When my Dad first told me he might be a bit unwell in late-April last year, we joked that the Warriors better hurry the fuck up and win that premiership ASAP because he might not get too many more seasons in.
After an initial lymphoma diagnosis with a good outlook for a full recovery in June, Dad started to lose full use of his legs, had a tumour removed from his spine and then broke his femur after a fall. In August, he was diagnosed with Histiocytic Sarcoma – a very rare, very aggressive form of cancer for which there were no viable treatment options.
John Evans passed away peacefully at home in Cromwell on December 28. Today would have been his 67th birthday.
The Evanses were essentially a rugby union family. My great grandfather, Cyril ‘Scrum’ Evans played one Test match for the All Blacks against Australia in 1921 at Lancaster Park, getting the call-up after starring in Canterbury’s famous win over South Africa at the same ground. He also represented the Canterbury cricket team for a decade. My grandad, Dave, was your typical union-supporting Kiwi bloke (a few years ago I was given a somewhat regrettable photo of Nana – who was wearing ‘Scrum’s’ All Blacks jersey – and Dave in party mode during the 1981 Springboks tour brandishing a sign that read ‘STUFF THE PROTESTERS’).
Growing up on a farm near Rakaia before the family moved to Te Pohue, Marton and eventually Taupo, Dad took a passing interest in rugby. Played a little bit and followed it generally. But cars, chicks and having a good time were more important.
Dad’s path to rugby league fandom began when he was living on the Gold Coast, where I was born in 1981. He went to a Brisbane Rugby League premiership match and was hooked on the passion, the tribal atmosphere and the ‘Wally’s a Wanker!’ chants – directed, of course, at Valleys linchpin Wally Lewis, who was just beginning his ascent to Immortal status.
The Graham Lowe-coached Kiwis’ first win over Australia in 12 years – an epic 19-12 boilover at Brisbane’s Lang Park in 1983 – came just a few months before we moved back to Tutukaka in Northland, where my Mum’s family is from.
Living in regional New Zealand in the mid-1980s wasn’t exactly the easiest place to keep abreast of all the goings on in the rugby league world and Dad slipped back into the more simple pattern of watching the All Blacks play with his mates and Mum’s brothers. But the 13-a-side game had burrowed into his psyche and he jumped at the chance to go to the 1988 Rugby League World Cup final at Eden Park.
It was ultimately a harrowing disappointment for Dad and the majority of the 48,000 supporters who crammed into union headquarters that October afternoon as Lewis’ Australians swamped the overhyped Kiwis 25-12. Dad recalled ‘King Wally’ having a durry during the second half with his arm in a sling, having broken it while leading the green-and-golds to an unassailable 21-0 halftime lead.
Nevertheless, it was another key step in his rugby league journey.
Less than a year later, he was part of that landmark event in the code’s surge in popularity on these shores: the 1989 extra-time grand final between Canberra and Balmain, the first to be broadcast live on New Zealand television.
I have vague memories of Dad carrying on in front of the TV – probably when Benny Elias’ field goal attempt thudded off the crossbar, or ‘Chicka’ Ferguson scored his hot-stepping late leveller, or when the unheralded Steve Jackson scored his superhuman solo try to seal the Raiders’ 19-14 triumph. Famously, the six o’clock news was delayed by extra-time.
That was it.
Dad leapt onto the Manly bandwagon with Lowe signing on as coach (with Kiwis Adrian Shelford, Tony Iro and All Black defector Matthew Ridge soon following) and the Winfield Cup arriving on NZ screens on a weekly basis in 1990.
I still remember the first full games I saw: Manly’s 22-4 defeat of Illawarra at Brookvale and Brisbane’s 22-20 eclipse of Canberra in one of the all-time great regular season games, both in Round 14 of the ’90 premiership.
The first Test I saw was a couple of months later, New Zealand’s 24-6 loss to Australia at Wellington’s Athletic Park, which was part of an audacious cross-code double-header (Phil Kearns flipped Sean Fitzpatrick the bird as the Wallabies upset the ABs the previous day).
I adopted the Broncos as my team and celebrated as they eliminated the injury-hit Sea Eagles 12-4 in that year’s minor semi, to Dad’s chagrin. But it didn’t stop him from buying Rugby League Week magazine for the first time the following week – an issue with the Walters brothers on the cover I’ve still got, and the first of literally thousands of RLWs and Big League mags I would eventually own. Having my work published in both 25 or so years later was an absolute career highlight.
The 1990 season laid the foundation, but ’91 saw us become full-blown league tragics for perpetuity.
The Winfield Cup was huge and on top of flying the Kiwi flag at Manly, ‘Lowie’ was controversially installed as Queensland’s State of Origin coach. Dad overruled Mum to let a nine-year-old me stay up and watch what is still regarded as the best Origin series of all time: a dramatic 6-4 win for the Maroons in game one; the Geyer-Lewis face-off and Michael O’Connor’s match-winning conversion in game two; and ‘King’ Wally’s triumphant send-off in a classic decider.
A few weeks later, Dad went to a mate’s place to watch the first Test between Australia and New Zealand because we couldn’t get TV3 at our house. That game, of course, was the Kiwi’s famous 24-8 upset win in Melbourne – Blackmore, McCracken, Nikau and co. carving up. Man was Dad pumped up after it. He dined out on that match for days.
I had to see the remaining two Tests, he reckoned, so on a school night we drove to my auntie and uncle’s place in town 40 minutes away. The Kiwis got flogged 44-0 and 40-12 – but our commitment to the cause still brings back fond memories. (Dad later ran a couple of hundreds metres of cable up to my grandparents’ place on the hill to ensure we wouldn’t miss any future TV3-hosted footy.)
The Broncos blew out in 1991 but the Sea Eagles had an unforgettable season. Injuries again cruelled their playoffs campaign, but not before playing their part in a contender for the greatest finals match of all time, the minor semi against the Raiders. We watched it during a week’s holiday skiing, staying in Ohakune – me and Dad glued to the couch while Mum and their mates got wasted in the kitchen. Cliffy Lyons and Kevin Iro were on fire for the undermanned Eagles, but Raiders back-rower Gary Coyne’s four-try haul ultimately got the Green Machine home 34-26 in a pulsating contest.
We still followed rugby (less and less as the seasons rolled by), cricket and the rest – but league was firmly entrenched as our number one sport from that point (though I was still in my WWF megafan heyday). Dad cut the Sea Eagles loose as soon as the announcement came through in 1992 that an Auckland-based club would be admitted to the Australian premiership; I took a lot longer to let go of the Broncos.
Me, Mum and Dad moved to Queenstown in 1993 and we watched pretty much all of the big games and moments over the next few years at home together: Mark Coyne’s Origin try in ’94; the Warriors’ inaugural match against the Broncos in ’95; the extraordinary extra-time World Cup semi between New Zealand and Australia later that year; the Kiwis’ trio of wins over the Aussies from 1997-99; the underrated ’98 Origin series opener; the classic ’97 and ’99 grand finals.
He took me to a 1997 pre-season trial between the Warriors and Cowboys in Invercargill. All I really remember is a boozy Southlander yelling out, ‘Ellis, Ellis, who the fuck is Ellis?’ at nearby Warriors winger Marc Ellis. It would be 14 years before he saw another game live.
As I got older and started going out on the weekends, went off to uni etc, we watched less and less footy together. Dad never missed a Warriors game though, no matter how shit they were going. As harsh a critic as there was, but always backed up the following weekend.
The games we did get together for stand out. Like the Warriors’ 2002 preliminary final defeat of the Sharks, and the exhilarating but ultimately gut-wrenching grand final loss to the Roosters a week later. And the Kiwis’ shock 30-16 beatdown of the Kangaroos at the end of ’03 (Dad rarely had a bet, but he sent me to the TAB to chuck a few bucks on the Kiwis by 13+ before that one, the tinny bastard). And the 2004 Warriors-Broncos season opener best known for being Karmichael Hunt’s NRL debut – he swung past my grimy Dunedin flat for that one.
Dad was a builder and had a decent-sized crew working for him (including me for several low-quality labouring stints) from the early-2000s. If you liked league and the Warriors, that was probably more important for hiring purposes than being able to hit nail straight. That was the clincher when a gangly 23-year-old leaguie named Brad Larking strolled onto the site looking for an apprenticeship in 2003 – so you’ve got that to thank (or blame) for the TWL podcast.
Brad’s best mate, Tamati, started an apprenticeship with Dad no more than a year later. He was a league nut too, so Brad and Tums were Dad’s favourites (it helped that they were good cunts and hilarious…but the league thing was a big part of it) – just like another couple of NRL fanatics, Willie and Haydn, would be some years later and until he died. His building sites were a hotbed of Warriors debate and banter.
Tums had something wrong with his heart and died suddenly in 2007. Just 27, and only a few months away from getting married. Dad was crushed, as we all were. When Dad turned 50 a few years earlier, I was a broke student so I gave him my 1995 original Warriors jersey. Dad gave up that jersey for Tums to be buried with. (RIP Tums, you fucking legend.)
I have to include this anecdote. Dad’s first serious girlfriend after he and Mum split was one of those classic Crusaders supporters of the league-hating, Warriors-baiting variety. Genuinely took satisfaction from the Warriors not doing well. She didn’t last very long into their first footy season together.
Me and my now-wife moved to Brisbane in early-2008. Dad was meant to come over for the World Cup final at Suncorp Stadium, but the GFC gave his business a bit of the ol’ Monty Betham on Steve Reardon treatment and he pulled the pin on the trip. But he got just as much satisfaction out his unused ticket being snapped up by my mate as we had the time of our lives, the Kiwis surging to a historic 34-20 triumph.
Dad and his wife Jane belatedly made it to Brisbane in 2011, coinciding with my 30th birthday but more importantly timed with the Warriors playing the Broncos at Suncorp the next day. Brad and his wife Tracy were also there staying with us on their honeymoon.
Eager to give Dad the full experience, we had pre-match beers at the Caxton Hotel. I don’t know how much he’d been looking forward to actually going to the match, but he was blown away walking into Suncorp – it was like a combination of a religious experience, a kid getting into Disneyland and someone’s first pinger kicking in. It was a beautiful thing to watch.
The match was an instant classic: Shaun Johnson’s much-replayed solo try and a not-replayed-enough ripper scored by Kevin Locke after James Maloney’s chip-and-chase, before Peter Wallace snatched a 21-20 result for the Broncos with a late field goal. Agonising result, but a genuine life highlight for the old fella.
A few months later the Warriors embarked on an unforgettable tightrope walk through the finals. We would talk on the phone about the league every week, but during that September it was pre-match, halftime and fulltime, on top of the midweek debrief. I bawled after the grand final loss to Manly; not for the club or myself, but because I wanted so badly for them to win for Dad.
It was such a hollow feeling. As fucked up as it sounds, I had a similar feeling – on top of my own grief – when we got his terminal diagnosis. Just so gutted for him. But like after the 2011 GF, he eventually just shrugged his shoulders, smiled and got on with it.
Later in 2011, I got a deal to publish my first book – a huge breakthrough for me because my only writing/journalism experience to that point had been very low-level and casual. It opened doors and led to me being able to make a career out it. Dad was suitably stoked and proud, but not particularly surprised; he was way more confident than I ever was that the rugby league writer thing would work out for me. I think it’s partly why he never pushed me to do a building apprenticeship with him (the other part being that I was pretty shit at building).
Dedicating the second book to him was a cool thing to be able to do (Tums got the first dedication). His bookshelf in the lounge consisted solely of a bunch of Harley Davidson books, and mine.
We returned to NZ in late-2014 – I covered the Kiwis’ thrashing of the Kangaroos in the Four Nations opener on my last night before moving back – and settled in North Canterbury. Getting to watch Warriors games, Tests and Origins with Dad on the reg again over the next few seasons was awesome, though we would have done it a lot more if we knew what was in store in 2019.
We’d still talk most weeks – 80 percent Warriors, 20 percent life stuff – and he was always a great sounding board. Not that we always agreed; he was very much part of the anti-SJ camp by the time he left the club.
It was after the Warriors’ valiant Anzac Day loss last year that he told me he’d been having a few weird health things happening. We talked about the game – Patty Herbert’s brilliant debut, the shocking calls that ultimately saw us lose – and he dropped his health bomb in at the end of the conversation. Told me not to worry.
But it was serious and he received a lymphoma diagnosis in early-June and began chemo. Dad took it quite hard and was in a lot of pain with the then-undiscovered tumour on his spine. I cancelled a trip to go and cover the Kiwis-Tonga Test to go down to Cromwell and spend the weekend with him instead (I don’t think he knew I was meant to be going to Auckland – I doubt he would’ve let me cancel otherwise).
A few weeks later he had deteriorated a bit, he was really struggling to walk and his back pain was unbearable. We went down to Cromwell again and he reluctantly allowed us to check him into hospital in Alexandra, where he finally got some decent drugs. Dad and I watched the golden point draw between the Warriors and Broncos in his hospital room – not an easy one to stay quiet (out of respect for his roommate) that’s for sure.
After a stint back home, he was back in hospital in early-August and transferred to Dunedin, where they discovered the tumour on his spine and removed it, giving him instant relief. Horrifically, the first night after being transferred back to Alexandra he fell in the bathroom and broke his femur and had to be airlifted back to Dunedin.
Then we got the results back from the tumour. He was a goner, pretty much.
Besides being worried about Jane and me, though, his attitude was incredible. He’d had a great life, he reckoned, and was content to just enjoy the last few months of it with us. His positivity, and ability to make jokes about the gravest situation someone can be confronted with, made it infinitely easier for us to come to terms with.
Dad, Brad and I had a few beers watching the Warriors get dicked by a Johnson-inspired Sharks in Round 23 from Dunedin Hospital five days after his terminal diagnosis – crap game, but a rad 80 minutes for the three of us. Real special. Plenty of laughs.
I relocated to Cromwell on his birthday to help Jane look after Dad and we brought him home the next day. Souths gave the Warriors a touch-up that night, but Dad was just so happy and grateful to be home he wasn’t worried about the result.
I wrote to Cameron George, who I’d had a bit to do with through my work, and told him about Dad and what we were going through. I wanted the club to know that a day one supporter, one of their most loyal, was on his way out.
A couple of days before the Warriors’ final-round road trip to Canberra, Stephen Kearney gave us a call. He said how sorry he was to hear our news, and that while the team wasn’t going very well at that time, everything they were doing was part of their ultimate goal to win a premiership for fans like my Dad, people like Sir Peter Leitch. Say what you want about his coaching record, but you won’t find a better bloke in rugby league than Stephen Kearney. Dad was chuffed to get the call, that an NRL coach would take the time out to do that – but he thought it was cooler that an NRL coach would do that because of my professional relationship with them.
I was pretty emotional after the remarkable comeback win over the Raiders, knowing that it would be the last Warriors match Dad ever saw. Dad just said ‘far out!’ and sat there with a satisfied grin (I don’t even think he called any of the players a ‘stupid c**t’ during the game – an anomaly). Kearney text me after fulltime.
— NRL (@NRL) September 7, 2019
Dad was bed- and wheelchair-bound for those last few months, but always smiling (75 percent positive attitude, 25 percent morphine-induced). There were way more laughs than tears. His humility, gratitude and capacity to joke about situations where his dignity was compromised are the other things that stick with me about that time.
We enjoyed the 2019 finals series together, culminating in a truly memorable Roosters-Raiders decider – the first grand final we had watched together since 2002 and last rugby league match we would see together.
Talking about league and the Warriors was a bit weird after that, because he wasn’t going to be around for the next season. But Dad was still keen to know what was going on and talk about the news. I excitedly showed him Paul Turner’s NYC and NSW Cup highlights video, so it was satisfying to see him make an eye-catching NRL debut last week.
I wrote the last chapter of the Warriors 25 book while I was staying at Dad’s. Getting to show him the finished product was cool, though he was too weak by that stage to give it a proper read. He did get the last word in it, though.
Dad deteriorated quickly during December and passed away just after Christmas. His service was a happy occasion and the Warriors got a few mentions during the tributes – most notably from one of his builders, Willie, who spoke from the heart and very eloquently about Dad, and about the role league played in their relationship.
The Round 1 encounter with Newcastle this year was a milestone for me: the first Warriors match since Dad had died. Not getting his pithy mid-game text messages or being able to unpick the game with him afterwards. There’s definitely something missing from the experience for me now – on top of 2020 being the weirdest season of all time.
But I like imagining how he’d react to certain things. He would be excited about Eliesa Katoa’s potential. He would’ve thought the players who went home last month were soft. He would’ve been out of his seat when Chanel Harris-Tavita poleaxed the Panthers’ Liam Martin the other week. He would be proud of the way the team has turned it around under Todd Payten and would be clinging to our glimmer of finals hope. He also would’ve found it unbelievably funny that he checked out just before COVID-19 turned the world on its head.
My relationship with my old man is obviously much more important and runs a lot deeper than how rugby league, the Warriors and the Kiwis come into it. But it’s unmistakably a significant part of what we had.
For me, the last year or so has illustrated why rugby league is just a game and also why it’s so much more than that. RIP Dad, and happy birthday – I hope the boys get the W for you today.