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Settled in . . . Excelsior and Old Golds back Josh Phipps is loving his second rugby season in North Otago. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

It was an introduction to North Otago rugby like no other. Kayla Hodge chats to England’s Josh Phipps about the year that was.

Josh Phipps feels like he has finally found his feet.

The English rugby player arrived in New Zealand last year, just as the country went into Level 4 lockdown. He drove straight to North Otago from Christchurch, and spent lockdown at a motel in Alma, before he was able to move into a flat in Oamaru.

In his first two months in New Zealand, he met only five people, leaving him wondering if he made the right decision to move across the world.

“You can’t really explain it, to be fair. It was pretty scary at the time, being a 19-year-old coming straight over here [and] not knowing anyone,” Phipps said.

Looking back now, he has no regrets. He is feeling settled in Oamaru, and has been well supported by the North Otago Rugby Union, and Excelsior.

“I feel very comfortable here, and I really enjoy the way that I’ve been made to feel by other people.”

Phipps (20) admitted last season was tough for Excelsior. The club struggled with numbers and form, but the first five-eighth and fullback loved every minute of it.

“It couldn’t have been a better club. The boys are awesome, and really welcoming – I just couldn’t fault it.”

Excelsior won its final game against Athletic Marist, and it showed the side could stick at it, he said.

And then came his call-up for the North Otago Heartland side. That was Phipps’ goal, and he went on to play four matches for the Old Golds.

“Once I got in that squad, I really wanted to push myself as much as I could. Playing in that Ranfurly Shield game was a really unique experience – not a lot of people can say that.”

Last season helped him develop as a player mentally and physically.

“A lot of people here just have a positive mindset in everything they do. I think my game’s probably developed in the way that I’m not so worried about things going wrong and dwelling on it – it’s moving on to the next job, and thinking about things differently.”

Excelsior coach Hamish McKenzie and Heartland coach Jason Forrest had been good mentors.

McKenzie, a former Heartland No10, was approachable, and knowledgeable to help Phipps grow, while Forrest had an eye for detail, and was someone to whom Phipps looked up as a player and coach.

Excelsior had plenty of new faces this seaosn and, while it struggled against Old Boys in the first round, Phipps expected the side to improve.

“Personally, I’m just trying to do the best for the team that I can … as well as feed back into the club, because they’ve done so much for me.

“Now that it’s my second year here, I find myself probably leading a little bit more which has been quite nice.”

Phipps started playing rugby in England at age 6, and made the Worcester Warriors academy at 12.

He captained the under -7 side, and was included in England age-group camps.

He went to Hartpury College, and won the Aase National Championship during his two years.

Rugby in New Zealand was fast-flowing with “freak athletes” compared with England, and it was a style he was relishing.

“The attraction over here was trying to push myself as much as I can, and a bit of a fresh start. Just the way New Zealand has approached the game is a lot more positive than other places I’ve played.”

Aside from playing, he works at the St Kevin’s College hostel and as a coach for North Otago Rugby Union. He coaches the combined St Kevin’s and Waitaki Girls’ High School under-18 girls, assists with the St Kevin’s first XV backline, and coaches in primary schools.

“Being young myself still, I can probably help the guys out who probably aren’t that much younger than me. The younger generation I think is great, and [I’m] helping them out, and giving back as much as I can.”

Without the support of Excelsior, North Otago Rugby and St Kevin’s, Phipps is unsure where he would be.

“I probably wouldn’t still be here. I would have been on a flight back home pretty quick.

“They’ve made my time here amazing, and made me want to stay as long as I can.”