AIMS Games celebrates rugby stalwart and All Black mentor Ian Spraggon

After a lifetime of selfless giving, it was a rare and humbling feeling for Ian Spraggon to be on the receiving end for a change.

From growing up playing barefoot rugby in deep, biting South Waikato frosts, the man universally known as ‘Sprags’ has gone on to become a lifelong servant of the game and a much-loved and celebrated coach to thousands of Kiwi kids.

Spraggon has been the rugby sevens coordinator at the AIMS Games since 2010. At a VIP function this week, on his 77th birthday, he was awarded the first-ever lifetime AIMS Games Pass in recognition of his years coaching, administrating and supporting youth sport.

In typical fashion, he was looking to deflect the credit, from nearly 60 years of supporting his community and the game he loves.

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“That’s not me,” he said afterwards, looking bashful. But Ian Spraggon is exactly the man he was raised to be.

Sprags’ father worked in forestry and ran the family farm, and his mother was a teacher. His parents played many sports at a competitive level and were enthusiastic life members of various community organisations.

“I always figured if I wasn’t contributing, they’d be looking down, saying ‘Get off your butt’. I was always going to be coaching.”

There were five Spraggon sons – three would go on to become teachers, one a builder and one a gold prospector.

The brothers grew up on the South Waikato land where the Lichfield Dairy Factory now stands. Spraggon would milk cows in the morning, then eat a two-course breakfast of porridge with fresh cream and brown sugar, followed by bacon and eggs. On weekends, the brothers would disappear down the farm and into nearby forestry blocks, riding horses bareback and catching eels in rivers.

“It was a good life.”

And then at Putaruru High School (now Putaruru College), more than 60 years ago, he met a girl called Lois. They went to school dances together, both studied at teacher’s college, married and had two sons.

“She’s been a constant mate, best mate,” he says. “Good lady.”

Now, Spraggon and his childhood sweetheart are facing a new challenge. He doesn’t have an official diagnosis yet but he’s almost certain he has Parkinson’s Disease.

“The reality is the body’s slowed down. The mobility and balance are not what they were. I used to be a handwriting buff [but] the fine motor skills are not what they were.

“But I won’t lose my sense of humour.”

And his memory is in perfect working order too.

​Spraggon’s own rugby career began playing sometimes lock, sometimes flanker for Lichfield Primary; when he turned 11 he was finally allowed to wear boots. He played three years in the Putaruru High School 1st XV, then took the field for Hamilton Teachers’ College. He remembers vividly standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the lineout with All Blacks rugby legend Colin Meads in various Peace Cup sub-union games.

Spraggon started coaching the year he returned to his childhood school, Lichfield Primary, as a graduate teacher. For almost 35 years, teaching and coaching went hand-in-hand. As he moved around the North Island to teach, he took on increasingly significant coaching positions.

“You start with a crop of young rugby players and you look to develop the respect for the game, team, and the opposition.”

While working at Tauranga Intermediate in the 1970s, he coached the Bay of Plenty Primary Schools representative team in the annual Roller Mills tournament. In 1979, he moved to a teaching job near Te Aroha and took on coaching a Thames Valley side which had not won a game in 12 years, or even scored a try in five years. He taught the team a passing style of rugby, urging them to “free the ball”. In their first game under Spraggon, they got four tries and won the game against North Auckland.

In that team was future All Black loose forward Kevin Schuler. Spraggon drew a circle around Schuler’s name. He did this whenever he spotted a player he thought could go far. He noted the big, rangy 12-year-old had “a presence on the field”.

This week, Schuler presented Spraggon’s lifetime pass. He told those gathered at the ceremony two men had been particularly influential in his life: “My Dad, and Sprags”.

“He coached so many kids, and changed their lives,” Schuler said. “A lifetime of service like Sprags’ can’t ever really truly be repaid but this lifetime pass is an incredible acknowledgement. You are a true champion of New Zealand and you deserve this recognition a thousand times over.”

The Spraggons returned to Tauranga in 1989, and he ended up being principal of Tauranga’s Bellevue Primary for 19 years. During that time, he took victorious Tauranga and Bay of Plenty sides through a variety of tough seasonal competitions, including Tai Mitchell and Roller Mills. In 2002, he retired from coaching, to focus on admin and manager roles.

In 2009, after leaving Bellevue, Spraggon began volunteering at Kawerau Intermediate a few days a week, supporting kids to play and represent their school in bowling and sevens rugby. Out of respect and affection, the children called him ‘Matua Sprags’. In 2012, aged 70, he retired from teaching for good.

Looking back on the many wins and successes across his coaching career, Sprags refuses to claim any of them.

“I didn’t win any of them. The kids won them.”

But he can still recall – play-by-play – the passes, the quirks of the opposition, and the gutsy, final-minute, game-winning tries.

“The game’s not over until the referee blows the whistle and says it’s over.”

After an hour of sitting, his co-coordinator and tournament right-hand man Jeff Robb grabs both Spraggon’s hands and helps him out of his chair. Robb has this year stepped in to cover the everyday logistics of the Anchor AIMS Games rugby competition, making it possible for Spraggon to still play a leading role at the event.

“I’m seriously appreciative,” he says. “I’ve got a great team.”

The Spraggons’ eldest son Nigel works for an assurance firm in Mauritius. Their youngest son Andrew is sports co-ordinator at Mount Intermediate. Andrew, wife Nicola, and their son Jac, 4, were at the ceremony for Spraggon on Sunday night.

Spraggon told the gathering: “I’ve certainly appreciated the opportunity to work with thousands of kids over the years. The reward comes back in spades.”

It was little Jac who made Spraggon realise his symptoms were getting more noticable. They pulled up in a car one day and, without ever being told Poppa was slowing down, Jac came running around to Spraggon’s door and said: “Can I give you a hand, Poppa?”

He says: “You face facts”.

“You play with the hand you’re dealt at the end of the day. There are so many people that are worse off and haven’t had the opportunities.”

Spraggon has been a member of the Bay of Plenty rugby judiciary for the last 11 years, is president of the Tauranga Bowling Club, and fully intends to run his 10th Anchor AIMS Games rugby event next year – albeit with a higher level of support from his loyal team, who adore him.

His mobility might be falling away but he says his mind can still create a perfect draw, as he did for the 103 rugby teams competing across Sevens and QuickRip at this year’s Anchor AIMS Games.

“I never encourage quitters,” he says. “I’m not a quitter.”

* You can follow all of Stuff’s coverage of the AIMS Games here. All the results can be found here.