DEAN McNicholl, who has lived in a flat that overlooks the club since 2008, was busy sweeping the steps that lead from the changing rooms to the first-team pitch on Tuesday night at Shay Lane.

“Typical Deano,” said Bradford Salem’s chairman Neil Klenk about the popular New Zealander, who has taken on a caretaker role at the club.

However, Salem will have to find someone else to do their janitorial duties as second row or No 8 McNicholl is combining his 54th birthday tomorrow with his last match for the club (a pre-season friendly at home to Bradford & Bingley, 3pm kick-off) before flying to Australia next month.

“I am going to be very, very emotional,” admitted McNicholl about the derby, with the visitors having links with the Kiwi, who has coached the junior teams, including his sons Ryan, Rhys and Jarred, at Wagon Lane.

McNicholl senior, who played for Salem’s first team as recently as April, where Rhys made his first-team debut, making them the first father and son to play in the first team in Salem’s 95-year history, said: “I have put a few things on Facebook and my mum has said I may have to bring a box of tissues. I may have to wear some dark glasses after the match because there will definitely be tears.

“It will be hard to walk away from this club as it is progressing so well and there are plans to make the clubhouse bigger but I am hoping to get back in 2024 for the club’s centenary.”

It is all a far cry from McNicholl’s days as a junior at the Featherston and Greytown clubs in Wellington.

He remembered: “We used to play in bare feet because half of the Maori kids couldn’t afford boots.

“I can remember Greytown’s centenary in 1975 when I was about 10. That was a great experience going through town on the back of these floats that we had made up.

“I then went to high school at Wairarapa College and for Rongotai College, which is where the Savea brothers (Julian and Ardie) played.”

McNicholl is not boastful but drops the names of All Black greats casually into conversation, reminding you of what a high level he played at back home.

He said: “When I left school I played for the Wellington club, and when I was in the under-18s we had Murray Mexted and Murray Pierce, two pretty famous All Blacks who we looked up to, who were coaching us.”

After a tour of the UK with Wellington as a 19-year-old, where their opponents were Stratford-Upon-Avon, Bristol University, Cardiff University, Ebbw Vale, London Metropolitan Police, Edinburgh Wanderers and Ballymena, McNicholl’s family moved to Australia and left him in New Zealand, where he finished off his apprenticeship as a panel beater.

He followed them to Brisbane when he was 20 and played club rugby for GPS (the oldest surviving rugby club in Queensland), and McNicholl said: “We had David Codey (capped 13 times) in our team in 1986 who went on to captain the Wallabies in 1987 and I played against South Sydney, who had Andrew Slack (capped 87 times by the Wallabies) in their team and he was the current Australian captain so we played in some good company.”

McNicholl first came over to the UK permanently in 1991 for the World Cup, explaining: “My best friend Dean Hecke was running the King’s Arms in Heaton and said ‘Come over and we will go to a few matches’.

“He got us tickets for New Zealand v Australia in Dublin and USA v England at Twickenham.

“I arrived in England on the Friday and ended up playing in Salem’s third team the very next day, despite being jet-lagged and hungover.

“We didn’t get in until 5am and I can remember Peter Street (another of Salem’s band of Kiwi players) waking me up at noon and saying that we had to get down to Salem as we were playing Selby away.

“We were playing on the third-team pitch and it was a tough game and difficult for me to acclimatise as I had been playing in Australia where the grounds were so hard, with many of them having cricket pitches in the middle - you either passed the ball or kicked it. You didn’t want to get tackled.

“We got beaten at Selby but I thoroughly enjoyed it, playing alongside the likes of Chris Brumfitt and the old boys.

“Back then there was a 12-week qualifying period before I was eligible for the first team but another problem was that you could only have two overseas players, and we had Pete Street and Shane Goble so after two or three third-team games for Salem I went and played at Ilkley for a season as I couldn’t get first-team games for Salem.

“I stayed in England until 1995 and then we (my wife Janine and myself) went to Australia but came back to England in 2007 as Janine, who is English – I met her at the King’s Arms (she also worked in the kitchen at Salem) - was homesick.

“Even though I hadn’t spoken to anyone at Salem – not intentionally, but just because of the time difference - about coming back, I walked into the clubhouse and there was Klenky and Doffer (former club chairman John Dobson). It was like nothing had changed.

“It was my 42nd birthday on the Friday night and Sparky (hooker Simon Markey) said ‘Bring your boots’ and I said ‘I haven’t got any’ and he said ‘Don’t worry I will find you some’ and I ended up playing for the second team and haven’t looked back since.

“My last first-team game was in April at Guisborough, where Rhys made his first-team debut, which was quite a proud moment.

“Rhys, who has a 19-year-old twin called Jarred, will be playing with me for Salem on Saturday, and we also have Ryan, who will be 22 on September 9, the day before I fly.”

As for how McNicholl can play at such a decent level now he is in his 50s, he said: “I just pace myself, I know where the ball is going to be and know which ruck to hit and which ruck not to hit.”

He added: “Salem have just given me honorary life membership (at the annual meeting on July 17) and when I came back in 2007 (after splitting with Janine, who he remains on good terms with) I was lost and they took me under their wing and made me second-team captain.

“I have met old friends and new friends and Salem is awesome – one of the best clubs in the world without a shadow of a doubt.”

As for why he is going to Australia now, McNicholl said: “There are a combination of reasons why I am going back to Australia – my visa runs out in January, my parents are turning 75 and I have met an old flame – Leone Clough - at a rugby reunion in Easter in Brisbane so we will see how that progresses.”

McNicholl, who has also played cricket for Cross Roads & Daisy Hill, who used to play on the second-team at Shay Lane, and golf at West Bradford, added: “I love my cricket and had a great time with Daisy Hill.

“They are a good set of lads and I hope that some of them will come on Saturday to see me off.

“They used to call me ‘Shovels’ because I didn’t drop many. I was more of a fielder than anything.”

Klenk said of McNicholl the rugby player and the man: “The much over-used word legend springs to mind and he is definitely thought of in that category.

“He is a popular guy, a tireless worker and, having played alongside him in his first stint, he was an exceptionally good No 8.

“Deano was a hard but fair player and when he came over he was a Grade A player with Gosford Red Devils and when he was in his prime with his flowing blond locks, opponents thought ‘Salem have that big No 8 who terrorises defences’.

“He was probably past his sell-by date to some extent when he returned but still gave great service.

“I have had crises travelling away and almost felt embarrassed to drag him out of his house, especially when he was over 50 years old, and saying ‘We are a man short. Can you go to Middlesbrough or Guisborough?’ or wherever it might be.”

As for his caretaker role at the club, Klenk said of McNicholl: “We get some undesirables and he deals with issues of people not behaving in our grounds.

“He is very tactful and, instead of going in all guns blazing and telling people where to go, he uses the phrase ‘ You respect us and we’ll respect you’.

“To look at him you would not think that he was diplomatic but he is quite surprising in that way. He is a big friend and a big loss and I am sure that I will visit him in Australia. We wish him well.”