The Dunster – almost lost to rugby

Teia Dunster reflects on the journey he has taken with the Papamoa Bulldogs. Photo: John Borren.

It’s a sense of unfinished business and a wife’s wisdom that will see Teia Dunster back playing league this winter in the blue and white of Papamoa Bulldogs.

But it was touch and go for a while.

“I was trying to get my body into shape,” says the 34-year-old. He had trimmed that 186-centimetre frame from 115 kilograms down to 105, and was primed to “get amongst some rough stuff again” in the engine room as a second rower or loosie. “I was training with the Bulldogs on Mondays and Wednesdays and the rugby guys on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

He was looking for a change. “But someone was going to be pissed off – rugby or league.”

He’s an asset to any team and “a top man to have in your team set up,” according to Bulldogs coach James Nicholson. Teia Dunster – first on the team sheet on his name alone.

“He’s a leader, he motivates and inspires. He says the right things and does the right things at the right time.” Any coach would want him.

But it wasn’t the coach who won him over. It was his wife.

“She told me it was probably wrong for me to leave rugby league and to leave the Bulldogs,” explains Teia. “She said ‘you guys have come so far, and you are just going to walk away from something that’s not finished?’” Ouch!

That takes us back a couple of seasons, to when the Bulldogs were something of a scratch team being thumped regularly – 80-plus nil and the like.

A guy called Brendon Anderson - “a legend of a guy, the sort of guy you want alongside you playing footie” – asked Teia Dunster if he would be interested in helping turn a lemon into a peach, a loser into a winner.

They gave themselves a week to get the numbers or there would be no team and they would pull the pin. They had eight at training on the Tuesday, and 16 on Thursday. “I said to B-Man ‘we have a team, so if you are committed, I am committed’.”

It was the beginning of the rebirth of the Papamoa Bulldogs and rugby league on the other side of the bridge.

Teia Dunster had left school aged 16 and narrowly avoided “mischief’ in his home town of Turangi. He built a successful engineering business in Papamoa, built the Matua Coastguard’s flash new rescue boat and created a fine family of four by the time he was 24.

So surely licking a league team into shape wouldn’t be hard?

They pulled in another local league nut, Mason King, and bunged together a management team. First they aimed to win just one game in 2017.

“We won our first,” he says. “In fact we won the first six games. So we exceeded that expectation and we progressed to the semi-finals, nut no-one remembers second place.”

More importantly, the “bunged together management team” worked to build a culture at the club, away from the boozy Saturday nights when players would go home the following day.

The new culture was family first, work second and rugby league third. They also wanted to present to the public with pride and professionalism.

They also knew James “Jock” Nicholson was coming aboard as Bulldogs coach in 2018, and they wanted the set-up to be ‘good to go’ for Jock. “I wasn’t going to play,” says Teia, “and I didn’t expect to be involved, but I knew what Jock was trying to do and I could see he was trying to do it all himself.” 

Teia’s goal this year is to play and finish what he started two years earlier. “We have the players to go through and win the premiership,” he says. “If not this year, then definitely next, but we finally have the team and the coach.”

Things are running to plan. Even the coach gave himself three years to win the premiership.   

“I will just play and do my best for Jock as a part of the senior leadership group.”

They are noble sentiments, but this is a simple man who plays a simple game and is simply passionate about it. “My wife knew,” he says. “She knew I couldn’t walk away from the game and something I had started and hadn’t finished.”

As Jock said: “A top man to have in your team set-up.”

The Papamoa Bulldogs have their first pre-season hit-out against Turangawaewae at Gordon Spratt Reserve on Saturday (March 9) at 1.30pm, with four 20-minute quarters and rolling subs. It’s the first time the club has hosted the Waikato side - a side with a long and proud league history.

“They have an aura about them,” says Teia, “and it’ll be physical and tough.”