Head out to the rugby league grounds around Canterbury this weekend and you’ll notice our referees decked out in impressive new kit – courtesy of a partnership with NZ MEP Fabrications that commenced in January.

Setting up in Christchurch in 2022 and operating from workshops in New Plymouth and Wellington since 2019, NZ MEP Fabrications specialises in building services and the delivery of prefabrication, using the latest technology and building information modelling (BIM) methods.

The partnership with Canterbury Rugby League is a major coup for the game locally and is set to prove beneficial for NZ MEP Fabrications as the company establishes itself in a new region.

But the affiliation extends beyond the commercial aspects. Rugby league has wended its way through NZ MEP Fabrications and Future BIM Pacifica Managing Director Darren Littlewood’s life story – and the Yorkshire native has already made a significant contribution to the code at grassroots level in a few short years in New Zealand.

Born in the rugby league heartland of Leeds and a lifelong Rhinos fan – “the ‘Loiners’ back when I was on the terraces as a young kid watching the likes of Ellery Hanley and Garry Schofield,” Littlewood adds – he first pulled on a pair of boots for Drighlington Rugby league Club as a nine-year-old.

Littlewood played alongside the likes of future Great Britain internationals and Super League stalwarts Lee Gilmour and Garreth Carvell at prestigious rugby league nursery Woodkirk High School, making Yorkshire rep teams before a bout of Osgood-Schlatter disease (a condition that causes swelling and pain in the knee joint) in his early teens forced him to give up contact sport for two years.

Eager to stay involved in the sport, Littlewood took up refereeing and controlled age-group matches at hallowed Leeds venues Headingley and Elland Road in the same batch of whistle-blowers as future international ref and Super League veteran Richard Silverwood.

Littlewood returned to the playing ranks and the fullback/centre showed enough promise to be picked up as a semi-pro by Hunslet, a club he chose in order to come under the tutelage of 1980s Great Britain reps and Castelford stars Tony Marchant and David Plange.

Working his way through a heating and ventilation apprenticeship at the same time as training twice and playing up to two games a week, he was soon faced with a difficult choice.

“The company I was working for didn’t have work in the Yorkshire region, so to finish the apprenticeship I’d have to go to Norwich – four hours’ drive away,” Littlewood explains.

“I had to make a decision between trying to go pro (in rugby league) and my apprenticeship. My dad wanted me to play for Leeds and said, ‘I think you should have a crack at it.’

“But mum was saying, ‘if you don’t finish your apprenticeship, you’ll be disowned and you won’t have anywhere to live here anyway’. So I had to listen to the mother and I went and finished my apprenticeship.”

Littlewood moved to Norwich, returning home on weekends and playing football with mates. His budding rugby league career fizzled out. Shifting to London and setting up his own business – where his projects included the handball arena at the Olympic Park – Littlewood played five seasons of rugby union with Kilburn Cosmos, also becoming involved in sponsorship of the club.

The stint in London would ultimately lead him to New Zealand.

“I always wanted a prefabrication element to what we did in pipework, (which was) mechanical pipework systems in big energy centres,” Littlewood says.

“I needed some welders and went looking up north because I didn’t want to pay London prima donna wages and my mate knew of a Kiwi lad who had family in Leeds but wanted to go to London and set up there.

“I didn’t know then, but Matt’s dad was the owner of Taranaki Engineering. I developed a system of workflow using 3D cameras to scan buildings, then we align it with a 3D model and produce pipework and bracketry systems in line with the 3D model and point cloud survey camera, which had not been done in New Zealand.”

During a Christmas holiday in 2016 to Christchurch to visit his wife Gemma’s family, Littlewood made the trip up to New Plymouth, which eventually led to a partnership with Taranaki Engineering and the establishment of NZ MEP via his existing company, UK MEP.

Darren and Gemma packed up and moved to New Plymouth in August 2019 to set up NZ MEP, which secured the contract for a seismic package at the new children’s hospital in Wellington soon afterwards. The cutting-edge technology included constructing cradles offsite in the Taranaki-based workshop.

Following the early-2020 COVID lockdown, the Littlewoods relocated to Raumati Beach on the Kapiti Coast for a shorter commute to Wellington – “a good golf course and a beach” were also attractions. Setting up a new workshop in Tawa, NZ MEP worked on Tākina Wellington Convention and Exhibition Centre, Wellington Regional Hospital and the NZ Post building in the capital, as well as New Zealand’s biggest-ever seismic package to that point, at North Shore Hospital in Auckland.

During this time, Littlewood – keen to get NZ MEP out into the community’s consciousness – reconnected with rugby league. NZ MEP sponsored Wellington Orcas, Wellington Rugby League Referees Association, the Kapiti Bears club and Taranaki club Bell Block Marist Dragons.

Littlewood also served two years as a Wellington Rugby League board director, helping spearhead some key initiatives and a five-year strategic plan, and even returned to the playing ranks for Kapiti Bears’ Masters team…albeit briefly.

“I got roughed up in a bit of derby they have with the Gold Coast Bears in my first game. Steve Coles, who is Dane Coles’ dad, is the Bears’ Masters coach and didn’t warn me it was going to be that rough and ready and I went in a bit naïve,” Littlewood recalls with a wince and a chuckle.

“I also did some refereeing in Wellington, Wise Park in Wainuiomata – that’s an interesting place to referee. It’s good to get around the grounds and see a little bit about what the game’s about. I enjoyed my time at Wellington Rugby League.”

In April last year, the Littlewoods shifted again, this time to Christchurch due to Darren’s demanding travel commitments so Gemma and their baby daughter had a family network close by.

NZ MEP landed its first job in Christchurch in August at Canterbury University, the new Belfast-based workshop opened in September and the company has subsequently won work with Papanui High School and the Court Theatre.

Meanwhile, Littlewood reached out to Canterbury Rugby League CEO Malcolm Humm – and it’s clear his commitment to the code extends far beyond NZ MEP’s generous sponsorship of the local refereeing fraternity.

“We’re establishing ourselves here and leaning on the rugby league community to help us get that exposure, to let everyone know we are here,” Littlewood says.

“We want to work with rugby league and give back to the game.

“I’ve talked to Wellington Rugby League and Canterbury Rugby League about pathway progression – if these 16- and 18-year-olds are doing apprenticeships and get an opportunity to go to Australia or to the Warriors, they can keep that progression in their career.

“We’ve got good contacts in Australia to help them do that and create a pathway to maintaining the high-level performance training they’re getting at these clubs but also continue in their trade. If rugby league doesn’t work out they have a career to fall back on.”

NZ MEP has also contributed invaluable resources, expertise and materials to grassroots clubs looking upgrade their facilities, doing point cloud scanning for Bell Block Marist Dragons, and refurbishing floodlights for Kapiti Bears and Upper Hutt Tigers.

“We do a lot of seismic packages with structural steel, so we do have offcuts that we can help clubs with things like floodlights, we will work with a local electrician.

“Wherever we’ve got locations, we do try and reach out to help the rugby league community. It’s not just about supporting with some funding, it’s looking at renovations at clubrooms, point cloud data they can use to produce drawings from and use to get approval from councils.”

Littlewood even plans to pick up the whistle again when his workload is a little less hectic.

With NZ MEP’s jobs in the Canterbury region moving full steam ahead, there are immediate opportunities available for people searching for work.

“We’re constantly looking for trade assistants, pipefitter welders and we like to use the rugby league community to try and help us do that – we are hiring,” Littlewood says.

“We’re looking at how we can grow. We have 35 people in the Wellington headquarters, 30 in New Plymouth and 10 already in Christchurch with ongoing work for the next couple of years guaranteed.

“We’re building a team here and working with Canterbury Rugby League to see what support I can provide for them, based on what I went through in Wellington, and offer that to Mal’s team.”

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