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Looking back 100 years in rugby: 1923 Part 1 (club rugby)

Above: Crowd scene on a wet day at Athletic Park circa 1920. Club rugby enjoyed a healthy following a century ago, with several thousand dapper spectators regularly attending club rugby matches there on Saturdays and thousands more at other leading venues of the day such as the Petone Rec and the Basin Reserve. Image credit below. 

 The fourth annual instalment of our series recapping the club, domestic and international rugby season a century ago.

As was previously covered in the 1919-22 articles, the end of the first world war ushered in a ‘golden age’ for Wellington rugby, as sport recovered from the ravages of the war years.

By 1923 the growth and popularity of the game continued on an upward trend, but the success of Wellington’s representative teams dimmed somewhat, while international rugby was in a bit of a holding pattern season ahead of the following year’s second All Black tour to Britain.

The major in-bound tour in 1923 was that by an understrength New South Wales, whilst the New Zealand University and New Zealand Maori sides were the other two teams in touring action.

Club rugby remained hugely popular, the subject of part one here.

Petone won the second of their three straight Senior Championship titles, whilst Marist Brothers Old Boys, in its third season, won the Junior Championship, Eastbourne the Third Grade and Wellington College the Fifth Grade.

Following a busy pre-season, the 1923 club rugby competitions opened on Saturday 21 April.

Eleven teams entered the Senior Championship, these being: Athletic, Berhampore, Hutt, Marist, Oriental, Wellington College Old Boys, Petone, Poneke, Selwyn, University and Wellington.

Marist defeated University 15-8 in one notable result in week one, while defending champions Petone accounted for the bottom placed side from each of the past two years, Wellington, 19-0 and Poneke beat Selwyn 20-8. Hutt were the new team in the grade, losing 27-3 first-up to WCOB.

Week two saw eventual Junior Championship winners Marist draw 6-6 with Poneke and eventual Third Grade winners Eastbourne draw 6-6 with their Berhampore opposites.

In week three Marist beat Oriental 5-3 in cold, bleak conditions, with Mahoney scoring the winning try in the second half after a failed Oriental clearance. Petone had the bye.

Early season chitter-chatter revolved around the obstructive nature of the wing forward position, the acceptance of the invitation to Britain for the following year for the All Blacks and of referees complaining about “the action of certain coaches standing on the touchline during the progress of matches and making offensive remarks about the referees or acting unfairly in other ways.”

After the first month of the competition there was a five-way share of the lead between Petone, WCOB, Athletic, Berhampore and Marist, whilst two-time wooden spooners Wellington enjoyed a 16-8 win over newcomers Hutt. In this same round, Petone beat Athletic 8-3 despite having a player sent off in what was a torrid feature match at Athletic Park.

The following weekend, Poneke made sure of their title credentials when the Shearer brothers, Jim and Syd, combined in a dribbling rush to set up the winning try at the death in their side’s 9-8 win over Athletic.

Poneke five-eighth Hall kicked the winning potted goal the following week to beat Marist in front of 7,000 spectators, while Petone beat Hutt and received news at the same time that All Blacks five-eighth Mark Nicholls would soon be re-joining their team after spending the second half of 1922 (incorporating the representative season) and early part of 1923 in Auckland.

Petone (with a game in hand) and Berhampore were the joint Senior Championship leaders after six weeks, while Johnsonville and Porirua both had six straight wins in the Junior Championship with Marist in third and unbeaten as well but with two draws.

Moving into early June, the two leading protagonists from recent seasons, Petone and Poneke, resumed their rivalry. The result was a 3-3 draw, after Poneke had scored the only points of the game from a field goal in the first half before Petone centre ‘Doc’ Nicholls scored the equalising try with about 10 minutes to play.

King’s Birthday Monday saw the (re-scheduled) seven-a-aide tournament at Kilbirnie and Athletic Parks. But not long after it started in the morning a southerly with torrential rain arrived and the tournament was postponed – subsequently cancelled altogether.

An emphatic win for Poneke over Berhampore in the feature match and a crushing seventh straight loss for University marked the eighth Saturday of club rugby in 1923.

Poneke scored four converted tries, all through the backs, to beat the light blues of Berhampore 27-3, while University lost to Athletic five tries to one. Although it wasn’t recorded in the media of the day that University had five players missing for a month as they were touring NSW with the NZ Universities side. They would return and their fortunes lift a little. Petone sailed on, beating Oriental 15-6, to hold a two-point buffer at the top of a congested points table.

University enjoyed their first win of the season the very next Saturday, beating Hutt 28-6, all five NZU players back in their line-up.

The big result of round nine was at the Petone Rec, where the 4,500 spectators were about to witness a draw between Petone and Marist when two of the Nicholls brothers combined to win the game for Petone with time almost up. From a scrum inside Marist’s 22, halfback Harry passed the ball directly behind him under his legs to the waiting five-eighth Mark who dropped a goal over his brother and the forwards to win the game 10-6 (four points for this kick).

Meanwhile, applications for reinstatement to rugby from rugby league were coming thick and fast, each of which had to be ratified by the NZRU.

Petone marched on in week 10 with a 19-9 win over Berhampore, while Athletic were boosted by the inclusion of former All Black Teddy Roberts who helped them to a 27-9 win over WCOB at the Basin Reserve.

There was turmoil at the following Monday’s referee’s meeting with both President A.E. Nielson and T.A. Fletcher tendering their resignations, citing internal friction and a state of animosity amongst certain members. Their resignations weren’t accepted though and after tense discussions they stayed on.

The final Saturday of June saw the conclusion of the first round of matches, with the Senior Championship contenders culled to six teams for the remainder of the season. The six teams were Petone, Poneke, Athletic, Marist, Berhampore and Wellington.

Interestingly, the Wellington-Oriental match to decide the sixth spot resulted in a 5-5 draw. In today’s competition it would come back to points differential, but Wellington progressed “as they are the team that has shown the most improvement on last year’s championship position; they were the winners of the wooden spoon last year.”

There was no consolation prize, ala the Hardham Cup today, so the remaining teams “will play against each other but the results will have no bearing on the championship.”

Large numbers turned out for the opening weekend of second round matches in fair conditions. At Athletic Park, Petone beat Marist 19-5, at the Basin Reserve, Athletic beat Berhampore 12-0, and around at Kilbirnie Park (pre-tunnel), Poneke defeated Wellington 11-6.

There was movement in the Junior Championship, where Marist beat Johnsonville 3-0, holding them off at the end with a death-knock try-saving tackle, to see Marist move to the top of the standings. A position they would hold to the end of the season.

Meanwhile the Club Championship competition was heating up considerably, with Poneke leading on 106 points, following by Petone on 105, Wellington College and Berhampore on 101 and Athletic on 99.

The following week saw a sensation at Athletic Park where the home club bearing the park’s name “routed” Poneke 19-3, to effectively end Poneke’s challenge for the title. It was 3-3 at halftime but the 8,000 spectators present could see that Athletic held the upper hand. This proved accurate, the floodgates opening in the second spell.

In the Fifth Grade Championship, future All Blacks wing Charles Rushbrook scored the equalising try for Wellington College in their 3-3 draw with Oriental.

The following weekend was wet, and resulted in Marist and Poneke drawing 6-6 and Athletic edging Wellington 7-3 in two matches at Athletic Park. Two All Blacks were involved in the scoring in this game, with future international Lance Johnson scoring Wellington’s sole try and 1922 All Black Kenneth Svenson kicking a field goal for Athletic. Elsewhere, Petone defied the conditions to beat Berhampore 29-9 at home to see them lead the standings by 3 points (2 points for a win, one for a draw).

The Senior Championship took a back seat from the end of July for a full month of Saturdays, as representative rugby took centre stage (covered in part two to follow).

On Wednesday 8 August, superior firepower out wide saw Wellington College beat St Pat’s Town 16-6 in front of 3,000 spectators at the Basin Reserve and on Wednesday 22 August at the same venue, Christchurch champions St Bede’s beat St Pat’s Town 20-14 to retain the Holley Shield.

Finally, the Senior Championship resumed on 25 August and Petone wrapped up the title by beating second placed Athletic 16-3.

This put them on 27 competition points, a full five points ahead of second placed Poneke on 22 whom they were scheduled to meet the following week to try and secure an unbeaten season and collect the silverware.

Poneke, meanwhile, defeated Berhampore 35-11 and Marist beat Wellington 8-3 in the other matches involving the ‘top six’ sides.

During the following week it was decided to ‘close the championship’ with no further matches – see below (Dominion 29/9/1923):

Petone were also declared Club Championship winners.

Both teams were understrength for the ‘National Mutual Cup’ Challenge match. Poneke won 11-3 despite having five-eighth Matt Corner sent off for obstruction.

On 22 September, Athletic challenged Poneke for the National Mutual Cup, a 17-17 draw good enough for Poneke to retain it for the off-season.

Petone would go on and retain the Senior Championship in 1924, which we will canvass in this space early next year.

References: In outlining the 1923 club rugby season above, Club Rugby has used both the Dominion and Evening Post newspapers of the time. All quotes here are from the Dominion and the newspaper clipping is from the Dominion, August 1923. Additional sources have been several of the various club rugby histories and books though not directly.

Headline photo credit: Part 1 of a 2 part panorama of crowds at Athletic Park, Berhampore. Smith, Sydney Charles, 1888-1972: Photographs of New Zealand. Ref: 1/1-024840-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23200510


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