Covid-19 refugees are among those giving Central Otago rugby a shot in the arm.

However, rugby is a game of two halves; and where Central Otago is winning, the opposite is true in Upper Clutha.

Several rugby players who returned to Central Otago from overseas amid the Covid-19 pandemic have donned their boots, giving their teams a welcome boost in numbers.

Among them is Leigh Grieve, of Springvale, who helped Maniototo finish its opening game with a 13-13 draw against Matakanui on Saturday.

Rewind a few months — life looked very different for Grieve. He was working in Alberta, Canada, on a cattle and grain farm, but returned home for a holiday in January.

Times were tough in Canada due to a drop in oil prices, Grieve said.

‘‘On top of that Covid happened, so I thought it was a smart idea to hang back at home,’’ he said.

Naturally, being home meant embracing everything that goes with it, including rugby.

‘‘It’s sort of part of life around here, really.’’

He has managed to find work through a mate on a lamb and wool station in the Maniototo, but hoped to return to Canada in August to make use of a work permit he has.

While that would mean not making it to the end of the rugby season, he hoped his contribution would help get the team to the playoffs.

Teammate Sam Jopp has also unexpectedly joined the Maniototo side this season.

He returned home to Ranfurly from the United Kingdom, where he had spent about a year before the pandemic hit.

‘‘It all happened over a week,’’ Jopp said, of the outbreak and his decision to return home.
Jopp handed in his notice at work and was back on Maniototo soil within days.

Another team welcoming a boost to numbers was Matakanui Combined.

The club did not have a premier side last season due to a lack of numbers.

Instead of game time, members used the season to recruit new and old blood in time for the 2020 season.

That perseverance has paid off.

Head coach Dave Cockburn said between 28-30 players attended each training session and for the ‘‘first time in a long time’’ excess numbers meant management had to name a squad.

However, none of those players were Kiwis who have returned home due to the pandemic.
Instead, team numbers were being made up of players returning to the sport, or who had moved to the area, before and after Covid-19, for work.

Two Americans also joined the side — one returned home after the outbreak, while the other stayed and is ‘‘having a ball and loving it’’, Cockburn said.

Of Matakanui Combined’s large pool of players, about five have joined the club since the start of the season.

‘‘The players are wanting to get out and do something,’’ Cockburn said, referring to lockdown.

‘‘We didn’t know what was going to happen.

‘‘But, it was a big turnout after eight weeks of nothing.’’

Cockburn said the aim now was to have a good season, continue building the club and encourage more spectators to the games.

Among those who have played a pivotal role in getting the premier team back up and running was long-time club member and player Matt Holland.

While some clubs are thriving, others have taken a hit.

Upper Clutha Rugby Football Club had enough to field two teams pre-Covid, but now only has one.

Club vice-president Nathan Simon said a combination of reasons had caused the decline, including the start of the ski season and players leaving the area.

Cromwell Rugby Football Club has welcomed strong support this season, with enough players to field two teams — the Cromwell Goats and Cromwell Cavaliers.

The Goats had a win against Upper Clutha at the weekend, 25-16, its first win against the team in three seasons, securing the John Scott Memorial Trophy.

The Cavaliers lost to Alexandra 13-7.

Cromwell club captain Russell Decke said the season was off to a good start.

‘‘It looks like it’s going to be a close competition,’’ he said.

‘‘It’s going to be tough, but that’s what you want.’’

Alexandra Rugby Football Club captain Marty Rendall said player numbers were on par with last year.

‘‘Everybody is really wanting to get out playing.’’

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