10 July 2021
Sean Spooner joins rarefied air in the club rugby league sphere this weekend, making his 300th premier grade appearance in the Canterbury Rugby League competition.
The 37-year-old will complete this remarkable achievement less than a year after Shane Tamatea joined the 300 Club – and Spooner shares many qualities with his legendary Riccarton Knights teammate.
Commitment, selflessness, leadership, competitive desire.
Talking to Spooner this week ahead of his milestone match at Crosbie Park, humility is another common trait between the pair that shines through.
“I haven’t really thought about (the milestone) too much until after the game last Saturday,” Spooner says.
“It’s come around pretty quick from when I started to now – I guess it’s pretty rare.”
Fittingly, he will play his 300th game against Papanui Tigers, the club Spooner came through the junior ranks at and made his premiers debut for as a teenager way back in 2002.
To put the veteran playmaker’s longevity in perspective, the NRL’s current longest-serving player, Benji Marshall, came into first grade in late-2003.
“The quality of players, the competition back then was very fierce and competitive,” Spooner recalls of his early days in the top flight.
“Any team could beat anyone else on the day and every team had good players – the Tigers had the likes of Eddie Hei Hei, Chris Newton, John Kelly. Quality players at the end of their careers but stars in their own right.
“Lusi Sione (Halswell) and Aaron Whittaker (Riccarton) were also just at the end of their careers when I was starting, they were where I am at the moment.”
After three seasons in the black-and-gold jersey, Spooner joined Hornby Panthers – the start of a fruitful 14-season tenure out west that garnered eight CRL Grand Final appearances and premierships in 2006, 2009-10 and 2012-13.
“It all started with ‘Jiggsy’, (Panthers coach) Brent Ringdahl, he brought me to the club,” he explains.
“I had a conversation with his son, Chris, and it went from there, we built a relationship up and it’s been like that ever since – we’ve always been pretty tight.”
Spooner rates his first and last Grand Final victories as his standout memories at Hornby: “Winning your first Grand Final has got to be up with the best. I can remember listening to the anthem before the game, it was an awesome experience.”
The 2013 Grand Final – the second straight between archrivals Hornby and Halswell to go into extra-time – was a classic, with James Baxendale’s 98th-minute penalty goal securing another title. It was especially sweet for the Spooner family, however, with Sean featuring alongside brother Gene.
“Our parents are pretty proud of that, Jack and Karen.
“It was definitely a standout one from a viewer’s perspective, ebb and flow, it could have gone either way. Both quality teams – Halswell were an exceptionally good team back then.”
While Spooner rates Ringdahl as the biggest influence on his career, he also formed a strong bond with the Panthers’ 2012-13 premiership-winning coach, Brent Stuart, and credits a clutch of experienced teammates for showing him the ropes at Hornby.
“‘Stuey’ was a person I really looked up to, very knowledgeable and I still keep in contact with him now. He’s definitely someone you wanted to be taught by – he’s a bloody good coach.
“Craig Smith and Aaron Harris are two guys who I really respect, they taught me a lot. About the jersey, the culture, everything it means to play for Hornby. Sam Wallace was also someone I enjoyed playing in the same team as.”
Spooner linked with Riccarton last year, leaving a club chock-full of experience that had played in eight of the previous 11 Grand Finals, for a rebuilding, youthful outfit.
The sea change has given Spooner a new lease of life, arguably helping prolong his admirable career.
“It was a fresh approach, I wanted to be a leader and try my hand at something different,” he says.
“A new challenge, some new goals. Really test myself towards the back-end of my career. I really felt I could bring some of that to Riccarton.
“Last season was the first the Knights were in the semi-finals for four years. As a club, I’m really appreciative of all their work. Shane (Tamatea) is an inspiration, the main person at Riccarton – our clubman. Our relationship has got really strong and he’s a good mate.
“Being a leader is something I always wanted to be in any team I played in. I wanted to set an example for people to show that hard work, dedication can pay off in the end. I wanted to be that player that everyone could follow.”
And it’s old-fashioned hard work that has underpinned Spooner’s ability to play at this level for 20 seasons – at least in more recent times.
“Earlier on I wasn’t a massive gym-goer, I was a bit lazy,” he confesses.
“But these past few years I’ve really looked after myself. Kids these days are getting stronger and bigger, so you’ve got to try and match them as best you can.
“The last five years I’ve worked really hard on fitness to be competitive. It’s not easy – you can get left behind pretty quick. I was just trying to take that work ethic to our team at Riccarton and hopefully in coming years it’s going to pay off.”
Spooner remains coy about the prospect of hanging up the boots – and if he follows the example set by Tamatea, who has turned short-lived retirements into an art form, we can expect to the wily ball-player running around again in 2022 and beyond.
“You’re a long time retired, that’s the call Shane uses too. I’ll play it by ear, see how the rest of the season goes – we’ve still got a few games to go. Look after the body and go from there.”