GrassRoots Rugby returns to New Zealand screens this week. The programme covers club rugby from Kaitaia to Bluff and was started by former Waimate man Graham Veitch, now of Auckland. He is still heavily involved with production and remains a “Waimo” at heart, stipulating that one Waimate club match is to be covered each year by the programme. Timaru Courier reporter Chris Tobin caught up with him.
Q. Firstly, tell us about your links to Waimate.
I was born and bred in Waimate. I went to Waimate Main and Centennial primary schools then Waimate High School for five years.
My dad had a garage and car sales in Queen St called Car Services. Dad was a bit of an entrepreneur as he sold home appliances and television sets as well as motor vehicles. It was a great place to grow up. We hung out at the local milk bar after school and on Friday nights. Eric Batchelor was our very own much decorated war hero. Eric had a pie shop. As much as I loved Waimate I knew that there was a big world out there to be explored.
Q. You attended Otago University, where did life take you after that?
Our “careers adviser” basically said that my options were university or training college.
I had no real idea of what I wanted to do so off I went to the University of Otago for a terrific two years.
I familiarised myself with the Cook and the Bowler, Speight’s, Carisbrook, and majored in the university of life.
So it was back to Waimate driving trucks for the pea factory at Studholme. This was not high on mum and dad’s bucket list for me.
I walked into 3XC in Timaru on my birthday in January 1967 and asked for a job as a radio announcer.
Two weeks later I started as a technical trainee at Radio 3ZB in Christchurch.
I could not believe my good luck. 3ZB was a vibrant, wonderful, creative environment inhabited by talented people.
I did three years in radio and then moved into television at CHTV3 as a presentation officer in the now demolished Gloucester St building.
I was fortunate to have the fantastic opportunity to direct the much loved The South Tonight when it was at its peak.
Brian Allpress and Rodney Bryant set the standard as an on-air dual act.
TST was the vehicle for the start of the hugely successful McPhail and Gadsby and we broadcast many of their great comedy skits such as “The Source of the Avon”.
My real break came when TV1 and South Pacific Television (SPTV) were established and I was able to become a sports producer for SPTV based in Christchurch.
Enter On the Mat. Steve Rickard, Ernie Leonard, King Curtis and many other wrestlers became household names.
The Civic theatre in Christchurch was packed out for every recording session. TVNZ was formed in the early ’80s and the sports department expanded to cope with the ever-increasing volume of product available on the new satellite.
We travelled the world for Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, world championships, rugby, league, cricket and many other sports and sporting events. South Canterbury was well represented and I worked closely with Phil and Mark Leishman and John McBeth.
The emergence of the Sky channels saw the scaling back of “free-to-air” sport. I was made redundant from TVNZ in 1997. Big shock – my umbrella of 30 years was gone.
Q. What to do now?
I established Graham Veitch Television (GVTV) with my wife, Marie.
We soon established a niche market in the production for many minor sports.
Sky was hungry for local sports coverage and at that time there was a keen interest in the business community to support our GVTV productions.
Q. Did memories of rugby in Waimate inspire the idea for?
For many years, in the back of my mind there had been a nagging feeling that there was a gap in the market that needed to be filled.
When we were kids in Waimate, Saturdays were usually spent in the rather chilly environment of Manchester Park where rugby was king.
We would play rugby in the morning and hang around until the seniors kicked off at 3pm.
Mum worked in the shop heating up pies and selling fizzy drinks to raise money for kindergarten.
The Waimate club had a real rock star of its own, Morrie Watson. Morrie was our fullback. He was a big man, could run through any opponent and best of all, kick goals from halfway.
I never forgot those days. It was what we did in Waimate and is still being repeated today in hundreds of rugby grounds all over New Zealand.
The big games were at Fraser Park in Timaru. They were great occasions. We got to sit on the grass on the sideline. Front-row seats.
South Canterbury played the British Lions in 1959. The place was packed to see our Morrie Watson line up against the likes of the great Tony O’Reilly and Ken Scotland, who had a funny round-the-corner kicking style.
Q. Was it difficult getting the programme off the ground and I believe a former Timaru Boys’ High School pupil, Bob Field, then CEO for Toyota NZ, played a part?
The appearance of Toyota Bugger, one of the best-loved commercials ever in NZ, was a seminal moment for Marie and I.
The star of the show was the Hilux and it seemed so obvious to us that Hilux, Bugger and rugby were made for each other.
I took a very deep breath and direct-dialled Bob Field, CEO and chairman of the board of Toyota NZ. Bob went to Timaru Boys’ and took great pleasure in telling me that Timaru Boys’ used to come to Waimate and kick our backsides. Bob, a true visionary and business leader, could see the connection and that it made really good business sense for Toyota to be involved.
So began a 20-year partnership between Toyota and GVTV.
Q. What have been the highlights?
Highs – there have been many. I guess being able to get our GrassRoots and Heartland Rugby shows established and to remain on Sky for 20 years. We are really rapt at the way Martin Stewart, the new CEO at Sky, his new management team and their staff have totally embraced GrassRoots Rugby to keep it alive.
Our camera crews, commentators and rugby folks all over New Zealand who contribute to the show.
Several on-camera stars like Jock Ross, Ben O’Brien Leaf, Barry Townrow have been with us from year one.
Cameraman Brian High, from Timaru, and Mark Jones, from Oamaru, as well as several others started with GVTV in 1999 and are still going strong.
The Heartland unions and their CEOs have remained staunch through some rather difficult moments.
Q. And the lows?
At times during the 20 years, the politics of rugby have found their way down to the GrassRoots and made life difficult for us.
Recently, we faced the very real possibility that both GrassRoots and Heartland Rugby would disappear from television as we struggled to find a new naming rights sponsor. This is where Sky Sport has really stepped up to the plate and secured a future for Sky Sport GrassRoots Rugby
Q. Rugby legends Sir Brian Lochore and the late Sir Colin Meads have been big supporters. What about New Zealand rugby?
Sir Brian Lochore (Wairarapa) and the late Sir Colin “Pinetree” Meads (King Country) have been great supporters of our programmes since we started. NZ Rugby is also very supportive of the Sky/GVTV initiative and delighted that the programmes are to continue.
Q. Maori Television took up a five-year deal in 2018 to screen the programme but it fell through after one year. How close did the programme get to going under?
The programme certainly was at risk and maybe it would not have survived if Maori Television had not been involved.
Q. Finally, why do you think the show should survive?
Rugby is what we are as a nation. It is what we do. It is the one thing that binds us together from North Cape to the Bluff.