They burst out of the backblocks for one dazzling summer of rowing then disappeared back into the pine forests of Kaingaroa just as quickly as they’d come.

 

It was a decision that took them on one the greatest adventures of their lives, through the heartland of New Zealand sport, where a chance meeting with their rowing hero gave them a shot at the bigtime and turned them into cult heroes around the shores of Lake Taupo.

 

A ‘W’ on their back

Paul Squire and Sam Webb loved nothing more than sitting at the finish line at Lake Karapiro to watch Waikato’s Olympic athletes Danny Keane and Dave Rodger motor through in the Premier Coxed Pair.

1976 was coming to a close and the summer had just begun. They were racing a Maiden Coxed Pair for Whangarei Rowing Club and Keane and Rodger were the rowers they aspired to be.

With that black W sewn onto the blue Whangarei RC shirt, Paul and Sam were clocking up wins in the pre-Christmas regattas and had their eyes on nationals.

They’d been students at Whangarei Boys High School, both talented rugby players who took up rowing to stay fit over summer.

They’d had a couple of years in an eight and four but this first season in a pair was looking more than promising and a title at Horowhenua in 1977 seemed more than a possibility.

They came so close. As Paul remembers it, just pipped by a couple of units from Otago RC named Hugo Eaton and Andrew Stevenson. Yeah, that Andrew Stevenson. ‘Herb’.

Both were passed over for New Zealand Colts crews and that’s where Sam Webb and Paul Squire’s names disappeared from the rowing records, seemingly forever.

 

Pinetrees on the Volcanic Plateau

There was a TV ad going around in the late 1970s, featuring All Black Sir Colin Meads lugging tanalised fence posts around his Te Kuiti farm. Pine posts were big business.

Sam was working on his brother’s farm on Matakana Island in the Bay of Plenty.

He was having a great time, working hard and playing Sunday rugby in the regional marae competition.

Paul was in a bit of a rut up north.

“I'd run out of my Colts dream, I was bored with my job in Whangarei, and it was time to leave home,” he says.

Sam sent him a letter suggesting he come down to the island. Come and play some rugby. The social life was great and the outdoor work would be good for him. Paul needed no convincing.

They’d been there only a short time when an opportunity too good to miss came up.

“We heard about this post cutting job in Taupo where they were paying 30 cents a post and a dollar for every strainer,” says Sam.

They figured if they went hard they could make a hundred bucks a day. Big money back then.

“So we moved to Taupo on Queen's Birthday weekend of all days,” says Sam.

There was as much work as they wanted, and the more they cut, the more they made.

So they worked dawn ‘til dusk.

“You cut the tree down and then cut it into six-foot lengths,” says Sam. “Then you had to pick them up and stack them. We used to cut about three hundred posts a day, which sort of equated to about twelve tonne of lifting every day.

“I remember Paul after his first day stacking posts behind me as I cut them. Paul was absolutely shattered, and he had to get up and do the same the next day and the next day and so on. He toughened up from being a city boy. It was a mentally and physically challenging job, day in and day out in all weather conditions.”

 

A chance meeting

At about the same time, 1976 Olympic rep Danny Keane had bought a business and was living in Taupo. He’d finished with competitive rowing although he did get out on the lake in a single to keep fit.

Apart from winning Red Coats, he’d been a formidable lock for Hamilton Marist in the Waikato senior competition but was also ready to give rugby away as well.

That was until the guy he bought the business off twisted his arm to cover on the bench for the senior team at the Wairakei club, perilously close as it turned out, to Taupo Rowing Club.

A couple of former North Auckland U21 players were also at Wairakei Rugby.

“I remember sitting in the club rooms at Wairakei before a game one day getting changed,” says Paul, “and in walks Danny Keane. I thought, ‘What the hell? I know you’. And then thinking to myself, ‘I wonder if he recognises me? ….. Naaa!’”

Sam came in shortly after: “And there was Danny Keane, my bloody rowing idol.”

“We were having a beer afterwards,” says Danny, “and Sam and Paul came up to me and said they used to row and remembered sitting on the finish line just to watch Dave and I come through in the pair.”

The next thing, they were asking Danny if he’d coach them because they wanted to give rowing another crack. They were just a few months out from the 1981 National Championships.

So, Danny got them out on the lake in an ancient coxed pair borrowed from Taupo Rowing Club.

They found themselves a coxswain, the son of the local policeman, who was bored and getting himself into a bit of trouble and off they went.

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One of the very few photos Sam, Danny, Paul and cox Alan Governer.

Six days a week on top of the gruelling 12-hour days they were doing in the bush.

“I never went out there and saw them, because I didn't want to, I'd break into a sweat just watching them,” says Danny. “But I knew they were swinging on those chainsaws all day, and if they weren't, they weren't earning money.”

Danny was putting in the mahi at the end of the day on the lake though, coaching alongside them from his single.

“Because of the daylight saving, we were able to row at night,” he says. “That's all they wanted to do, and they loved it.”

They all soon realised that if they were going to race seriously, their boat wasn’t going to cut it.

“We had a shitty old wooden boat,” says Sam. “Danny said, ‘You're going to get nowhere with this bloody heavy thing.’”

So the three of them went back into the bush when they could find the time and started cutting truckloads of firewood to sell.

They raised enough to buy themselves a brand-new boat off Petone legend Viv Haar, as well as a new set of oars.

Locals were starting to notice this mysterious rowing mission.

“They were quite often in the papers,” says Danny. “A lot of the town followed them  because they could see them rowing on the lake. The local radio station wanted me to ring in with results.”

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Paul and Sam were headline news in the New Zealand Herald

The lake was proving to be a bit unsuitable for sunset rowing, especially with Danny trying to row alongside in his single and all sorts of other marine traffic.

So they moved their rows to a quiet lake on the Waikato River between the Huka Falls and the Aratiatia Power Station.

“The boat shed was down on the Wairakei rugby grounds,” says Danny. “I'm not quite sure how it got there or why it was there. There was no electricity, no showers, nothing like that, if you were dirty, you jumped in the water because it was nice and clean, very cold though, but it was a good stretch of water.

In the weekends, Danny would take them over to Mangakino, for more distance work.

And as Sam remembers it, a couple of camps where Danny made them race “lengths of the lake, and just about f****** killed us.”

Danny laughs at the memory of that. The only overkill he recalls was the 150-horsepower ski boat he was now coaching his crew from.

“We went to the Waikato Regatta before Christmas,” says Paul. “We won against Mark James and Chris Thorsen and Danny probably thought, ‘Jeez, these guys have got some talent.’”

Through January and February, the relentless days continued.

“You’d come out the bush, covered in wood chips, gum, sweat and s***, says Sam. “And then jump in a rowing boat for another two hours training with Danny.”

By the time nationals came around, the toll was beginning to tell, especially for newly-married Sam.

“I remember about a week before Nationals and I was absolutely stuffed and lying in bed and my wife goes, ‘I don't know if this was a good idea getting married and you rowing all the time.’”

“Only one more week to go, Mary, only one more week.”

 

That Final Week

Danny put the three of them up at his parents’ place in Hamilton for the nationals at Lake Karapiro. Danny was shuttling to Taupo and back to run his business during the week.

They entered the Intermediate, Senior and, for the first time at a regatta, the Premier Coxed Pair. This time it was Danny watching them from the finish line.

Gold medal in the Intermediate Coxed Pair. Next was the Senior Coxed Pair. Gold again.

“They won quite convincingly too, if I remember rightly,” says Danny. “The further they went, the further they went in front.”

Then came their third race of the day, the semifinals of the Premier Coxed Pair.

With heats, semifinals and two medal races already, the week was catching up with them but they qualified for the final on the Saturday.

“They were buggered,” says Danny.

They finished at the back of the field.

“We didn't expect much else. But they just went and rowed it because they could.”

Chris White and Greg Johnson won the title by just half a length over North Shore’s Barrie Mabbott and Roger White-Parsons. Keith Trash and Jock Mackintosh were also in that race for Hawke’s Bay. It was a star-studded field.

“I thought, if you come back for another year, we've got the boat, we've got the blades, we've got everything now,” says Danny.

But there was to be no another year.

“It's funny, funny how people come together,” says Paul. “If Danny hadn't come into our lives at that time, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. But it was that experience and mentoring we got from him that was crucial to this. We have a lot to thank Danny for.”

They are still great mates, more than 40 years on.

“It was hell of a trip, hell of a trip,” says Paul. “We just didn't know how good we were...we should have really kicked on to the next season, rowed a straight pair and really realised our potential, but...yeah.”

The boys from the bush had burned too bright, too quick.

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Andy Hay

Andy Hay is a freelance producer, writer and rowing coach. He was cox of the world champion New Zealand eight of 1982 and '83. He is NZ Olympian #446.