The Whakatane Touch tournament (in early January each year) is the largest club gathering for the sport in New Zealand. Over 100 teams wanted to fill the 72 available spots this summer. But, no matter who turns up, no team is ever as popular as the BaaBaaZ.
The BaaBaaZ (yep, that’s how they spell it) first appeared in Whakatane in 1998 with Carlos Spencer, Tana Umaga and Ofisa Tonu’u among their ranks. The team haven’t missed a year since and many of our best rugby athletes – from Benji Marshall to Ma’a Nonu to Liam Messam – have skinned their knees for the side.
Winston Su’a – a Kiwi-born Samoan who played club rugby and league in Auckland – is one of the team’s originals. He’s helped assemble the star-studded side for the last 17 years.
We caught up with Winston (42), or Uncle Wax as he’s known, while he was trying to track down an acupuncturist to unlock his aging calf muscles following this year’s tournament.
So how did the BaaBaaZ get started?
In the late 1990s, a bunch of us used to get together for a casual run of touch at the Auckland varsity grounds on Sundays. Everyone was welcome. Over a BBQ at Carlos Spencer’s house, we decided we should take a crew to Whakatane, as a Barbarians side. We figured the name fitted our style of play.
Turns out there were rules and regulations around using the Barbarians title. But we weren’t that into rules, so we became the BaaBaaZ. The Whakatane BaaBaaZ.
How’d you go that first year?
We won the restricted grade and beat the famous Galaxy Men’s team.
But we were really there for fun, the boys in our squad put bums on seats, and it was huge for the community in Bay of Plenty. We were able to give the local kids some goodies, too, because we had sponsors who bought into the bigger picture. So it was rewarding on heaps of levels. It’s been that way every year since.
Unfortunately, 1998 was the last time we won a grade at the tourney, despite making the finals every second or third year. Our guys seem to run out of puff late in the day. I definitely need to look again at the recruiting.
Who’ve been some of the big guns who’ve been BaaBaaZ over the years?
Carlos, Tana Umaga, Christian Cullen and Ofisa Tonu’u got things rolling that first year. Then we’ve had the likes of Ma’a Nonu, Piri Weepu, Mils Muliaina, Logan Swann and Pita Alatini. There have been heaps… Benji Marshall, Rico Gear, Liam Messam, Orene Ai’i, Matua Parkinson, Jerry Collins, Adrian Cashmore… even Neil Waka.
The kaumatua of the team is Frano Botica. He’s lagging nowadays, which is understandable with him being a dinosaur, but the ladies still turn up to watch him.
Rugby and League players don’t automatically have touch sussed. Who’s stood out amongst your crew?
Benji has all the tricks, obviously, and Piri, Carlos, Ma’a and Mils also know their way around a touch field.
How would you describe the BaaBaaZ style of play?
It’s Barbarians touch – so kinda like the Harlem Globetrotters. There’s no game plan – we just throw it around. But there’s so much experience and talent amongst the squad that I’m often in awe of what the guys can do. Still to this day, they know when to swerve, when to step, when to throw a long ball, when to go short. There are just some classic plays.
The only time that instincts sometimes let the old fellas down is when gauging whether they can actually still get through a gap. In the last five years, that ability has declined majorly.
It’s the 30th anniversary of the tournament in 2016. You got anything special planned?
We hope to have most of the lads back next year and we’re looking to include Sam Tomkins and Thomas Leuluai from the Warriors. Those two were Whakatane bound this year, but unfortunately for us a Warriors promo fell on the same day. But, who knows, maybe SBW could be a guest for 2016 too.
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