Currently training with Hawke’s Bay as part of their wider squad ahead of the ITM Championship, which kicks off in August, Ulsterman John Semple has enjoyed much success since arriving in New Zealand last year. He has risen through the ranks of the club game and says “I’m going to keep pushing and playing as hard as I can.” So far, he describes his experience as “awesome” and feels that other Irish players could benefit from a similar move.
Semple’s rugby career started at Limavady CRFC, near his hometown of Drumsurn in County Derry. Even at that level, his potential was apparent and he was part of the Ulster Junior team for two seasons in a row.
After finishing his studies, the outhalf stepped up the levels by joining Ballymena. In Division 1B of the AIL, the squad included other talented young players like Luke Marshall and Ricky Andrew. But things got off to a bad start for the Semple:
“Just coming up to the start of the AIL, I broke my leg. I healed pretty quickly and was good to go by January, but then I re-broke my leg in April.”
It was a frustrating season for Semple, who found himself playing on the wing when he was fit. He visited several doctors, before surgery to place a plate in his leg helped him to fully recover from injury. By that time, a decision to move to New Zealand had been made. Rugby was the motivating factor:
“When I set out, it was mostly just to play rugby. I’m a qualified pharmacist at home. But in New Zealand, I’d have had to do extra exams so I just thought, ‘Stuff that I’ll go and play rugby for a year and see what happens.’”
Kiwi friends made during his Limavady days helped Semple to organise a team in Christchurch, which has “some of the strongest club rugby in all of New Zealand.” Semple had a strong season with New Brighton in the Senior Division 1, but a step up to play representative rugby for Canterbury would have been huge.
Fortunately, another union had spotted Semple’s talent: “I got picked up by a smaller team, in the Heartland Championship. It’s a division below the ITM and it plays all over New Zealand, so that was pretty good. It was a team called Ngati Porou East Coast. It’s a big Maori team.”
The rise in standard proved no problem for Semple, as East Coast topped the 2012 Heartland Championship regular season table, before going on the win the Meads Cup with a miraculous comeback against Wanganui in the final. Semple says the entire experience was special:
“Unbelievable. Over the previous five seasons or so, East Coast had been awful, one of the worst teams. They’re one of the smallest teams in New Zealand in terms of the pool of players. The final was on national TV here. There was even a flash haka at half-time, 100 people out on the pitch banging out a haka!”
Semple says playing in a Maori club has been another highlight:
“The Maori culture in the East Coast is times ten what you find everywhere else in New Zealand. It’s so different, but it’s a real family atmosphere and everyone’s got your back, that shows on the pitch.”
Learning the Ngati Porou pre-match haka took some time, but by the end of the season, he “felt so much more confident with it. Once you know it, you get a massive buzz out of it, and you’re really pumped up for the start of the match. It’s pretty special.”
Immediately outside Semple in that East Coast backline was player/coach Rua Tipoki, an old favourite at Munster. According to the Ulsterman, Tipoki’s still got it:
“He’s class. He’s obviously a little older now, but he’s got really fast feet, great footwork in close quarters. I’d just push a pass to him and all of a sudden he’d be through a hole.”
Semple’s excellence in steering East Coast around the pitch, place-kicking and bravery in defence in that run to Meads Cup victory led to more attention. The Hawke’s Bay Magpies proved the most attractive option and Semple joined their wider training squad for the start of this season. The ITM Championship doesn’t kick off until August, but training has been hectic nonetheless:
“We’ve been training for months now. We’re in the gym four times a week, and then we have club training Tuesdays and Thurdays, and Hawke’s Bay training on Mondays and Wednesdays. It’s pretty full on, a lot of training to be done, but I’m really enjoying it. It’s been awesome.”
Over the past two months, Semple has been playing club rugby with Taradale in the Nash Cup:
“All the guys training together at the moment with Hawke’s Bay, we play club rugby against each other every weekend. A few weeks ago I played against Ihaia West, who was the starting 10 for Hawke’s Bay last season.”
Playing with and against quality players at club level has obvious benefits. Semple feels that the attitude towards club rugby is something that is far better in New Zealand when compared to Ireland:
“Back home there’s contracted players who stay out of club rugby as much as possible. Maybe it’s different for academy players. The older players contracted to Ulster, they don’t even watch that much club rugby.
Over here, I’ve played with Super Rugby players who’ve maybe got a break from Super 15, a bye week, and they’ll think nothing of coming to play club rugby.”
The bigger names who Semple has already played with or against include Ryan Crotty, Jason Eaton, Tyler Bleyendaal, Andrew Horell, Gillies Kaka and Dan Waenga. Possibly involved in Hawke’s Bay’s ITM campaign will be Alby Mathewson, Ben Franks and “lots of New Zealand 7s guys.”
Hawke’s Bay will cut their wider squad down in around four weeks, but Semple is ambitious enough to make it:
“The sky’s the limit really. I came to New Zealand to play the highest level of rugby I could and I’m still climbing that ladder. I want to go as far as I can go. I’m going to keep pushing and playing as hard as I can. We’ll see.”
For other Irish rugby players who are thinking of moving away from home to play rugby and enjoy new experiences, Semple has nothing but encouragement:
“I’d say take a year out and have a go. Nothing at home is going to change. Just have a go is what I’d say. It’s easy really, all you have to do is get in contact with a club and they’ll try and help you out any way they can.
I’ve learned ten times more out here than I would have at home.”