Rugby club looks to East

John East grew up in the area and played his rugby here as a youngster. Time photo Wayne Martin.

John East has a lot on his plate. That was not the plan.

At 62, he was already looking to buying a boat and heading out into the big blue yonder, the Pacific to be precise.

That’ll have to wait. He has found himself at the helm of Pakuranga United Rugby Club (PURC) as its new general manager, a position vacated in November by Stephen Hackett who has moved with his wife to Taupo after a decade at the club.

East and the club are inextricably linked. Their DNA was formed an age ago.

“I played all my junior rugby there. My son Max is the current premier captain,” says East.

“I’ve been on the club board for 15-20 years. I’ve held every voluntary role at the club barring chairman. I’ve been vice-chairman, senior club chairman, council delegates representative to the Auckland Rugby Union…”

It works particularly well with the club’s live local, play local mantra.

East was born and bred here. He went to Anchorage Park School, Howick Intermediate and Pakuranga College.

“My roots are here. I’ve been involved with the club all my life,” says East.

“Steve resigned last year and I was on the board. We went to the market place and there were some good candidates.

“It’s a unique role – there wasn’t anyone that stood out and it looked like we were going to have to go back and do another round so I said to the board at the time, I’ll fill in. The part-time role has turned into a full-time role.

And there we are. The fit seems natural. His background is in telecommunication. He spent 25 years in the corporate world.

He was general manager at TelstraClear for one of their divisions for some time the general manager NZ for Alcatel.

“I decided to get out of that bollocks. I got a pub in Whitford – Five Stags Whitford – which I sold about 2016 or 17 and then I’ve just been doing some consulting work and bits and pieces.”

The club, its players and a viable game plan for the business going forward is what now commands his undivided attention. The plans are big and, insists East, they need to be.

At the club’s last annual meeting, agreement was reached to rename the facility the Howick & Pakuranga Community Sports Centre, a move apparently lauded by Auckland Council for the obvious reason it will embrace numerous codes and opportunities for the community (and the club naturally).

“Right now it is the home of Pakuranga Rugby but we’ve kind of outgrown that. So we’ve now got all these sports,” says East.

“We’ve got the baseball boys at the back currently under negotiations because they need a home. Why would they want to go and build a clubhouse when we’ve got one 150 metres away.

“At the moment we’ve got a thriving rugby business, we’ve got a thriving netball business, we’ve got a thriving touch rugby business, we’ve got the second biggest badminton facility in Auckland which has outgrown itself. We’re looking to expand.”

It seems a perfectly logical strategic step forward and it shouldn’t in any way diminish a club with a fiercely loyal player and fan base.

There’s more. The club – with its not inconsiderable acreage – believes it has a conferencing capability.

“We’ve got 200 carparks in the middle of one of the best south-east Auckland parkland [settings] that we’re looking to build another Waipuna Lodge-type [facilities on] for three-or-four star conferencing capability,” says East.

It’s early days but it’s on the table.

In terms of rugby itself, the club has a new director of rugby after former All Black Pita Alatini left the post to take on a post as systems innovator at The Cause Collective NZ, a Pacific social change agency working out of South Auckland.

The new director of rugby is Grant Henson, a legend in the Counties Manukau system.

“He’s well-respected everywhere, he’s got strong connections right through to NZ Rugby,” says East.

The Counties Manukau centurion was a stalwart in the black, white and red jersey playing for 14 provincial seasons.

As a coach, Henson has been involved in campaigns with the Chiefs age group and development sides, Manu Samoa and seven years as part of the coaching team for the Counties Manukau Steelers.

Until joining the club in February, Henson was employed by Counties Manukau as a coach development manager.

East said the key areas of focus for Henson will be three-pronged – the recruitment and retention of players, developing the club’s girls and women’s rugby strategy and upskilling club coaches.

“Pakuranga is a rugby factory. We’re the largest junior club by registration in the country. We do a fantastic job from 5-year-olds to 13-year-olds so when they finish after intermediate school then we hand them over to the high schools,” says East.

“Our challenge is to get them back from the high schools back to the club to keep playing the game. It’s a challenge.

“So one of the things we’re looking at Grant to do is recruitment retention, to try and leverage the good work that they’ve done when they’re at the junior club and get them back so we can treat the place as a community resource for them when they finish high school. That’s the first thread.”

The second thread is girls’ and women’s sports, tying in with the current serious momentum the women’s rugby code is gathering nationally.

“The All Black Black Ferns have kicked on this sport providing the emphasis for us to get rolling,” says East.

“At a union level, Auckland have now got dedicated resource for girls’ and women’s rugby and at a club level now this is the first year they’ve actually introduced a junior competition for girls-only rugby.

“We have four teams now. Where girls’ rugby for us has a big drawcard is that – it does two things – one obviously is that it provides an avenue for girls to play sport but just as importantly, it gets the parents of the children down to our place.

We’ve had girls play and it’s normally as a result of their brothers playing and they play in the junior teams until they’re about 9 or 10. Now there is a pathway for them right up until they’re senior players and they can play either contact or non-contact.”

At 9 or 10, says East, they can choose to either play contact or play, effectively, touch (non-contact Rippa Rugby).

“What we’ve found is that at the Howick and Pakuranga level – and all surrounding areas – we’re now having to address the markets to attract these kids to come and play or offer rugby as an option that we previously didn’t have to look at,” he says.

“They’re learning the skills of the job apart from the mechanics of actually playing the game, they’re learning social skills, they’re learning team sports skills.”

The third thread is coach-the-coaches. “We think that a strong coaching programme across all of our rugby grade, across our genders, will make those kids more sticky if they get a good experience with the club,” says East.

“We’re changing gear. Everyone’s done a terrific job until now but it’s time for us to re-evaluate what we are and what we do and who we address.

“I think all rugby has to do that across the country. We’re not solely now the male domain that we used to be – we’re multi-cultural, we’re multi-gender and we’re multi-sporting codes.

“As it relates to us, we have got the best community-based facilities in the country. Hence the reason we’re changing the name of the facility to the Howick and Pakuranga Community Sports Centre – it’s the home of Pakuranga Rugby, the home of Pakuranga netball, home of Pakuranga touch, home of Pakuranga badminton and so on.

“Donna Kinnane is going to pull all that together so we’re going to have common branding, we’ll have common messaging so one club, one culture – live local, play local.

“The upshot of that is we’re morphing ourselves to a new community-based sports facility and the perception is it’s the rugby club.”

Will it stick?

“I don’t know but certainly when we go to people that we need some help with funding trusts or benefactors, whatever the case may be, we’re seen as a community-based sports organisation, not just a rugby club. It’s going to make life a whole lot easier.”

As to his retirement plan, East has set a two-to-four year window. “I said to them I’ll give a couple of years and we’ll get this new look going and then I want to buy a boat and head off to the Pacific – in the next three or four years. I’ll do a couple of years and …depending on what I’m up to …see where we stand.”