 340 people have turned out for the social event of the season for the Johnsonville club, whose members have put down a hangi, are optimistically cranking Queen’s We are the Champions from the sound system, and doing a roaring trade in Lion Brown.

“I’ve seen the odd tooth knocked out on this field,” said one bystander to another, before the whistle blows.

The game gets off to a rough start for the Cripples, with a few quick players in the opposition backline proving difficult to stop.

“He looks too young, he’s far too young. He should be banned,” yelled a woman from the sideline, as American Adam Blaeske, 23, sprinted up the sideline with the ball.

Clutching a beer on the sideline was Steve Ellis, who began the original Cripples team with mates 26 years ago.

He was now in retirement, but he and fellow Johnsonville supporter Joe Smyth were of the view that “Once a Cripple, always a Cripple.”

What were they expecting to see? “A lot of sweat, and I expect someone will break something – and I’ll be disappointed if they don’t,” Mr Smyth said.

The touring Milwaukee team had a secret weapon in winger Sarah Thomas, 24, one of three women playing for the side – who wasn’t fazed one bit about the guys she was up against.

“I play against a lot of big girls, so it’s not too different.”

As she talked, one of her teammates hobbled down the sidelines behind her, propped up by two players. “Oh yeah, he popped his knee out, but I think he’ll be alright,” Ms Thomas said casually.

Father and son Hugo Hanekom, 61, and Theunis Hanekom, 38, were part of a group of South Africans who were staying in campervans at the Johnsonville Rugby Club, and had been brought along to the match.

“It’s unbelievable, I love the posts,” said Theunis, pointing to the tiny goalposts which looked more suitable for a Rippa rugby tournament than a game played by grown men. “I told Dad I didn’t want to spend time with South Africans, and this is a great way to see the local culture.”

Hugo had initially been alarmed when he heard about the Cripples match. “I thought they were people with deformed legs and things like that, and Theunis said to me `no, that’s what they call the old blokes’.”

After their halftime team talk, the Cripples pulled back to win – well, no-one really knew what the score was, actually.

“We won five tries to one,” captain Richard “Noff” Eckhoff claimed, as the first cans began to be cracked open. “We got a couple of younger players in halfway through the game, which helped us out a bit. It was tough, it was tougher than we thought.”

And the Americans loved it too. “Every time you look around, you are like, `this is totally worth breaking my neck’,” said winger Mr Blaeske, gazing at the surroundings.

But as the sun went down and the hangi steam rose over the Ohariu Valley hills, it was Mr Hanekom who probably summed it up the best. “All of us have one thing in common: We talk rugby.”

Jim Harings
Jim Harings
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