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Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 034: U.P. Calcinai

U.P. Calcinai was one of two brothers that were fixtures in Poneke teams for a decade and a half in the early years of last century and part of a family that was synonymous with Poneke throughout most of the 20th century as players and coaches.

U.P was a bit of a late bloomer, first playing representative rugby for Wellington a decade after his winning Senior Championship debut season – albeit in a career interrupted by the first world war.

He started playing Senior rugby for Poneke in 1909 aged 17 and struck immediate success with Poneke in winning back the Senior Championship title that year.

Calcinai’s initials stood for Umberto Prime, which is Italian for ‘Humbers the First’ – he was named after the Italian monarch who would be assassinated in 1900. Most people just called him Bert.

Calcinai was born in Wellington in 1892 to Italian immigrants who settled in south Wellington.

Calcinai went to school in Newtown and was captain of his team by the time he left to join Poneke, following in the footsteps of his older brother Duilio Ruggero Dandolo Calcinai who was better known as ‘Dooley’ and who represented Wellington between 1906-08 and would later go on to become a referee.

Bert Calcinai started as a fullback, before moving to the five-eighths position, and then when he moved to Poneke they put him at wing forward and later to hooker from which he made the All Blacks from in 1922.

Calcinai was also an amateur track and field athlete, but an injured knee in the long jump pit forced an early retirement from athletics.

He resumed his rugby career for Poneke in earnest after WW1. A decade after first winning the Senior Championship, he won it again with Poneke in 1919.

It was that season that he first represented Wellington, playing a big part from the wing-forward position in their famous 24-3 Ranfurly Shield defence against Auckland. A fortnight later he scored two tries in a 30-3 win over Whanganui, that saw Wellington lock the Ranfurly Shield away for another year.

He was a key member of the Wellington team in 1920 that defended the Ranfurly Shield 10 times, before losing it in their 11th defence on the road to Southland, scoring six tries in these matches.

In 1922 he was selected for the All Blacks on their Australian tour. He played in four matches at hooker in Australia, including the three unofficial tests against New South Wales, and played against New Zealand Māori in Wellington on the return home.

His final season playing for Poneke and Wellington was 1923 before bowing out of the game aged 31.

The Wellington team of 1923, with U.P. Calcinai the captain – sitting third from left.

Bert’s son Victor also played for a decade for Poneke and Poneke-Oriental during the second world war, playing for the Wellington XV team in 1936 and later the North Island in 1943.

Victor turned to coaching and was coach of Poneke’s team that won the Jubilee Cup in 1951 and remained their coach until 1967 and served as WRFU President in 1968 and as Poneke’s President in 1973-74.

In turn, Victor’s son Colin also captained Poneke in the late 1960s, served as chairman of the NZRFU Medical Advisory Committee in the 1990s.

Another Calcinai, Ted, would play for Poneke in the 1950s and briefly represent Wellington in 1953.

U’P. ‘Bert’ died in Wellington in 1963, aged 71.

Article references:

  • All Blacks A-Z profile, by Lindsay Knight
  • The Dominion and Evening Post files, various articles 1920-23
  • Moloney, J.K. Ranfurly Shield History. Martin Printing Co. Auckland, 1960.
  • Chester, R.H. and McMillan, N.A.C. Centenary. 100 Years of All Black Rugby. Moa Publications. Auckland 1984.
  • Poneke Football Club. A willing Band of Youths. The History of the Poneke Football Club. Wellington, 1984.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed

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