By John O’Hare
As the nation emerges from a state of mourning following this year’s Rugby World Cup result it’s a good time to crouch, pause and engage with the history of the game and the extraordinary impact rugby has had on the heritage of heartland New Zealand.
This year, a Bay of Islands rugby club has marked its 135th anniversary – making it one of the oldest rugby clubs in Northland, and the country.
The Taiamai Ōhaeawai Rugby Football Club was officially registered in 1888, only 18 years after New Zealand’s first ‘official’ game of rugby was played in in Nelson, and four years before the New Zealand Rugby Union was formed.
“The Taiamai Ōhaeawai Club was one of a number of clubs that mushroomed around the country as Kiwis took to the new sport in droves,” says Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga Northland Manager Bill Edwards.
“Rugby rapidly became an integral part of the country’s sporting heritage as well as an important part of New Zealand life involving people from all different backgrounds and beliefs and contributing greatly to the country’s social cohesion.”
Provincial clubs were the lifeblood of New Zealand rugby with each club reflecting the local flavour of their community. The Taiamai Ōhaeawai Rugby Club was no exception.
“Rugby was played in the Taiamai area just over 40 years after the Battle of Ōhaeawai in 1845 – one of the most significant battles of the Northern Wars. Interestingly, one of the elements of the Taiamai Ōhaeawai Rugby Club emblem is a Māori rangatira shaking hands with an identifiably Pākehā figure,” says Bill.
“The symbolism reflects the reality that the sons and grandsons of people who may have been in conflict with each other on the battlefield a generation or two earlier were now unified in a different cause altogether. It’s interesting that this aspect of this community’s history is acknowledged in this way.”
A centennial celebration booklet, published by the club in 1988, records incidents and identities that capture the evolution and growth of this provincial club, while also giving insights into rural community life at the time.
In the early years, players heading out of town to play ‘away’ matches, for example, often travelled on horseback, staying overnight after the game.
One player, Tane Clarke, epitomised the ethos of putting the team first. After getting married one Saturday morning in 1920, he then played for North Auckland in Whangārei that same afternoon and walked all the way home to his bride after the game.
“In 1888 – very early on in the club’s history – a working bee took place at which volunteers carefully peeled off the turf on the field, then excavated the top two feet of soil to remove all the stones. They then returned the turf into its original place creating what was widely regarded as one of the best fields in the country – such was their commitment to the new game,” says Bill.
The near-perfect pitch contrasted sharply with the rugby field at Rangiahua for example. Club player Charlie Mason remembered a match that took place there in the 1920s: “The field was on the flats there, and only a little piece of the field was not covered by water. In the end the ball was lost in the river which was nearby and in full flood.”
Although the grounds were great, it’s probably fair to say that the Ōhaeawai Club stadium of the time didn’t quite match the promise of the pitch with footballers having, “The privilege of changing on the underneath ground floor amongst the vermin and a conglomeration of many years of rubbish,” in the words of Merv Baldwin, another player reminiscing in the centennial history.
Merv remembered the final fate of the grandstand: “Eventually for some obscure reason it fell down, but whether it was the enthusiasm of the spectators, a gale, or just pure old age and lack of maintenance, I don’t know.”
Besides the proficiency of its players – with many going on to represent North Auckland and some becoming All Blacks – the Taiamai Ōhaeawai Rugby Club was also noted for the enthusiasm of its supporters, though from time to time this would spill over into illegal physicality. ‘Belting amongst spectators was deleterious to good football’, recorded one game report from August 1919.
Merv Baldwin’s recollection is that the sidelines were “never safe” during the 1920s.
“It was the only barrier between the players and enthusiastic spectators. One enterprising Māori gentleman took over control of the sideline with a stockwhip of which he was master, and woe betide anyone who encroached on the field. He sure did a bit of mileage during a game and was probably more tired than the players.”
Interestingly, five years prior to that, the club had requested Constable Classen attend matches to try to reduce ‘obscene language and rough barracking’ by spectators. The fact that five years later the gentleman with the stockwhip was controlling the onlookers suggests the more conventional approach may not have worked out.
If the fans were hard core, then the players exceeded all expectations.
Baldwin recalled his own footie career coming to an end at the hands of exuberant play: “I apparently was not a very good player as every Saturday all I can remember is being at the bottom of a ruck during most of the game, ending a short three years by being carried off [...] this time on a stretcher with concussion. A doctor advised me to take up marbles instead.”
At times, teammates could turn the tables on each other – like when fullback Miha Matthews finished a bruising encounter with his uniform still pristinely clean. When the fulltime whistle blew, his 14 teammates tackled him to the ground and rolled him “in great muddy wheel ruts full of water” in a good-natured teambuilding exercise.
Nothing, perhaps, reflected the local tradition of ‘work hard, play hard’ better than the annual post-WWII fixture, the Hone Heke Cup.
“Invariably there was a good free-for-all during the game, and then after six o’clock closing, another in the middle of the road outside the local hotel. Then it was all forgotten over the hangi at a pre-determined venue,” recalls the centennial history, adding: “The Hone Heke Cup matches of the day bled the locals dry of kumara, watercress and poultry.”
The tournament is a fine tradition that continues today – though without the ‘free-for-alls’.
Over its 135 years, the club has enjoyed the support of Māori and Pākehā from all walks of life – including farmers, teachers, doctors and even clergy. In the 1940s, long-time supporter of the club, Cedric Ludbrook, donated the football grounds and the buildings to the local sports bodies comprising football, cricket, athletics, basketball, and tennis.
Club spirit is still strong today – and the club has big plans for the future.
“There has been tremendous growth in women’s rugby in recent years, for example, and next year the club is planning to have a Women’s Senior Team,” says Club Chairman Richard Woodman.
“One of our players – Kerri Johnson – has also been selected for the New Zealand Women’s Sevens development squad, which is a fantastic achievement.”
With 135 years solid achievement behind it, the club will no doubt ensure that rugby will continue to be the winner on the day.