Some of the most competitive rugby in Wellington can be found in the U85kg grade.
Wests Roosters U85kg manager Phil Wiggins has been directly involved in the grade since 1998 when he set up the Wests team.
Tony O’Brien, a good friend of mine, was instrumental in setting the grade up in 1996 as a grade for the smaller player who didn’t want to be playing against the bigger players week in and week out.
“Tony got a few teams on board and then got more teams and clubs involved and it grew from there.”
The grade was originally called 80/80s – under 80kg for 80 minutes. It was changed to U85kgs to be in line with other unions running similar grades.
Wiggins was part of the Western Suburbs club when it started in 1983, coming from the former Athletic RFC, and served as President and became a Life Member of Wests. Wiggins was in the thick of things in 1998 when the club won the top flight Jubilee Cup. But at the end of that successful season, he stepped aside.
“I had a group of up to 20 or so players who were attending Teachers’ College in Karori and who were playing U21s and they needed a grade to play in the following year. So we started the team that way.
“We are a middle of the road type team. We will never be world beaters, we are there as a team for guys of any age to come and play. The eldest in the team is about 45 and the youngest in the team is about 19.”
Current captain Richard Newson is the longest serving player in the team, and has been in the team since around 2007.
There have been plenty of ups and downs for the Wests U85kgs. The team most recently won the grade’s Division 2 championship in 2016, taking home the Tony O’Brien Shield.
The Division 2 first round title is called the Phil Wiggins Trophy, and Wiggins himself laments that the trophy bearing his name hasn’t been contested for two years owing to not enough teams for separate divisions.
Back when the Wests team started there were 27 teams. Now there are 10, which this year includes Paraparamu from the Horowhenua-Kapiti RFC.
The 10 teams play for the first round JC Bowl, which is named after John Booth and Chris Tchernegovski, who were coaches of the Upper Hutt team that won the first 80/80 competition in 1996.
The championship round is for the Paul Potiki Shield. Paul was a member of the 22nd Infantry Battalion in WW11. He was a Poneke club member and a member of the Centurions club 1946-48.
There is also the Centurions Cup, which is the Ranfurly Shield style trophy of the U85kg grade, and which is currently held by the Upper Hutt Rams who are also last year’s Paul Potiki champions, edging first round winners Avalon in a final that went to extra time.
Wiggins says that the decline in playing numbers in the U85kg grade and in club rugby in general can be put down to several reasons.
To start with, players themselves have myriad options in the modern era. Keeping players in the game and getting them engaged and committed is tough these days.
“Saturday used to be our sports day. I went through 50 players last year. In the old days we would be using half that number each year.
“Saturday used to be our sports day. We used approximately 50 players last year. In the old days we would be using half that number each year.
“Wests has approximately 37 junior teams. But once the players go to high school they get interested in other things, play different sports. Then they come out of there and don’t keep playing. On a Saturday, I ask players to get guys along to reserve who may have been former players or friends, we often get opposition players saying I used to play for your junior club.”
Similarly, clubs are struggling.
“These days the players will have a shower after their games and go straight home. It is not like the old days.
It is also a lack of commitment with the organisation of the game. “No one is putting their hand up.”
“You have got to have someone run the team. It is just man-management, you don’t have to be the best coach in the world.”
Wiggins says a solution is to have the players themselves actively involved in the off-field game. “You have got to have the guys in the action who are playing regularly part of running a club.”
For now, Wiggins is focused on running the Wests U85kg team in its 21st season, and helping to keep the game alive at the grassroots level.
After four rounds of the first round JC Bowl, last year’s first round winners and defending championship winners Avalon and the Upper Hutt Rams are unbeaten. The points table is to the right. here.
The draw for this coming Saturday’s games is:
- Wests Roosters v Upper Hutt Rams, Ian Galloway Park 1, 1.00pm
- Paraparaumu v Hutt Old Boys Marist Howlers, Te Atiawa Park, 1.00pm
- Upper Hutt Rams v Eastbourne, Maoribank Park, 1.00pm
- Old Boys University Scallywags v Wellington Axemen, Kilbirnie 3, 2.45pm
- Johnsonville Terrahawks v Avalon Wolves, Onslow College 1, 2.45pm
Wellington Region U85kg Rugby Group
A Facebook group has been established this year to support U85kg rugby and for players and supporters to interact.
For more search Wellington Region U85kg Rugby Group on Facebook.