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Parenting Place and NZ Rugby: A chat with Blair Baxter

Shelly Neethling and Stephanie Soh got to fly to Christchurch to visit the Baxter clan. Blair Baxter showed us how being a fan of rugby also means being a fan of family.

As Tallulah, Poppy, Fletcher and Flynn tumbled through the door – much to the delight of the cat
and the dog (who had until this point been a no-show) – we were greeted with easy smiles and stories from their walk home from school.

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Apparently it had been an eventful walk through the fields, with approximately 10 rabbits spotted (although Tallulah was sure it was nine), and one challenge identified – an un-obliging hedge. Dad was commissioned to chop a hole through the middle, he agreed to the project, and that was that. Time for food, a drink of water and of course, a bit of lawn rugby.

The Baxters’ backyard – surrounded by farmland – is home to enough sporting equipment to satisfy an Olympic team. With basketball nets, hockey sticks, scooters, soccer balls, bicycles, rackets, tennis balls, a set of mini rugby posts (Dan Carter style), and plenty of rugby balls around, it’s not difficult to see that they are one super-active family.

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“Sport is important to our family,” Blair Baxter explains. “I don’t mind what sport our kids choose to play – as long as they are playing something.” Even though Blair doesn’t seem to mind what sport his kids choose, rugby is the clear winner for him. “My father played league, and I have been playing rugby for what seems like forever. I still remember the moment I knew I wanted to play. The World XV was playing in Timaru and we went along to watch. I remember this little Japanese player scoring under the posts, and it made a huge impression on me. All I wanted to do was that.”

After playing competitive rugby in New Zealand and overseas, Blair started his own business, and he and his wife Monica, settled in Christchurch after a few years of living abroad. “After we started having kids, playing competitive rugby just seemed a bit selfish – all my time was taken up training, gymming and playing, and very little was left for the family. So I gave up playing at the age of 26.”

But after a while, it became clear that he couldn’t stay away too long. “I missed rugby so much, that I started helping out a bit at the Sydenham club, and then just got more and more involved. The opportunity to coach the premier colt side came up, and so I jumped at that. And I am now the head coach of the top senior side for Sydenham.”

Hearing Blair talk about his team is nothing less than inspiring. “80 percent of success is the culture you create. We don’t just want our players to arrive, play and leave without really connecting with each other and feeling like they’re part of a team. We put a lot of effort into creating a culture that celebrates hard work, but is all about fun too. Players need to enjoy each other’s company.”

One of the ways Blair sets out to intentionally create a positive team culture is to give each season a theme. “Last season our theme was ‘wolf pack’. Not only is a wolf pack a strong symbol of belonging and identity, it also reflects the different ages and stages of the players. In a pack, you have pups and you have alpha dogs – just like in our team. We have 18 to 20 year olds, as well as players in their 30s. The older players come alongside the younger ones, look out for them and show them how it’s done.” For Blair, creating a positive culture also means involving the partners and families of his players – “We recently held a team ‘Master Chef’, where players had to bring a family member along. It was great.”

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Blair is also passionate about the way in which rugby (and other sports) creates a space for players to learn life skills and build character alongside their physical and tactical training. “Our players are learning leadership skills, time management and building life-long friendships. Two or three of my closest friends are the guys I used to play rugby with.”

It is evident that Blair sees his family a little like his rugby team – a place to belong, grow and have fun. “Even though we are pretty busy, it is so important to make time for family. We enjoy walks together, heading to the beach or just having a BBQ at home. The kids often come to watch my games too, and I try to get to as many of theirs as possible.” With four kids all playing sport, the Baxters are certainly kept on their toes.

Blair describes a typical Saturday in winter – “The girls play hockey and netball, the boys play rugby, and I have rugby games on too. The girls’ games are often in town, and the boys’ games are in the country, so between me, Monica and Monica’s mum, Rose, we try to get to all the games. Depending on timing, I will go to one or two kids’ games, and then head off to mine.” He is quick to admit that they couldn’t fit it all in without Rose –”We’d be lost without her.”

Having extended family close by (next door in fact) also makes it possible for Blair and Monica to set aside time for each other. “In amongst the chaos of family life, making time for each other is so important. With Rose being happy to babysit (the kids love hanging out with their granny), it makes it possible for us to go out for a coffee, or to the movies, or sometimes a weekend away.”

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Blair is aware that being a coach and a competitive sportsman can easily create pressure for his kids, and so he is very intentional about encouraging each of them to pursue their own interests. “Even though as a kid I always wanted to be an All Black, I don’t expect my kids to have the same dreams as me. I think Poppy wants to be a Black Fern, and they all love rugby, but they’re interested in other things too. In fact my oldest boy, Fletcher, is interested in real estate. He has pictures of houses up on his walls and is always trying to ‘sell’ them to us. I am planning on taking him to a few auctions for fun.”

Now in case you thought Blair was just a full-time coach, dad and husband, think again. Blair also happens to be a qualified chef who runs his own hydroponics business, growing and selling lettuces and herbs. And when he’s not coaching or farming, he is installing garage doors as part of a small contracting business too.

It seems his ability to juggle so many things so well may come from his years in the kitchen. He reflects, “I really enjoy the pressure that comes with being a chef. Give me a menu and a challenge and I will knock it out.” (Suffice to say, his kids’ lunch boxes must be pretty impressive). Like his passion for rugby, Blair’s love of cooking also stems from his childhood. Blair’s mum used to run motels, and Blair would help her out with the meals.

The sharing of meals is also something that Blair appreciates about the rugby world – especially country rugby. “After each game my boys play, the host club provides home-cooked food for all the teams, and everyone hangs out for the rest of the afternoon. It creates such a great community feel – not only for the kids, but for the parents too.”

By the time we had finished up our conversation, the kids had changed out of their school uniforms – Flynn had the cat under one arm, Fletcher was wielding a boomerang, and Tallulah began telling us how she had won the pool handstand competition at school. Seconds later, someone shouted, “Boys versus girls!” and team Baxter took to the ‘field’ for an impressive game of touch rugby.

This is an excerpt from the bespoke edition of Parenting magazine created by Parenting Place in collaboration with New Zealand Rugby | Written by Shelly Neethling | Photography by Stephanie Soh 

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