Newcastle rugby: Maitland brothers dig in for grand battle

BROTHERS IN ARM: Jon and Dan Runchel before playing for Maitand in the 2010 grand final. Picture: Maitland Mercury

BROTHERS IN ARM: Jon and Dan Runchel before playing for Maitand in the 2010 grand final. Picture: Maitland Mercury

WINNING a first-grade premiership for Maitland would mean everything to Dan Runchel. At the same time it means little.

Runchel is as Maitland as Les Darcy, High Street and Lorn Park. He first put on a Blacks jumper aged nine and hasn’t taken it off.

The rugged hooker moved to third on the all-time list of top-grade games, leapfrogging club legend and his first coach David “Java” Bevan, earlier this year, and has since taken the mark to 189.

Saturday’s grand final against Hamilton doubles as his 250th grade game.

Victory would break a 19-year premiership drought for the second oldest club in Australia and be the perfect way for Runchel to go out.

But above everything else, Maitland is a family club. At the heart of it for two decades have been the Runchels.

Dan’s brother Jon, one of the best props the Blacks have produced, is in the fight of his life. His grand final.

It was like a time bomb ticking.

- Jon Runchel

The 37-year-old father of two discovered he had a malignant tumor in his chest after going to the doctors with what he thought was pneumonia.

“I went and got an x-ray even though the doctor suggested I was wasting my time: ‘You’re 37-years-old and in the gym every day’. 

Runchel hadn’t made it home when his phone rang.

“My life was totally turned on its head,” Runchel said. “It absolutely floored me. I’ll never forget the moment – June 27, 11am.”

Two days later he went under the knife for a biopsy. The following Monday he started 12 weeks of rapid-fire chemotherapy at the oncology unit at Newcastle Private Hospital.

He had the last gruelling round of chemo on Friday. 

“It is just unlucky,” Runchel said. “I was born with germ cells on my chest. It was like a time bomb ticking. It could have happened at any time. It is curable but still scary. I have a six-week spell now and go in for surgery. The tumor is in under my rib cage. Ideally, the chemo would have made it disappear all together. It doesn’t look that way, so the surgeon has to go in and chase it and rip it out.  

“If they pull it all out and it is what they think it is, we are sweet. All done. If it isn’t, we have another track to go down.

“There are so many doors and you don’t know where you are headed. You have to go one day at a time and say ‘this is what is in front of me’, and off you go.”

Runchel has stripped weight from his hulking frame as a side effect of the chemo. His beard and what hair he had left are gone.

“I have actually got better. When I first went in i was really sick,” he said. “There are always the down moments. Every day is a battle. You can’t get too rough with yourself.”

During the aggressive treatment he has been able to spend time at home with wife Tara and kids Jane, 6, and Axel, 4.

“When I am out of hospital I’m not far off dad,” Runchel said. “When I haven’t got the drugs pounding through me, we are out doing stuff. I am really lucky in that way. The kids know what it is; whether they know the full meaning? It is a tough one. I have a good team around me. My missus and brother, mum and dad. My wife’s family have come over from Canada. That has taken the kids’ minds off it as well.”

Dan, three years younger, has forever looked up to Jon. Gorilla Grip tight. Always have been.

“The way he has handled this. His strength,” Dan said. “It has knocked the whole family for six. I said to my old girl if anyone is going to get through this it will be Jon.”

Jon played 80-first grade games and 101 all up for the Blacks. A power-house front rower, he represented NSW Country and was the first grade player-of-the-year in 2004. He went overseas in 2005 and spent five years in Canada and the US. He returned to Marcellin in 2010 and packed down alongside Dan in the 39-34 loss to Hamilton the grand final – the Blacks’ last decider.

“We got overawed by the occasion in 2010,” Jon said. “Hamilton have been there four years in a row now. They have got Scott Coleman (coach) telling them what to do and when to do it. I worry that Maitland might get a little wrapped up in the media stuff and the hype of it.”

For the past two years Jon has coached Maitland’s under-19s and played a major role in the development of Max Stafford (halfback), Isaac Ulberg (winger) and Ben Wood (bench) who will line up against the Hawks.

“They are good kids.”

It was Jon who “dragged” Dan away from soccer, starting his rugby journey

Dan made his first-grade debut beside his brother in 2004 and Jon remained a sounding board throughout his career. Never more so than the past 12 weeks.

“With Dan playing, I ring him every week,” Jon said. “I have thrown a few ideas at him which he passed on to Hicko (coach Mick Hickling). They seem to be working. They are playing some good footy.”

In what will be an emotional day for a club which has had its resolve tested in recent years, Jon will present first grade with their playing jumpers on Saturday morning.

“Jon, his parents – the whole family – have been massive contributors to the club,” Hickling said. “They are always at the game and are great people. They love the club and the community. Dan really wants to have a big impact in the game.”

Jon will be up in the stands with the Maitland faithful.

“A win would be awesome,” Jon said.

On both fronts!