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Club Rugby teams of the decades

Welcome to the 15th decade of club rugby in Wellington, which gets underway on Saturday 21 March.

Ahead of the new season, we have looked at the most dominant (statistically in most cases) teams of each decade so far. See below from the 1880s right up to the 2010s.

1880s  – Poneke

Championships won: 4

Memorable season: 1888

Key player: Thomas Ellison

Poneke’s side in the late 1880s was the first dominant team in Wellington club rugby. Formed in 1883, Poneke won four consecutive Wellington club rugby championships between 1886-89 and supplied the bulk of the players to the Wellington representative team. In these winning years they lost just four games out of 36 and in 1888 they didn’t concede a point in 10 matches. The following year, 1889, they successfully defended their title without three of their best players, including legends of the time Thomas Ellison and Davy Gage who were on tour in England with the New Zealand Native team. Ellison, in particular, was one of the original leading players of Wellington rugby and in 1893 he became the first of six Poneke players to captain the All Blacks. As well as cleaning up in Wellington in 1889, Poneke went on tour and defeated the champion teams of Nelson (The Prince Alberts), Napier (Pirates) and Auckland (Ponsonby).Their title streak ended the following year in 1890 when they lost consecutive matches to rivals Melrose and Athletic but they would win again between 1892-94

1890s – Melrose

Championships won: 3

Memorable season: 1898

Key Player: Jack Spencer

Melrose was a notable early club in Wellington club rugby, winning six Senior championships between 1896-1908,including three in a row between 1896-98. With its training facilities at Newtown Park, Melrose originally represented the Melrose borough, which incorporated large swathes of southern and western Wellington. But after Melrose amalgamated with the Wellington Town Board in 1903 the club of the same name slowly lost its identity, before amalgamating with Selwyn in 1932 and then dropping out of existence after that. In 1898 they won their third consecutive title, and in so doing they won outright the ‘Juno Tobacco Shield’, which was retired from competition. They also overcame the sudden death of their President and Newtown School Headmaster Mr C. Hulke that season. The success of these early Melrose sides was based upon a dominant forward pack that was led by 1903-07 All Black flanker Jack Spencer, who would later in the 1898 season debut for Wellington aged just 17. Jack was the youngest of five Spencer brothers who played for Melrose during the early years of the twentieth century; George, Walter and Bill all represented Wellington, with George going on to be the All Black fullback in 1907 on their Australian tour. Other notable Melrose players included Joe Calnan and William Hardcastle who were in the 1897 New Zealand Native team that toured Australia.

1900s – Petone

Championships won: 4

Memorable season: 1907

Key Player: Jim Ryan

Petone won the last title of the 1800s but then failed to win again for five seasons, but then went on to win a four-peat of titles between 1904 and 1907. In 1904, they won 10 from 11 games and scored 153 points and conceded 31. Their record was only marginally less successful over the next two seasons, before making 1907 their best year from an overall club perspective with all five Petone teams winning their grades. In celebration of the club’s achievements, all 96 players involved in the five champion sides were awarded a medal by the Petone Citizen’s Committee. The Senior A title was won by beating a strong Poneke side that included returning All Blacks Frank Mitchinson and Billy Wallace in their XV. Petone, who had started the year strongly before getting the wobbles mid-season when they lost to Melrose and drew with Athletic in successive weeks, won this final game of the season without six leading players who had joined up with the “All Golds” Rugby League team that toured England and Australia.The Petone group that included the team’s captain Hercules “Bumper” Wright and 1905 All Blacks Tom Cross and Duncan McGregor, had recently set sail.

Petone teams won five grades in 1907.

1910s – Athletic

Memorable season: 1911

Championships won: 5

Key Player: Nathanial ‘Ranji’ Arthur Wilson

Athletic was the dominant rugby club in Wellington in the years immediately prior to World War One, winning a three-peat of Senior A titles between 1911-13, bracketed as joint winners with Wellington at the outbreak of war in 1914 and winning the modified competition in 1915. They thus won the championship five times in succession, a record that was matched by Petone in 1971. Of note is that the 1913 success also meant Athletic became the owners of the Swindale Shield, as was custom at the time when teams won a trophy in three successive years. Forgotten for more than half a century the trophy was discovered in a cupboard at Athletic Park and returned to competition in 1969. The dynasty was started in 1911 when Wellington’s second oldest club (founded in 1877) were champions for the first time since 1891. Additionally, Athletic won the Senior seven-a-side tournament and the Charity Cup. The Charity Cup was presented by the WRFU in 1906 to be played between the winner of the Senior Championship and a challenger chosen by the Union. Athletic’s leading player of the time was Nathanial ‘Ranji’ Arthur Wilson, who played 75 times for Wellington between 1906-1920. In the last game of 1914 he captained Wellington to win the Ranfurly Shield off Taranaki and then came back from active service to play in all Wellington’s famous 11 Ranfurly Shield matches in 1920. Of West Indian and English parentage Wilson played 10 Tests for the All Blacks between 1908-1914.

1920s – Petone

Memorable season: 1923

Championships won: 4

Key Player: Marc Nicholls

Poneke was the leading team at the close of World War One, winning the Championship in 1918 and 1919. But it was Petone that emerged as the most successful club in the roaring 20s – winning in 1920 and again three years running between 1922-24, a three-peat that wasn’t to be repeated for another 30 years by University (see below). The 1920 team was the youngest in the competition and included Ginger and Marc Nicholls, fellow All Black Arthur Thomas and leading midfield back Matt Corner. In 1922 Ward Udy was the team’s ‘back of the season’ and their 10-5 win against Poneke in front of 16,000 people at Athletic Park was a highlight. Marc, Harry (Ginger) and Harold (Doc) Nicholls all made the All Blacks out of Petone in 1923, a year that saw the team win 13 and draw one and score 244 points and concede 80 in their 14 games played. This was their last Championship title for six seasons.

1930s – Hutt

Memorable season: 1934

Championships won: 2

Key Player: Herb Lilburne

A competitive decade of Wellington club rugby, with no fewer than six teams winning the 10 Jubilee Cups up for grabs between 1930-1939, following the Jubilee Cup’s introduction in 1929 and Hutt’s re-introduction to the top grade at the start of the decade which also coincided with All Blacks midfielder Bert Cooke joining the side. Hutt finished third to Petone in that first season back and then struck Championship success in 1931 in a hotly contested year of local rugby. Poneke won in 1932, but Hutt had three All Blacks that year in Nelson Ball, Herb Lilburne and Ned Barry. Wellington College Old Boys won in 1933 and Hutt finished third. Hutt then won the second of their two Jubilee Cups in the decade in 1934. This was the year that Hutt and Petone contested the first ever McBain Shield. In front of a huge Hutt Rec crowd, Hutt won 6-5. Hutt would finish in the top three on at least two occasions before the decade was out, before World War 2 erupted and rugby largely took a back seat (see below).

1940s – Athletic

Athletic 1940 – the club won three titles in the second world war years.

Memorable season: 1945

Championships won: 3

Key Player: Eric Tindill

A lost decade in club rugby and perhaps the toughest one to select a clear-cut ‘best’ team from. Fullback Jack Taylor had led the Wellington Axemen to the 1939 Jubilee Cup title, but then war broke out and the next six seasons were curtailed as a result, and a combined Poneke-Oriental team won in 1943 and 1944. Statistically, Athletic was the leading club in this decade with championship wins in 1940, 1941 and 1945. Some 100 Athletic club members joined the Armed Forces in 1940, rising to 130 the following season. War raged between 1942-1944 but the competition picked up again in 1945 following the return from overseas of many players. Athletic had the services of 1935 and 1938 All Black Eric Tindill this season. Tindill helped them win with the eight-team Jubilee Cup with a record of 12 wins and four losses from their 16 games and scoring 241 points and conceding 138 in the process. Athletic would win the Jubilee Cup again in 1965 and 1972. Other teams of note in this decade included University in 1946 who emerged from the pack to win the first uninterrupted Championship in several years and Marist Brothers Old Boys in 1948, who dropped just once game all season in winning their maiden title and who were coached by 29-year-old Jack Dive.

1950s  – University

The 1952 University team

Memorable season: 1952

Championships won: 4

Key Player: Ron Jarden

In a golden age for club rugby, the University side of the 1950’s was one of the all-time great sides of the competition. Starting in 1952, University won outright or shared the Jubilee Cup four times throughout the 1950s, including being the first team since Petone in 1922-24 to win a three-peat of titles when they were top dog in 1952-54. They finished behind first time winners Onslow in 1955 and weren’t far behind Petone in 1956 and 1957 before winning again in 1958.  The 1952 University side featured four current or soon-to-be All Blacks; Ron Jarden, Bill Clark, Jim Fitzgerald and Brian Fitzpatrick. In the days of often turgid 10-man rugby, University’s exciting and positive style of play in this era wouldn’t be out of place today. This team lit up Athletic Park, where they played most of their games, and the crowds came to watch them in their thousands. In 1952, University scored 50 tries and conceded 15. The team’s record was 50 tries scored and 15 tries conceded. Superstar left wing Jarden was the competition’s leading points scorer with 14 tries and 96 points. The head coach was Ian Uttley, a former New Zealand Universities and Otago first five-eighth. Nine players went on to play for Wellington in 1952: Jarden, Fitzgerald, Fitzpatrick, Clark, Larry Savage, Jack Smith, Barry Hutchinson, Ivan Stuart and Peter Osborne.

1960s and 1970s Petone

Memorable season: 1973

Championships won: 8 (spanning both decades)

Key Players: Ken Gray (1960s), Andy Leslie (1970s)

Marist teams dominated the start of the 1960s and the close of the 1970s, but the Petone team from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s is statistically the most successful club side in Wellington’s history, and has a record that stacks up nationally.  This team won five consecutive Jubilee Cups from 1967-71 and again in 1973, 1974 and 1976, a total of eight wins in 10 years. These Ian Upston-coached and Ken Gray/Andy Leslie-captained teams also had a mortgage on the Swindale Shield in this period, from its resurrection in 1969. Their Jubilee Cup run started in 1967 when their 13-13 draw with Wellington was enough to give them the title. They beat University 11-9 and 19-9 in the ‘deciders’ in 1968 and 1969, beat runners-up Naenae Old Boys 26-6 in 1970 and beat Wellington in 1971 for their record fifth consecutive victory. After relinquishing their grip on the Jubilee Cup to Athletic and Wellington who shared the title in 1972, Petone came back to win the Shield-Cup double in 1973 with an unbeaten season – scoring over 600 points in their 18-game season with an average winning score of 35-8 in an era of 4-point tries.

1980s – Wellington Axemen

Memorable season: 1985

Championships won: 4

Key Player: Murray Mexted

The decade of the 1980s saw a three-horse race between the Wellington Axemen, Marist St Pat’s and Petone who shared all 10 Jubilee Cup titles among themselves between 1980-1989. MSP and Petone started the decade off as the two leading teams, but the Axemen won the 1982 Swindale Shield and shared the 1982 Jubilee Cup with Petone. In 1983 they won the Jubilee Cup outright for the first time since 1947 and then they won the Swindale Shield in 1984, which they defended in 1985 and also won the Jubilee Cup that year. They won the Jubilee Cup for the final time in 1987. The following year, 1988, loose forward Paul Goodwin won the Billy Wallace Best & Fairest competition. Their stocks waned throughout the next 20 years, re-emerging as a Jubilee Cup side again midway through the 2010s.

1990s – Marist St Pat’s

Memorable season: 1994

Championships won: 4

Key Player: Isaac Feaunati

Marist St Pat’s picked up from where they left off at the close of the previous decade with a strong 1990s as the game transitioned from an amateur to a professional one. MSP and Petone were again the two leading clubs, with Petone’s top two sides winning both the Jubilee and Hardham Cups in 1993. But MSP were the most successful Jubilee Cup team of the 1990s, claiming titles in 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1999 and winning a three-peat of Swindale Shields between 1994-96. In 1994, MSP beat favourites Petone not once but twice in big matches to capture the Swindale Shield – Jubilee Cup double for the first time since 1988. Coach and 1978-79 captain Kevin Horan became the first MSP man to both captain and coach a Jubilee Cup winning team, a feat duplicated by 1994-95 MSP captain Iain Potter when he coached the 1997 team to the title. No. 8 Isaac Feaunati won the Best & Fairest competition in 1993 and 1994. MSP also won the last ever Jubilee Cup final at Athletic Park in 1999.

2000s – Northern United

Norths won four Swindale Shields in the 2000s.

Memorable season: 2010 (technically the start of the next decade, but can include here)

Championships won: 4 (including 2010)

Key player: Jerry Collins

Like a whirlwind, Northern United emerged as a powerhouse in the 2000s, winning the Swindale Shield for the first time in 2003 and following that up with first round titles in 2006, 2007 and 2009 (shared with Petone) and capturing four Jubilee Cups, including 2004, 2006, 2008 (shared with MSP) and 2010. In 2009 and 2010 Norths had nine players in the Super Rugby competition. They were representing the Blues, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Highlanders and the Crusaders. They started the 2010s decade as the most dominant club in the region and perhaps the country, as Premier, Premier Reserves, First Grade, Colts and Women’s levels, but wouldn’t win another major title until 2019.

2010s – Old Boys University

Championships won: 3

Memorable season: 2017

Key player: Jonathan Fuimaono

The 2010s saw the rise of two sleeping giants of Wellington club rugby – Old Boys University and Tawa. Both came out of the title wilderness to dominate much of the next several years. There was little to suggest they would at the start of the decade though –  the two sides actually meeting in the 2011 Premier 2 Hardham Cup final and Tawa winning 25-20. Tawa did the Swindale Shield-Jubilee Cup double in 2013 in a terrific all-round season for the club and won the Jubilee Cup again in 2016. But overall it was OBU who nudged Tawa as statistically the team of the past 10 years – winning the Jubilee Cup in 2015 (for the first time since 1966), 2017 and 2018 and winning the Swindale Shield in 2016.  Between 2010-2019, OBU won 126 of 187 games played (plus several draws) for a winning percentage of 67.3 percent (compared to Tawa who’s winning record was 112/194 at 57.7 percent).

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Old Boys University – 2018 champions

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2020 club rugby first round draws HERE 

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One thought on “Club Rugby teams of the decades

  1. Kia Ora,just sending this message to see if you have any Old Club rugby programes from 1965 to 1969 that i can purchase or any of the old rugby Sports Posts from 1965 to 1969.very much appreciated..Thanks Tamati.

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