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Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 054: Charlie Robins, Joe Dellabarca and Michael Julian

Athletic Park as seen looking south on 9 August 1930, the day of the fourth Test between the All Blacks and Great Britain. None of the players featured below played that day – perhaps they were in the crowd? All three were well known and influential club rugby players who gained higher honours. 

A focus on three ‘lesser known’ players to today’s audience, but who had brief and influential careers for their clubs and for the Wellington representative side in the late 1920s – early 1930s

Joe Dellabarca was a forward/flanker who played for Eastbourne, Robins a wing who played for Marist Old Boys and Michael Julian a halfback for Poneke.

In the modern era, Eastbourne is a one-team club that plays in the U85kg grade, but in the 1920s and 1930s the club fielded a Senior A [Premier] side and regularly extended the big traditional clubs around the harbour at Petone and across the water in town.

The Dellabarca’s were a famous Eastbourne fishing family and many of them were involved in rugby down the years.

After winning the Senior B Championship in 1927, the club’s highwater mark was 1930 when they were runners-up to Petone in the Jubilee Cup, losing to them in the ‘final’ at Athletic Park that season. Joe Dellabarca and his brother Nini were in this team. Petone won 14-6 in front of 10,000 spectators at Athletic Park, but with a season record of 10 wins, four losses and a draw, Eastbourne were a clear second.

The Eastbourne side lines up at Athletic Park ahead of their last match of the season to decide the 1930 Jubilee Cup against Petone.

The Dellabarca brothers are one and two in on the right. The player on the right is Orny Price who played for Wellington in 1931 and 1932 and later captained Eastbourne teams, while Clarrie Gibbons is in the centre, and he went on to coach famous Wellington teams of the early 1950s. Just one Foley brother in this photo too, but three of them played for Eastbourne in the backs together at various times in this period.

The Eastbourne club’s centenary book published in 2021 wrote this of Joe Dellabarca: “In the early thirties Joe Dellabarca rose to fame for the club when representing Wellington against Canterbury at the Park. He carried the ball at toe for practically the full length of the field to score under the posts for Fred Fuller to make an easy conversion.”

Joe Dellabarca started as a wing-forward, then moved to be more of an openside flanker role after that position was cut from the game in the early 1930s. He had been a primary school’s sprint champion so his main attribute that he put to good use was speed off the mark and pace as fast as a wing.

For Wellington, he played 15 representative matches between 1931-34, scoring 15 tries. He played a New Zealand trial match in 1934 and played for the Centurions club between 1939-41 and again in 1946.

Dellabarca was on fire in several matches for Wellington in 1933, scoring a hat-trick in a 43-16 win over Wairarapa, two tries in a 14-6 win over Canterbury (Robins, see below, was another scorer in that match), two in a 38-11 win over Southland (Robins also two in that match) and two in a 37-9 win over Auckland.

By 1934, Eastbourne’s stocks had fallen, and they were competition wooden-spooners. But they famously beat Petone 17-0 in the last game of that season, with Joe Dellabarca scoring a try.

Another brother Frank, also played for Eastbourne and for Wellington B in 1948 as a wing. He was a Cook Strait fisherman and when swimmer Barrie Davenport made the first successful swim across that body of water in 1962 he acted as his Pilot.

Joe Dellabarca died in 1994. He was 86.

Charlie Robins was the Marist club’s star back of the 1930s, and a leading player in the Wellington Senior club competition.

Marist joined the competition in 1921 and by the early 1930s they had the backs but not the big forwards to compete on a consistent basis with the top clubs in the important games.

Paul Donoghue and Brian Dive’s book Marist RFC the First 50 Years says of Robins: “An immensely gifted player whether on attack or defence, a solid tackler and a beautifully balanced, incisive runner with reliable hands. In short, he was extraordinarily good and although frequently the only non-All Black in the Wellington backline, he was not out of his class.”

Robins played much of his rugby at second-five for Marist, forming a dangerous combination with centre Angus MacDonald, who played 16 matches and scored 11 tries for Wellington between 1931-33.  MacDonald was born in Samoa and was also an accomplished boxer and golfer and was the open golf champion at the Samoa Royal Country Club in the 1950s.

After playing rugby league in the South Island in his younger years, Robins’ first stint of representative rugby was for for Wellington B in 1930. He went on to play 19 first-class matches for Wellington between 1932-35 and 1938, scoring 10 tries. He played six matches per season in each of 1932, 33 and 34.

He scored the match-winning try against Auckland off a break by halfback Joey Sadler at Athletic Park in early September 1934. Wellington won 16-13.

He moved to Hawke’s Bay where he played four matches in 1936 and 13 for the Magpies in 1937 out of the Marist club. In 1937 he was at first-five for Hawke’s Bay in their 12-21 defeat to the touring Springboks to a then record 17,000 crowd at Napier.

Robins moved back to Wellington in 1938 and to Marist appeared once more for Wellington that season, and he played for the newly formed Centurions club in 1939.

Robins died in Wellington in 1993, aged 85.

Michael H.J. Julian – no known relation to the contributor of this website by the same surname – was from Taranaki and played a handful of first-class matches for the Star club and for the butter country province between 1924-27.

He moved to Wellington in 1929 and joined the Poneke Football Club, making an immediate impression at his new province.

He started the 1929 season off at breakneck speed by scoring a hat-trick of tries for Poneke against Athletic.

He was mentioned in reviews, scoring tries, setting up tries and generally leading his team who were in the battling class following much success earlier in the decade.

Such was Julian’s form, as noted above, that one Saturday All Blacks selector Edward McKenzie made a special trip over the hill from the Wairarapa to watch him play.

However, the player chosen for the All Blacks 1929 tour to Australia was Waikato halfback Jack Tuck, who transferred to Wellington and to the Wellington Football Club mid-season.

Julian and Tuck shared the Wellington A halfback duties later that year. Julian went on make eight appearances for the A side in 1929 and his try-scoring feats from the base of the scrum continued unabated. He scored two tries against Otago on 31 August, two against Canterbury on 7 September and two against Waikato on 11 September – so three consecutive braces inside a fortnight.

He played another three matches for Wellington in 1930, with Tuck now back in the Waikato but Frank Kilby was back in Wellington from Whanganui and was the number one halfback. Julian didn’t feature in 1931 in representative rugby but was helping Poneke build for a big season in 1932.

In 1932, Poneke won the Jubilee Cup for the first time and Julian was a regular halfback for his club side in their first triumph since 1925. He played three appearances for Wellington B that year.

Sometime following his 1932 Jubilee Cup triumph Julian moved across the Cook Strait, and he represented Marlborough in 1935.

He served in the war and in 1942 played for the 1st NZ Tank Brigade side.

He died in Wellington in 1968, aged 62.


  • Akers, Clive. New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. New Zealand Rugby Museum, 2016.
  • Dominion and Evening Post various reports early 1930s.
  • Eastbourne Rugby Football Club 1921-2021 Centenary Booklet (self-published).
  • Donoghue, Paul and Dive, Brian. Marist RFC, the First 50 Years. Organ Bros. Ltd, Wellington, 1969.
  • 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
  • Headline photo credit: Crowd at a rugby game, Athletic Park, Wellington. Raine, William Hall, 1892-1955 :Negatives of New Zealand towns and scenery, and Fiji. Ref: 1/1-018017-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23086474

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