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You can follow completely different paths in life but it’s universal that hard work, coupled with talent, equals success. But you might break a leg or two along the way.
Outside of the All Blacks, there are few superstars of New Zealand sport, but our wee nation still produces many great athletes. Some are at the top of their field, and many others achieve exceptionally through hard work and dedication. All too often their stories fly under the radar.
Ben and James Huntley are brothers from Miramar who’ve taken totally different paths to dramatic success in their sporting careers.
Names like Cullen, Nonu, Barrett, and Umaga are the crowning glory of New Zealand’s rugby reputation, but its backbone consists of premier-level athletes who play for the love of the game, and beyond the club scene don’t receive much recognition.
Poneke Rugby Football Club captain Ben Huntley is one of those players. He didn’t come to rugby until he was 11 or 12, when he switched from football. At school, he says he was no great shakes, never making it to the 1st XV. Upon leaving he joined the Poneke club and played socially for a year or two, then began to take the club game seriously, playing his first game for the Poneke prem side in 2008.
In 2021 Ben tallied his 200th game for the prominent Wellington club. This is rarefied air for club-level footy players, where attrition from injury, the intensive time commitment, and the need to play at a consistently high level mean few club-level players last so long. Ben indeed broke his leg in his second season at prem level (2010).
Poneke football club was founded in 1883, and their website lists only 10 players before Ben who cracked the double ton. He reckons he knows most of them personally. At 33 Ben is still going strong, and looking forward to the season ahead.
During the season, Ben is at the club at least five times a week: two team training sessions, two gym sessions, and the game day. He credits his longevity to hard work – he has always been a “meticulous trainer”, turning up to pre-season trainings, getting and staying fit. It’s become obvious to him over time that those who don’t “do the mahi” inevitably get injured more seriously.
Outside of the club and rugby, Ben works full time as a roofer, an apprenticeship he began as soon as he left Rongotai College. In his spare time he likes to hang out with friends, his partner Sonia, and his labrador Frankie.
Club rugby has given him many things, he says, including best mates, occasional jobs, and overseas travel, but the players aren’t paid. Poneke, says Ben, “relies on being an awesome club” to attract excellent players.
A season in Hawaii, in an apartment right on Waikiki Beach with food and accommodation covered, is the closest Ben has come to the perks of the game. He played there with good friend Hilton Mexted (son of All Black Murray). Ben describes the footy as “agricultural, but very physical”. It resembled the style of American football, with “guys flying into rucks” – a more physical game, but not particularly skilful. Ben made his mark, scoring hat-tricks in several games.
Ben will have played with or against almost all the recent All Blacks from the Wellington region; he’s played with Dane Coles, and against Ardie Savea, who, on the wing, straight out of school, “was an absolute weapon”. Asked what separated players like him from players like them, he replies that if you stand out from a young age, you get picked up in the system, and focused on. But he also observes, possibly too humbly, that they have natural and physical talents “way better than mine”.
Ben’s younger brother James (28) has chosen a very different sport – skateboarding, which in New Zealand is pretty much the opposite of rugby. It’s young, fresh, not exactly clean, and focused on the individual. It has been described as an art form, rather than a sport, where there isn’t necessarily a clear winner – much the way surfing might have been viewed 50 years ago.
James Huntley is not a household name. He is unrecognised by most people other than awed youngsters at the skatepark, but he is at the very top of the country’s rapidly growing skate scene.
Hard work is a cornerstone of his success, like that of his brother. He stressed repeatedly as we chatted that practice and persistence are crucial to improving skateboard skills.
James’s prowess on a plank with wheels has been obvious from a young age. At 16 he won his first national title, and in 2010 at 17 he won the open nationals, competing against men up to 20 years older. He also played soccer, but called it quits at about age 12 when he was dodging practice to go skateboarding.
Skateboarding is James’s full-time occupation, since the business he worked at shut down due to covid in 2020. While this had its obvious downside, it allowed him to spend even more time on his skateboard, and further success quickly followed.
A typical day begins at 7am, with skateboarding till midday. This is his most intense practice time, while the skateparks are empty, and he can focus on learning new tricks and pushing his limits. In the afternoon he skates in a more relaxed way, consolidating recent learning from earlier in the day, or practising the basics. James will have a rest, and then in the evening skate with friends once they finish work. His partner Dylan has been a constant support over the past decade.
This lifestyle is possible due to James’ sponsors. He recently became a pro for DEF skateboards, which means the New Zealand company sells a “James Huntley” skateboard on the mass market. James receives a modest royalty from every purchase of this skateboard.
By sporting standards it is a humble lifestyle. James reckons that only very few internationally-known skateboarders are well compensated for their perilous stunts. But he feels there is change in the wind, now that skateboarding featured in the most recent summer Olympics. The bad boy rep of skating is changing. He sees many more mothers bringing young children to the skatepark, encouraging them to have a go at skateboarding, rather than learning to ride a bike or a scooter. And in Auckland there are several skate schools, which are very popular.
Despite the change in the sport’s standing he says being moved on by security guards is still a problem for most street skaters. “Covid made it worse. Especially if you are in a group, they feel they have an excuse. It’s part of why we need an indoor skatepark in Wellington,” James says, “to give skaters a chance to practice. And scooters break the ramps. There is nothing except for the Rec, which is just not skater friendly.”
James’s high standing is evidenced by the global success of his new video Salted which is featured on well known international platforms such as Transworld. The name is a nod to his early career; as a young “grommet” at the skatepark, with red hair and sweat-encrusted hat, “Salty Red” was his nickname. Early videos featuring the name can be found online.
More recently he has been individually featured on the largest skate-centric Instagram page – The Berrics, which has more than 2.9 million followers. As a result, his own page blew up overnight, growing by thousands of followers in 24 hours. Being featured by the Berrics is validation for James; if the bigwigs in America are taking notice of him skateboarding at Treetops (Newtown skatepark) in Wellington he must be doing something right.
Scrolling Instagram is research for James. He sees what tricks are “in right now” then puts his own spin on them. Fashions come and go in skateboarding, with “style and the way you complete a trick almost more important than the trick itself”.
Although injury free, he says his worst injury was a long time ago when at 16 he broke his leg in three places doing a trick at Chaffers.
James and Ben’s dad Wayne Huntley played football for New Zealand and their mother Jo Stokker played prem level soccer and softball for many years, so clearly athleticism is in their genes, but they each chose strikingly diverse sports. There is a kind of yin and yang to their achievements, James at the tip of a rapidly growing sport, and Ben at the foundation of the strength behind our national sport.
Two brothers who worked their way to the pinnacle of their game in different respects.