16 September 2022
as seen on NRL.com
The three-hour trips along the winding, at times snow-flanked, roads carved through New Zealand’s Southern Alps tended to begin with Elvis Presley playing gently in the background, and gradually evolved to more obscure music from the late 1950s.
While West Coast Rugby League development officer Paddy Byrne’s taste in music wasn’t popular with most of the teenage rugby league players onboard, who quickly had their rap music banned, Griffin Neame didn’t mind one bit.
“Griff sort of came into favour with me because he supported my taste of music. I thought straight away, ‘well, there’s a touch of class there’,” Byrne told NRL.com.
“Funnily enough, his favourite song was where do you go to my lovely by Peter Sarstedt. Griff could open up his lungs when we got into a bit of old stuff.”
Light-hearted as they were at the time, those moments were early evidence of Neame’s strong character and a sign that he wasn’t afraid to stray away from the pack.
He needed those values in the years which followed, as he went on to make it to the NRL out of a region which has, in recent times, had only a handful of its juniors make it to the big stage.
The West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island was once a rugby league stronghold, with mining the predominant employer and league the most popular sport among the area’s tough, working-class people.
Over the years the region provided large numbers of representatives to the national team, including New Zealand Team of the Century members George Menzies and Jock Butterfield.
But that’s no longer the case, with the region struggling for playing numbers in comparison to its glory years, and with most of the Kiwi talent in the NRL now coming out of Auckland.
For a brief period when Neame was a teenager, the West Coast even struggled to get players into the South Island Scorpions representative sides.
Had Southern Zone Rugby League not pushed for academies to be set up on the West Coast, and if not for the tireless work of people like Byrne, there is every chance Neame wouldn’t have made rep sides as a youngster, let alone been in a position to attract the attention of scouts at the national tournament where he was picked up by the Cowboys.
“It was sort of crazy, it all came out of nowhere. I made the U-15 Scorpions and I was just surprised to be on team and excited to play,” Neame said.
“Suddenly I had four or five clubs come up to my parents on the sideline.“
“It was something I didn’t take for granted… my parents got a few free dinners out of it as well, so they were happy!”
You wouldn’t know it by looking at his 106kg, 193cm frame these days, but Neame’s body was initially something good judges thought would hold him back from making it to the higher levels of the game.
While it wasn’t such an issue at home on the West Coast, his lack of bulk often left him exposed when he’d travel to bigger cities for tournaments.
“He was tall but there wasn’t much meat on the bones. I didn’t look at him and say ‘NRL’,” Byrne said.
“Within 12 months we probably saw him develop physically. I never had any doubt about the rest of the requirements.”
But those same physical shortcomings also meant he developed a different style to others in New Zealand.
While they could rely on going through opponents, Neame had to work out ways to get around them.
“He doesn’t buy into ‘I’ll just try and run over everyone’, he’s got a lovely bit of footwork at the line,” Byrne said.
“He has a natural ability to find space in the defensive line. He’s intelligent enough to run to the space and he has the athleticism to do that.”
At some point in the future, Griffin Neame knows the sun-kissed hills of New Zealand’s famed winegrowing regions will call his name.
Once the rough and tumble of being a forward in the NRL is over, that’s the dream, living in the serenity and pursuing his passion for all things wine.
“My mum and dad love their wine and my grandparents love their wine. I drink it from time to time, especially when at home,” said Neame, whose wine of choice is a Shiraz.
“I wouldn’t mind owning a vineyard, it’d be pretty fun. Mum and dad could come and work there and I’ll pay them in wine, they’d be happy as!
“When I finish footy and get a bit older I can see myself moving back home and relaxing out there.”
For now though there is a dream to try and fulfill on the footy field, with the Cowboys one win away from a Grand Final appearance, with a home preliminary final against either the Eels or Raiders awaiting them.
Neame has also been named in New Zealand’s extended squad for the World Cup, having earlier this year been in the wider group selected to take on Tonga in June.
While he got just seven minutes on the field in his side’s 93-minute thriller against the Sharks in Finals Week 1, Neame said he is soaking up every moment of the experience.
“To be part of it is pretty crazy and the feeling now with a home prelim in Townsville, and we are only one win away from the Grand Final,” he said.
“Growing up in Greymouth I have a lot of people there who message me after games. It’s a cool feeling knowing most of the town is watching.
“If I was a young kid, thinking I was going to be close to a GF at 21? I just wouldn’t have believed it.”