Manager pulls off rescue act

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The Wakatipu Premiers manager has salvaged a rugby-playing OE for a group left in the lurch by an English club collapse.

Premiers manager Russell Kelly had hooked up his son Tom and three team-mates for an eight-month season with Manchester Rugby Club.

The club ditched the deal at the eleventh hour due to cashflow problems.

“I thought I’d better do my best for them, it was dead in the water,” Russell Kelly says.

The quartet had all resigned local jobs – Tom Kelly was a refrigeration engineer, Ben Blakely a plumber, Bradley Cross a builder and Michael “Trev” McKeown a sparkie.

Fast footwork by manager Kelly enabled his son and Blakely, both 22, to leave three weeks ago to play for Stockport, a smaller club in Manchester – while Cross, 21, and McKeown, 25, set off yesterday for neigh-
bouring Marple.

Manchester was originally targeted by Kelly due to longstanding links forged when his brother, Southland stalwart and All Black triallist Dennis, played there during off-seasons in the 1980s.

Both substitute clubs are looking after airfares and accommodation but the Queenstown players’ only official payments are match bonuses.

“They just go for the experiences,” Kelly says.

Tom Kelly and Blakely have already made an impression in two games for Stockport, which leads the northern league after three matches.

After being switched at halftime from wing to his usual second-five position, Tom scored three tries to become man of the match in his debut game, ensuring he didn’t have to buy a beer afterwards.

And No 8 Blakely – the only Central rep to gain an Otago trial this year – “played a significant part” in Tom’s second try, the English club’s website states.

“The level of rugby is very similar to home although very forward-dominant,” Tom says by email.

“They like to play 12-man rugby which isn’t too bad as it includes me and Ben.

“They haven’t had a running No 8 before so they are happy with Ben.

“We have been linking well early so both games have gone well.”

Russell Kelly says he’ll “do my darnedest” to ensure the quartet – who all made their debut for Wakatipu this season – return from England next year.

However the English season, running till April, overlaps with Wakatipu’s and manager Kelly warns almost 30 games of overseas rugby without a break could wear them out.

They’ll also be pining for summer leisure pursuits during the depths of a northern winter, he says.

Kelly, a Queenstown probation officer, says he’d only send over players he knows.

“I know what they’re like off the field, I would be loathe to send guys over I didn’t know or wouldn’t know what they’re like on the p***.”

In turn, he hopes the Queenstowners will entice big English forwards to play for Wakatipu next season, continuing what could be a fruitful long-term exchange.