The Highlanders have pulled a player out of retirement in a desperate bid to reverse the ailing franchise’s Super 15 fortunes.
Coach Jamie Joseph made the decision to call up Barry Gracefield after the suspension of Ma’a Nonu for three weeks, following a tip tackle on Crusaders player Tom Marshall on Friday.
The suspension ended Nonu’s Super 15 season, but also left a hole in the Highlanders midfield.
The team has struggled all season, and currently languishes at the bottom of the Super 15 table.
Joseph said the team’s aim was to win the last two games and restore some credibility to the franchise.
“That means personnel changes. Ma’a hasn’t had the best season, but he’s an experienced campaigner and his absence leaves a hole at centre. Barry Gracefield is the ideal player to plug that gap.”
But Gracefield has been out of the game for some time, and there are questions about his match-fitness.
He was vice-captain of the Matamata-Piako Under-13s 2nd XV in 1953, but retired later that year due to a knee injury.
“The knee’s fine now,” insisted Gracefield. “It buggered up a couple of seasons of footy for me, and in the end I just hung up my boots in frustration.
“But I’ve always fancied having another shot at the game. So when Jamie Joseph rang I didn’t waste any time in saying yes.”
Gracefield insists he is not just older, but also wiser.
“I’ve watched a bit of the game, although I’ve never quite got the hang of these new rules. Use it or lose it? Those aren’t the rules we played in the Matamata-Piako Under-13s.
“But I’ll adjust soon enough. I was a bus driver for thirty years, and I learned to deal with all sorts of difficult characters. Handling referees should be a doddle.”
Gracefield’s wife of forty-four years, Edna, said the step up would be a big one for him to handle.
“He’s not the speedy whippet he used to be,” she said. “His right hip’s basically stuffed, his arthritis is a real nuisance, and he had open heart surgery about three years ago.
“I’ve told Barry to stay out of trouble. ‘Don’t go too hard into those rucks and mauls’, I said. But he never listens to me.
“I just hope they let him take his wheelchair onto the field.”
Coach Jamie Joseph said he was not concerned that Gracefield is 72 years old and in poor health.
“We had to try something different,” said Joseph. “I don’t see how he can do much worse than the current group of players we have.
“And if he works out well I might give his wife Edna a turn at coaching.”
(dedicated to Marty)