Hiller's highlights

Herald's John Hill retires after more than 30 years of reporting the district's sports news

Herald's John Hill retires after more than 30 years of reporting the district's sports news

ONE FOR THE SCRAPBOOK: Sportswriter John Hill, on tiptoe, with Gisborne Trampoline Club’s best all-round trampolinist of 2018, Leah Scholefield. Hiller has been trampoline coach Doug Callahan’s go-to guy at The Herald for decades. Picture supplied
India's Cheteshwar Pujara walks off after he was caught out for 193 runs against Australia on day 2 during their cricket test match in Sydney, Friday, Jan. 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)
Number two seed Julia Goerges in crown against number one seed, Caroline Wozniacki in the women's ASB Classic final at ASB Tennis Arena, Stanley St, Parnell, Auckland. 7 January 2018. New Zealand Herald photograph by Nick Reed.

My first reaction was to say “thanks but no thanks” when asked by my Gisborne Herald sports colleague John “JD” Gillies to write an article on my time as a sports journalist (31 years) before retiring (yesterday), but then I figured “why not”.

Covering a wide range of sports and, in particular, rugby has given me some sporting highlights, wonderful memories, the opportunity to interview some famous sportsmen and sportswomen and be present when history was made.

I started at The Herald in September 1987 and I can say there has never been a day when I did not enjoy coming to work.

As a former New Zealand footballer (soccer player) I have often been asked how I became a rugby reporter.

JD’s dad Iain, the editor then, is to blame.

A day before the start of the 1991 rugby season, Iain said, “Hiller, how do you fancy covering a couple of rugby matches at the Oval?”

“Heik (the late John Heikell) is doing the main games at Rugby Park and we need someone to cover the two games at the Oval.”

Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where football was the No.1 sport, I had never been that interested in rugby.

Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where football was the No.1 sport, I had never been that interested in rugby.

But, having come to Gisborne in 1975 and becoming a fan of the ABs, especially Sid Going (sorry, Kirky, but I wasn’t built to be a forward), I decided to have a go.

My first two matches were Pirates versus GMC and YMP versus Ngatapa.

I couldn’t have picked two better matches to start my rugby career.

As I walked between the two pitches I saw what looked like a schoolboy team getting ready to take on a team of giants — forwards and backs.

Apart from locks Tony Tapp and Peter Norman, Arthur Cross’s lightweight Pirates side looked no match for Barney Tupara’s men.

But, after Pirates first five-eighth Richard Francis kicked off — on a rock-hard pitch — the ball landed close to the touchline a few metres from me and I saw something that has left me with a soft spot for Pirates ever since.

To a man, the Pirates forwards threw themselves at their bigger and stronger opponents, with no regard for their bodies, in their efforts to secure possession.

At the end of 80 minutes, a battered and bruised Pirates team walked off the field having won 16-0.

I was hooked on the physicality and commitment of rugby, without ever wanting to play the game.

Meanwhile, on the other pitch, YMP sounded a warning to their rivals for the Lee Bros Shield with a 34-6 demolition of Ngatapa.

It was the start of a great three-year reign by coach Jimmy Whaitiri’s magical magpies . . . the best club side I have watched.

As YMP got better with every game, regularly grabbing the headlines with their scintillating play, I copped some friendly flak from the more knowledgeable rugby folk in town.

“You wait till they play Old Boys (who were the No.1 team, having won the 1988 and 1989 finals and shared the trophy with Marist in 1990) or Marist, then they’ll meet their match.”

Fortunately for me, Heik was the senior rugby reporter and was covering the final between Old Boys and YMP in 1991 - no pressure on me.

Fortunately for me, Heik was the senior rugby reporter and was covering the final between Old Boys and YMP in 1991 . . . no pressure on me.

“Hiller, you’ve been covering rugby all season and think you’re an expert, so who is going to win?” the editor asked.

“YMP,” I said, little understanding the importance of the Shield, not only to the players but also to the supporters.

“Hiller, you had better take Monday off,” said Herald photographer Paul Rickard, later to be my regular travelling companion on trips to cover Ngati Porou East Coast games.

“Old Boys will win . . . and, besides, you haven’t got one prediction (in football) right in the past 10 years.”

As my wife Jennifer and I walked up the steps of the grandstand to watch the final, YMP fans were encouraging us to sit among them, after my prediction.

To be on the safe side, I decided we would sit behind the Old Boys supporters, many of whom I had worked with at Watties.

And when Old Boys opened the scoring, their supporters soon let me know what they thought about my tip of YMP for the Shield.

“Stick to soccer. Hiller, you haven’t a clue about rugby.”

Oh dear. To make matters worse, I had been told that if a Maori team went behind, it was all over . . . not this time.

YMP, led by prop and skipper Huki Wilson, spared my blushes with a 16-13 victory, the first of three successive shield wins.

Then came my promotion to the big time, covering representative rugby, and again Iain was behind that.

With Heik doing Poverty Bay, I was assigned to go up the Coast.

With Heik doing Poverty Bay, I was assigned to go up the Coast.

My first game was at Tikitiki. I think East Coast were playing West Coast.

I didn’t even know where the ground was and, with Rick (Paul Rickard) at Rugby Park, I drove my own car to Tikitiki.

When I arrived at the ground, I was the only Pakeha there and I wasn’t sure how I would be greeted. I needn’t have worried.

After the initial query — “What are you doing here; are you lost, son?” — I was welcomed and made to feel at home.

“We don’t often get Gisborne Herald reporters covering our games.”

And when the rain pelted down shortly after kick-off, the supporters made room for me under what little cover there was . . . 27 years on, I still love heading up the Coast to report on the Sky Blues.

Who will ever forget the Joe McClutchie golden years from 1999 to the mid-2000s.

Back-to-back NPC titles, one at Ruatoria in 1999 against a strong Poverty Bay team and the second away to North Otago.

After hearing the Coast had won (my second correct prediction) I decided to meet the team at Gisborne Airport on their return on Sunday night to get a colour story for Monday’s paper.

The airport was packed. Then out came the guitars and the singing started.

As the plane started to descend, the singing grew louder and louder. And that was just the plane carrying the supporters.

When the plane carrying the players and management landed, the volume went up. And when the players performed a controlled but emotional haka, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

It was after midnight when I got back to the Herald offices - but what a story I had to tell.

It was after midnight when I got back to the Herald offices . . . but what a story I had to tell.

More success followed when Joe Mac took the team to the second division final against Hawke’s Bay in Napier.

As we entered McLean Park, an official on the gate said, “I hope you’re supporting the Bay, because the ground is filled with Coast supporters.”

An invitation to join the Coast fans in the stand opposite the main grandstand was happily accepted as we looked around at a sea of blue and white.

OK, so the Coast lost, but we outscored the Magpies five tries to two.

After the Coast stayed in the second division in the mid 2000s, there were some lean spells until Ngarimu Simpkins and Rua Tipoki teamed up to coach the 2011 side and took them all the way to the Meads Cup final, where they lost to Wanganui in the Garden City.

“We’ll be back next year, only this time we’ll win,” said Simpkins in a 2012 pre-season get-together at which I was privileged to be a guest speaker.

Those who were at Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, on October 27, 2012, will not need reminding of the result — a 29-27 victory against Wanganui, after the Coast had trailed 27-3 with 26 minutes to go.

As Verdon Bartlett scored in the right-wing corner in the dying seconds, I remember running across the pitch between the goalposts and the dead-ball line . . . before checking to see that I had not been caught on national television with my arms in the air.

But it was not just rugby and the Coast that gave me memories I will cherish for a long time.

But it was not just rugby and the Coast that gave me memories I will cherish for a long time.

Poverty Bay rugby teams coached by Paul Tocker, Kiwi Searancke, Paul Feeney, Grainger Heikell and Mutu Ngarimu have all had their moments in the sun . . . making my job easy.

On the field, as a footballer I was lucky to be a member of the first Gisborne City team to win a national trophy — the Air New Zealand Cup — with Kevin Fallon’s 1984 team, and to have played with so many great characters from 1975 to ’84 . . . too many to mention except for my old mate Harry Kennedy.

Off the field, I remember watching Steve Sumner’s 1987 team destroy Christchurch United 5-1 at Childers Road Reserve in the first of two Chatham Cup final legs.

A 2-2 draw in Christchurch meant that for the first time the Cup came back to Gisborne and to “Mr Gisborne City”, the late Ron Johnstone.

And what about the Turanga Health Rising Suns second division basketball team and their inspirational coach Frank Russell.

Every second week I sat among the Suns fans at a packed YMCA, singing, 'Let’s go Suns, let’s go'

Every second week I sat among the Suns fans at a packed YMCA, singing, “Let’s go Suns, let’s go,” and watched them take on and more often than not beat teams from the bigger cities.

Dwayne Tamatea, Ray Noble, Doug DeVore, Errol Wilson, Robbie Wilson and Reg Namana are just some of the household names that treated the home crowd to nights that will live long in the memory.

I was also at Awapuni Stadium for rugby league grand finals when the Paikea Whalers dominated rugby league and when the Gisborne Tairawhiti Rugby League team smashed a star-studded Hawke’s Bay side in one of the best displays by any team of any code I saw.

I may even had shed a few tears when I walked into the changing rooms to congratulate the local players and thank them for giving me another great story to write.

Some people have been kind and said I wasn’t a bad sportswriter but my reply has always been, “It’s not me but the players who make the story”.

The 2012 Meads Cup win wasn’t just a great game . . . it was a great team and we in Gisborne are lucky to have had so many great teams and individuals in rugby, football, league, basketball, cricket, netball, softball, surf lifesaving, swimming, kayaking, waka ama, trampolining, martial arts, golf, bowls, croquet, polo, equestrian and the racket sports . . . the list goes on.

Favourite footballer? Even though he and I never played in the same team, Iain Gillies.

Favourite footballer? Even though he and I never played in the same team, Iain Gillies.

Rogie could play anywhere from one to 11 and is the man who carried me through my early days as a sports reporter.

Favourite pitches? Whakarua Park, Ruatoria; Paddy’s Park, Patutahi; and Childers Road Reserve.

The atmosphere at Whakarua Park, particularly during the late 1990s and through to the mid-2000s and then again in 2011 and 2012, had to be experienced to be believed.

As the players walked across the paddock from the old changing rooms, the women in the main stand would rise up and start singing.

The fans in the corporate grandstands — a table and stools on the back of a ute — would encourage the men in Sky Blue to “smash the opposition”.

The Ngatapa supporters have made the trip to Paddy’s Park one I’ve always looked forward to.

Win, lose or draw they back their team 100 percent and I’ve enjoyed the friendly banter and the chips and can of Coke at halftime (thanks Cara).

In the early days of my rugby reporting — in fact, right through to the present — I’d walk around the ground, listening to what Kirky was saying and making a note of it . . . “the forwards aren’t getting to the breakdown quickly enough”, “the body position’s not right”, “we’re not looking after the pill”.

And it must be said I learned a lot about the game from listening to the female supporters of all the teams . . . “why are they kicking the ball away, keep it in hand, run it back”, “the first-five’s standing too far away from the halfback”.

Childers Road Reserve will always be special. It was there in 1979 that I helped Gisborne City return to the National League when we drew 1-1 with Miramar Rangers to win the Central League.

To all the codes and individual sportsmen and sportswomen I have not mentioned, please accept my apologies, but be assured you have all helped make my job enjoyable and so much easier than it might have been.

My first reaction was to say “thanks but no thanks” when asked by my Gisborne Herald sports colleague John “JD” Gillies to write an article on my time as a sports journalist (31 years) before retiring (yesterday), but then I figured “why not”.

Covering a wide range of sports and, in particular, rugby has given me some sporting highlights, wonderful memories, the opportunity to interview some famous sportsmen and sportswomen and be present when history was made.

I started at The Herald in September 1987 and I can say there has never been a day when I did not enjoy coming to work.

As a former New Zealand footballer (soccer player) I have often been asked how I became a rugby reporter.

JD’s dad Iain, the editor then, is to blame.

A day before the start of the 1991 rugby season, Iain said, “Hiller, how do you fancy covering a couple of rugby matches at the Oval?”

“Heik (the late John Heikell) is doing the main games at Rugby Park and we need someone to cover the two games at the Oval.”

Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where football was the No.1 sport, I had never been that interested in rugby.

Growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where football was the No.1 sport, I had never been that interested in rugby.

But, having come to Gisborne in 1975 and becoming a fan of the ABs, especially Sid Going (sorry, Kirky, but I wasn’t built to be a forward), I decided to have a go.

My first two matches were Pirates versus GMC and YMP versus Ngatapa.

I couldn’t have picked two better matches to start my rugby career.

As I walked between the two pitches I saw what looked like a schoolboy team getting ready to take on a team of giants — forwards and backs.

Apart from locks Tony Tapp and Peter Norman, Arthur Cross’s lightweight Pirates side looked no match for Barney Tupara’s men.

But, after Pirates first five-eighth Richard Francis kicked off — on a rock-hard pitch — the ball landed close to the touchline a few metres from me and I saw something that has left me with a soft spot for Pirates ever since.

To a man, the Pirates forwards threw themselves at their bigger and stronger opponents, with no regard for their bodies, in their efforts to secure possession.

At the end of 80 minutes, a battered and bruised Pirates team walked off the field having won 16-0.

I was hooked on the physicality and commitment of rugby, without ever wanting to play the game.

Meanwhile, on the other pitch, YMP sounded a warning to their rivals for the Lee Bros Shield with a 34-6 demolition of Ngatapa.

It was the start of a great three-year reign by coach Jimmy Whaitiri’s magical magpies . . . the best club side I have watched.

As YMP got better with every game, regularly grabbing the headlines with their scintillating play, I copped some friendly flak from the more knowledgeable rugby folk in town.

“You wait till they play Old Boys (who were the No.1 team, having won the 1988 and 1989 finals and shared the trophy with Marist in 1990) or Marist, then they’ll meet their match.”

Fortunately for me, Heik was the senior rugby reporter and was covering the final between Old Boys and YMP in 1991 - no pressure on me.

Fortunately for me, Heik was the senior rugby reporter and was covering the final between Old Boys and YMP in 1991 . . . no pressure on me.

“Hiller, you’ve been covering rugby all season and think you’re an expert, so who is going to win?” the editor asked.

“YMP,” I said, little understanding the importance of the Shield, not only to the players but also to the supporters.

“Hiller, you had better take Monday off,” said Herald photographer Paul Rickard, later to be my regular travelling companion on trips to cover Ngati Porou East Coast games.

“Old Boys will win . . . and, besides, you haven’t got one prediction (in football) right in the past 10 years.”

As my wife Jennifer and I walked up the steps of the grandstand to watch the final, YMP fans were encouraging us to sit among them, after my prediction.

To be on the safe side, I decided we would sit behind the Old Boys supporters, many of whom I had worked with at Watties.

And when Old Boys opened the scoring, their supporters soon let me know what they thought about my tip of YMP for the Shield.

“Stick to soccer. Hiller, you haven’t a clue about rugby.”

Oh dear. To make matters worse, I had been told that if a Maori team went behind, it was all over . . . not this time.

YMP, led by prop and skipper Huki Wilson, spared my blushes with a 16-13 victory, the first of three successive shield wins.

Then came my promotion to the big time, covering representative rugby, and again Iain was behind that.

With Heik doing Poverty Bay, I was assigned to go up the Coast.

With Heik doing Poverty Bay, I was assigned to go up the Coast.

My first game was at Tikitiki. I think East Coast were playing West Coast.

I didn’t even know where the ground was and, with Rick (Paul Rickard) at Rugby Park, I drove my own car to Tikitiki.

When I arrived at the ground, I was the only Pakeha there and I wasn’t sure how I would be greeted. I needn’t have worried.

After the initial query — “What are you doing here; are you lost, son?” — I was welcomed and made to feel at home.

“We don’t often get Gisborne Herald reporters covering our games.”

And when the rain pelted down shortly after kick-off, the supporters made room for me under what little cover there was . . . 27 years on, I still love heading up the Coast to report on the Sky Blues.

Who will ever forget the Joe McClutchie golden years from 1999 to the mid-2000s.

Back-to-back NPC titles, one at Ruatoria in 1999 against a strong Poverty Bay team and the second away to North Otago.

After hearing the Coast had won (my second correct prediction) I decided to meet the team at Gisborne Airport on their return on Sunday night to get a colour story for Monday’s paper.

The airport was packed. Then out came the guitars and the singing started.

As the plane started to descend, the singing grew louder and louder. And that was just the plane carrying the supporters.

When the plane carrying the players and management landed, the volume went up. And when the players performed a controlled but emotional haka, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.

It was after midnight when I got back to the Herald offices - but what a story I had to tell.

It was after midnight when I got back to the Herald offices . . . but what a story I had to tell.

More success followed when Joe Mac took the team to the second division final against Hawke’s Bay in Napier.

As we entered McLean Park, an official on the gate said, “I hope you’re supporting the Bay, because the ground is filled with Coast supporters.”

An invitation to join the Coast fans in the stand opposite the main grandstand was happily accepted as we looked around at a sea of blue and white.

OK, so the Coast lost, but we outscored the Magpies five tries to two.

After the Coast stayed in the second division in the mid 2000s, there were some lean spells until Ngarimu Simpkins and Rua Tipoki teamed up to coach the 2011 side and took them all the way to the Meads Cup final, where they lost to Wanganui in the Garden City.

“We’ll be back next year, only this time we’ll win,” said Simpkins in a 2012 pre-season get-together at which I was privileged to be a guest speaker.

Those who were at Whakarua Park, Ruatoria, on October 27, 2012, will not need reminding of the result — a 29-27 victory against Wanganui, after the Coast had trailed 27-3 with 26 minutes to go.

As Verdon Bartlett scored in the right-wing corner in the dying seconds, I remember running across the pitch between the goalposts and the dead-ball line . . . before checking to see that I had not been caught on national television with my arms in the air.

But it was not just rugby and the Coast that gave me memories I will cherish for a long time.

But it was not just rugby and the Coast that gave me memories I will cherish for a long time.

Poverty Bay rugby teams coached by Paul Tocker, Kiwi Searancke, Paul Feeney, Grainger Heikell and Mutu Ngarimu have all had their moments in the sun . . . making my job easy.

On the field, as a footballer I was lucky to be a member of the first Gisborne City team to win a national trophy — the Air New Zealand Cup — with Kevin Fallon’s 1984 team, and to have played with so many great characters from 1975 to ’84 . . . too many to mention except for my old mate Harry Kennedy.

Off the field, I remember watching Steve Sumner’s 1987 team destroy Christchurch United 5-1 at Childers Road Reserve in the first of two Chatham Cup final legs.

A 2-2 draw in Christchurch meant that for the first time the Cup came back to Gisborne and to “Mr Gisborne City”, the late Ron Johnstone.

And what about the Turanga Health Rising Suns second division basketball team and their inspirational coach Frank Russell.

Every second week I sat among the Suns fans at a packed YMCA, singing, 'Let’s go Suns, let’s go'

Every second week I sat among the Suns fans at a packed YMCA, singing, “Let’s go Suns, let’s go,” and watched them take on and more often than not beat teams from the bigger cities.

Dwayne Tamatea, Ray Noble, Doug DeVore, Errol Wilson, Robbie Wilson and Reg Namana are just some of the household names that treated the home crowd to nights that will live long in the memory.

I was also at Awapuni Stadium for rugby league grand finals when the Paikea Whalers dominated rugby league and when the Gisborne Tairawhiti Rugby League team smashed a star-studded Hawke’s Bay side in one of the best displays by any team of any code I saw.

I may even had shed a few tears when I walked into the changing rooms to congratulate the local players and thank them for giving me another great story to write.

Some people have been kind and said I wasn’t a bad sportswriter but my reply has always been, “It’s not me but the players who make the story”.

The 2012 Meads Cup win wasn’t just a great game . . . it was a great team and we in Gisborne are lucky to have had so many great teams and individuals in rugby, football, league, basketball, cricket, netball, softball, surf lifesaving, swimming, kayaking, waka ama, trampolining, martial arts, golf, bowls, croquet, polo, equestrian and the racket sports . . . the list goes on.

Favourite footballer? Even though he and I never played in the same team, Iain Gillies.

Favourite footballer? Even though he and I never played in the same team, Iain Gillies.

Rogie could play anywhere from one to 11 and is the man who carried me through my early days as a sports reporter.

Favourite pitches? Whakarua Park, Ruatoria; Paddy’s Park, Patutahi; and Childers Road Reserve.

The atmosphere at Whakarua Park, particularly during the late 1990s and through to the mid-2000s and then again in 2011 and 2012, had to be experienced to be believed.

As the players walked across the paddock from the old changing rooms, the women in the main stand would rise up and start singing.

The fans in the corporate grandstands — a table and stools on the back of a ute — would encourage the men in Sky Blue to “smash the opposition”.

The Ngatapa supporters have made the trip to Paddy’s Park one I’ve always looked forward to.

Win, lose or draw they back their team 100 percent and I’ve enjoyed the friendly banter and the chips and can of Coke at halftime (thanks Cara).

In the early days of my rugby reporting — in fact, right through to the present — I’d walk around the ground, listening to what Kirky was saying and making a note of it . . . “the forwards aren’t getting to the breakdown quickly enough”, “the body position’s not right”, “we’re not looking after the pill”.

And it must be said I learned a lot about the game from listening to the female supporters of all the teams . . . “why are they kicking the ball away, keep it in hand, run it back”, “the first-five’s standing too far away from the halfback”.

Childers Road Reserve will always be special. It was there in 1979 that I helped Gisborne City return to the National League when we drew 1-1 with Miramar Rangers to win the Central League.

To all the codes and individual sportsmen and sportswomen I have not mentioned, please accept my apologies, but be assured you have all helped make my job enjoyable and so much easier than it might have been.

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.

Justin Eaton - 5 months ago
John Hill, former All White, is such a great reporter . . . I went to school with his sons, John jnr and Peter at Ilminster Intermediate, and I avidly followed the splendid campaign by the 1982 All Whites to qualify and play at World Cup '82 in Spain. Those were the halcyon days of soccer/football that coincided with Gisborne City's terrific achievements too!
John, to you and Jenny, and your whole family, thank you for giving us all so many fantastic memories!

Eric Wilson, England - 5 months ago
Just read that you have retired John, enjoy your retirement. Have read the Herald a few times since moving to the UK in 1990 but remember the good days back home playing with and against you with City.

John Semple, Madrid - 4 months ago
John Hill, what a fantastic career. Great to hear a few more snippets. Look forward to the book release?
Should be back in NZ within the next few years. You may put the kettle on!

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