Bloodlust turns mushy at the park

Fathers and sons in arms – from left Eels James and Carlos Levao and Bulldogs Mikaere and Izzy Bennett. Photo: Nikki South

Set a pack of baying bulldogs loose around a pond of menacing eels baring razor teeth and you get a whiff of blood.

But when some Papamoa Bulldogs strayed into the Otumoetai Eels rugby league fortress at Mitchell Park last weekend it was all warm and tingly – on both sides and towards one another.

The testosterone, liniment, and bloodlust were overpowered by warm family fuzzies.

Because stepping out for the Bulldogs reserve grade team was Izzy Bennett and his son, Mikaere. A Dad and his son playing in the same team. “What a privilege,” says Izzy. Because of the physical demands of the game, most league dads are   consigned to the sidelines long before their offspring make the senior playing grades.

“I’m a bit old to be playing,” says 43-year-old Izzy. The greying mop’s hidden under the head gear. But he still has a glint in the eye, and couldn’t resist the opportunity to play alongside his boy. “I came back especially. And yeah, what a privilege.”

The occasion’s not lost on an 18-year-old either. “Playing with the old man? Mean as!” says the young roofer proudly. He normally plays premiers for the Papamoa Bulldogs but switched to the reserves for half a game with Izzy. “Just out of feeling for the old man.” It was ‘just out of feeling’ for both of them.

There’s an inherent danger about superlatives – the use of the biggest or the best – or only one newspaper story – because a bigger, better, or another story of the same invariably comes along. And so it was.

“What about us?” cried Otumoetai Eels Club chair Karl McNeil when he heard The Weekend Sun was doing the Bennett story. Because the Eels too had a father and son playing together in the reserve team. Unheard of, everyone said. One of each, playing against each other, in the same local rugby league fixture. It felt special.

James Levao, is a bullocking front rower and his 18-year-old scaffolder son Carlos is a fullback. “Absolute pleasure,” says Dad before they ran on with his son to play the Bulldogs.

But when the whistle blows, they just get on with their respective jobs. “No disagreements, no-one telling the other what to do and how to do it, we just enjoy playing together,” says James.

Rugby league’s embedded in this family. Before they came to Tauranga from Taupo 11 years ago, James played in a family team. That’s right, the Taupo Broncos was made up completely of family members. Beat the team and you risk offending a whole family.

For a cauldron of rugby league, Mitchell Park on a sparkling autumn afternoon was a family affair. Sure, the men were bashing each other on the park but the wives, the sisters, the daughters, the blokes, the gazebos, and the music made it something other than just another game of footie. There’s a culture alive here.

And the result of that reserves game on Saturday seemed immaterial. The Eels won. But this was a day that was more a celebration of a game, the men who play it, and the unshakeable bond between fathers and their sons. It was the very essence of rugby league.