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All Black Frank Bunce's Modern Family

The All Black legend reveals how becoming a father at 58 almost cost him his marriage

The invitation to take part in reality TV show Match Fit was serendipity for Frank Bunce. The former All Black was lacking motivation and it was causing more than just health problems – it was also affecting his new marriage.
At 58, the father of six and grandfather of six was slowing down, preferring a quiet life on the couch over getting out with his new wife Jessica Worchel and their baby daughter Tillie. And that was starting to concern the energetic American, who had given up everything to be with him.
"We were at a crossroads," says Jess, who, at 39, is 19 years younger. "There was a bit of an ultimatum. I said, 'Look, dude, you've got a little kid. You have a young wife. You chose this. You can't sit back and go out to pasture. Well, you can, but I'm not going with you.' But this show has reinspired him, given him his energy back."
Frank with wife Jess and daughter Tillie
In Three's Match Fit, 10 All Black veterans from the '90s and 2000s are challenged to get back into shape physically – and mentally – with the help of former coach Sir Graham Henry and rugby great Buck Shelford.
Once revered sporting giants at peak fitness, their current condition proves sobering and the group quickly starts to open up about the struggles of life after being national heroes.
"I had let myself go," Frank confesses in an exclusive interview with Woman's Day at the Pukekohe home he shares with his new bride. "I have problems with my knees, one of them in particular. I can't walk for any great distance before it starts swelling up and getting sore. I couldn't run. But it was kind of an excuse when I look back on it now.
Match fit as an All Black in the 90's
"I could barely get down on the floor with Tillie, getting up was even harder. I just wanted to sit on the couch. Now I'm feeling more agile. Everything is feeling easier. You just have to push yourself through it. You lose weight, you feel better and you've got more energy."
This epiphany has delighted Jess. She met Frank five years ago in Hawaii, where he was training rugby coaches. In that environment, work felt like a holiday and he wasn't stressed with running his business as a tyre shop owner.
Referring to her fellow All Black WAGs, Jessica tells, "As wives, we're always looking for ways to get it into their heads that they have to take care of themselves. When you're a professional athlete, your training regimen is scheduled.
"But when you're not on the team, you have to find the motivation – you get tired of your partner telling you to do it. I love that the show addresses real life with so much comedy and fun. Then you get these serious moments and you realise that is what this is about."
Frank, one of eight siblings, was spurred into signing up for Match Fit by his father Frank Snr's premature death from a heart attack at the age of 55, the result of bad lifestyle choices.
"He was there through my growing up and playing rugby, but he died before I made the All Blacks. That was part of the reason for doing the show, and that a lot of the guys I played rugby with and against have died young because of lifestyle choices."
Frank and Jess married in Hawaii. with many of his kids and grandkids cheering him on.
Frank was travelling to Hawaii frequently for the coaching role and formed a friendship with Jess that grew into something more over about 18 months. He proposed on her second trip to New Zealand, while sitting at a quintessentially Kiwi pub in Puhoi. They married in October 2018 and Jess moved to Aotearoa the following month. They had Tillie last December.
Frank is the first to admit that he never expected to fall in love again, nor become a dad again. He now has six children, including Josh, 11, and Victoria, 13, who live with their mum in Cambridge, and adult children Jordan, 26, Samantha, 29, who has four children of her own, and Chance, 34, a dad to nine-month-old twin sons. "That show Modern Family – that's us!" Frank quips.
Jess was embraced by her new Kiwi whanau, something they credit to Franks mum Sifa, aka Nan, who insisted all the extended members of blended families were made welcome.
Dating long distance, Frank and Jess were not naïve. They knew it would be hard – one of them would always be away from home. And there was that significant age gap.
"You can't help who you fall in love with," Frank says, revealing he was ready to emigrate and had secured a fiancé visa to move to Hawaii. But they didn't like the state of the US under Donald Trump's leadership, so Jess decided NZ was a better base.
The hands-on dad loves hanging out with Tillie
"My family is close emotionally, but physically we aren't. My mom and a sister are in Florida, I have a sister in California and a sister in Idaho, and my dad is in New Mexico. It's really important to me to be close to family, and he has four sisters and a brother right here in Auckland. And the kids are all near. So that was a big reason."
Frank always told Jess she deserved to be a mum, but she had reservations. "This generation of mothers think about the climate and the future," she explains. "I desperately wanted children – my heart wanted them – but my head thought it was a little bit scary out there to be raising kids. But Frank always said from the beginning, 'You need to be a mom.' He was open to it, even though he had his own kids already. He really encouraged me."
Frank chimes in while on nappy duty, "When you get to my age, you don't plan to have another child. But it is lovely. I love having kids around. I am not finding it hard at all. Getting up in the middle of the night to feed her and play with her – everything that goes with a baby, I enjoy it. It's the same with Tillie as my grandchildren. I love watching them go through each stage."
Frank and Jess' wedding in Hawaii
Jess remembers the day she realised she was meant to be with Frank. She was in Auckland on a work trip and Frank played tour guide. "He took me on this incredible day to the beach, to the Puhoi pub, to Mission Bay – and we just talked the entire day. It was easy to be in each other's company.
"It was easy and fun. He put in huge effort. He came to Hawaii 17 times in three years. He was really supportive of my work. I always felt uplifted around him. We have the same view of the world when we talk about what is going on with life. And he is pretty handsome too!"
For Frank, his interest was piqued earlier, when he met her in Hawaii. "When I first saw her, I thought she was beautiful. Then I got to know her and it got even better. She's interesting to talk to, caring and loving.
"I was telling Frano Botica [another ex-All Black] about her and how smart she was, and he said, 'She can't be that smart – she's going out with you!' But once I got to know her and found out about the deeper things about her, it cemented it for me. I still feel the same way, darling!"
Similar to the premise of Match Fit, they're at pains to ensure their life is portrayed warts and all. And this has been an incredibly challenging year for them both. "Our story may sound lovely and romantic, but it's been hard," Jess confesses. "The transition – moving to a new country, having a baby, marrying someone who is well known – it wasn't easy. We lived in Mangatangi [a rural Waikato town, pop. 400] for the first year and a half, which was quite isolated. It was a culture shock after a busy life in Hawaii.
"I'm an active person. I want to get up and explore. But now I want to create a life with someone who has had this huge life and is almost preparing to ride out into the sunset. Are you in the same place in this journey of life? And if not, what does the compromise look like? That's been our biggest challenge."
COVID has prevented Jess from introducing her daughter to her family in the US and finding work has also been difficult as a role at Auckland University of Technology was no longer relevant in the pandemic. Jess has recently been accepted for her PhD and is getting her Hawaiian teacher's licence so she can teach here. She also runs yoga classes and is devising a class for older guys whose knees are an issue.
They try to see the lighter side of life and smile wryly when people mistake their age difference for other family dynamics. When Frank had to correct someone who though Tillie was his granddaughter, he noticed a shop assistant roll their eyes. And a restaurateur recently asked Jess what it was like having a famous dad.
"Why am I doing this to myself?" Franks asks jovially. "I raised strong, independent women, I married a strong independent woman, and now Tillie is getting stubborn, learning what she wants and what she doesn't want. My girls will keep me young."
"We're like a sweater," Jess says. "If you're knitting a sweater, you have all your individual pieces, but in time, it starts to look like something. It's coming together, but it's a process."

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