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1924 – a season in review. Part 1: Club Rugby

The fifth annual instalment of our series recapping the club, domestic and international rugby season 100 years ago.

The glow of the post-war rugby boom in New Zealand was still shining brightly in Wellington in 1924 and the game was as popular as ever.

The Wellington representative team’s fortunes were on the wane, however, and its golden era was coming to a close, although Wellington provided the captain (Cliff Porter) and two other leading players (Mark Nicholls and Kenneth Svenson) to the All Blacks who departed for their 32-game unbeaten tour to Britain, Ireland, France and Canada in September 2024.

There remained tremendous interest in club rugby in 1924 and thousands of spectators flocked to the grounds each Saturday and the capital’s two daily newspapers, the Dominion and Evening Post, gave the game good coverage.

Petone and Poneke were also at the zenith of a multi-year rivalry in 1924, and as will be canvassed below, Petone would prevail for a three-peat of cub championship titles, but also its last until 1930, while Poneke fell away to be upstaged by Berhampore who were runners-up and also won the Junior [Colts] Championship in 1924.

The death of Dr. A.K. Newman on 3 April 1924 who had been the WRFU’s President continuously since 1904 and Poneke’s President continuously since 1886 was keenly felt by the Wellington rugby community.

Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington: 011 Alfred Newman

The season started nine days later on 12 April with the annual sevens day and Petone won the Biel Cup by beating Athletic A 6-5 in the final in front of 4,000 spectators. All three All Blacks noted above (Mark Nicholls for Petone and Svenson and Porter for Athletic) featured in this match.

Following Easter weekend, the 15s season kicked off on 26 April in the rain, with the following 11 teams lining up for Senior Championship glory: Athletic, Berhampore, Hutt, Marist, Oriental, Petone, Poneke, Selwyn, University, Wellington, Wellington College Old Boys. The uneven teams meant a bye round for one side each week in the first round.

In two notable opening day results, Petone defeated Hutt 9-0 but Poneke were held to a 3-3 draw with Berhampore.

The second week of club rugby in 1924 was also wet and cold, but Mark Nicholls ran hot in helping Petone beat Oriental 13-3 in the feature game and Wellington bounced back from an opening day loss to Marist to beat Berhampore 6-3.

Petone held off Selwyn 9-5, Berhampore beat Marist 9-3 and Poneke walloped Varsity 18-0 in key third round fixtures. Poneke were led by the veteran Shearer brothers in the forwards and by Fred Tilyard and new players Bennett (first year our of ‘Palmerston North High School’) and P.H Hickey (1922 All Black recently transferred from Dunedin).

The competition came alive in the fourth week, with Athletic pipping Marist in fading light at the end to win 4-3, Oriental beating Poneke 13-11, with all their points coming off the boot of former Poneke player King and Berhampore and Petone involved in a 0-0 draw with Petone missing the Nicholls brothers, Mark and Ginger, who had been two of 10 Wellington players involved in an All Black trial in Whanganui the previous day. Athletic were the leaders at this point with four straight wins and 8 points, Petone were second on 7 and Berhampore on 5.

Rain once more dominated the day’s play in round five, resulting in a series of tight matches. The notable result was Poneke beating Athletic 10-0 to see Athletic lose their early lead and overtaken by Petone who were pushed by Wellington but won 14-10. Elsewhere, Berhampore scored a last-gasp converted try to pip University 5-3 at Kelburn Park.

After a weekend off owing to King’s Birthday weekend and the annual North-South game being played, the sixth round set of matches on 7 June were once more played on heavy grounds.

At the Basin Reserve, Oriental came back from 15 points down to beat Athletic 16-15, Poneke beat a plucky Wellington 8-5 at Athletic Park, with Axemen first five Lance Johnson (an All Black in waiting) playing well for the beaten side and Marist were solid 15-6 winners over WCOB at nearby Wakefield Park. Petone had the bye but still led the standings owing to Athletic’s defeat.

More bleak weather in the form of a southerly gale dominated the eighth round on 14 June that saw the clash of the traditional heavyweights Petone and Poneke at Petone. The home team won comfortably, prevailing 19-6.

In other games, Athletic beat Berhampore 12-6 and Oriental downed Wellington 19-12 to see Athletic and Oriental joint second on the table behind Petone. Marist edged University 9-8 with Murphy kicking a difficult penalty at the end to win the game while Hutt beat Selwyn 11-0 to register their first win of the season.

On the shortest weekend of the year (another wet one), Petone swatted away Athletic 11-6, to open up a three-point lead at the top of the standings (two points for a win and one for a draw). Berhampore moved to second by beating WCOB 5-3, Hutt beat Marist 13-3 to register their second win and McKay scored at the death for University to give them a 6-3 win over Oriental.

Under clear blue skies for the first time all season, the 10th round set of matches at the end of June saw Marist very nearly upsetting Petone, the leaders hanging on to win 6-5. Marist goa-kicker Murphy missed several kicks throughout the match. Elsewhere, University steamrolled Athletic in the second half to win 32-18 after ttrailing 3-11 at one point and Oriental beat Berhampore 14-7, despite losing their talisman forward Jim Moffitt to injury during the first half, to move into outright second.

From this point in the season, club rugby was played alongside the represeantive programme of matches which started for Wellington in early July, while the three All Blacks, Athletic captain Cliff Porter, Petone captain Mark Nicholls and Athletic wing Kenneth Svenson, were in Australia throughout July.

It was also the start of the second round, with Marist beating Poneke 7-5, Wellington enjoying their best win of the year, 31-11 over University and leaders Petone accounting for WCOB 17-8.

Strong winds dominated the 12th round games on 12 July, with Petone rolling on with a 14-5 win over University but the order of the chasing pack closed up with Marist beating Oriental 5-3, Poneke beating WCOB 6-3 and Berhampore holding off Hutt 11-8.

A two-week break saw games resume on 26 July and Petone beat Athletic 9-6 in what the Dominion described as a “colourless” game and with Petone wing Cornaga listed by that journal as their best player on the day.

Moving into August and Petone’s six point (three-match) lead at the top of the standings was reined in by them losing their first game of the season, going down 8-4 to Berhampore, who moved up to second behind them because Athletic beat Poneke 9-6 in their match. Petone were left to see the season out without Mark Nicholls (All Blacks player) and Ginger Nicholls (All Blacks touring correspondent) but two other Nicholls brothers, fullback Geoff and centre ‘Doc’ were now helping to steer their backs.

Meanwhile the Junior [Colts] grade was nearing its conclusion. Eastbourne defeated Marist 9-8 in a key fixture on 2 August. These two teams were just behind joint leaders Berhampore and Athletic in a highly competitive competition.

Petone officially won the competition with a week to spare on 9 August, beating Poneke 14-6, and then beat Oriental 9-6 in the final round on 16 August. Berhampore beat Poneke 17-10 to finish as runner-ups.

The final Senior Club Championship points for 1924 read: Petone 27, Berhampore 22, Athletic 18, Poneke 17, Oriental 16, Wellington 14, University and Marist 12, Hutt 10, WCOB 8, Selwyn 4.

The following week, Berhampore challenged Petone for the annual National Mutual Life Challenge Cup and won that game 12-3.

It was a great day for Berhampore, their Junior team winning a close competition by beating Athletic 5-3. The final points were: Berhampore 26, Eastbourne 25, Athletic, Marist and Poneke 22. This was Berhampore’s one and only Junior Championship win.

Technical College Old Boys won the Third Grade Championship, Kaiwarra the Intermediate Grade, Wellington the Fourth Grade, Petone the Fifth Grade, Wellington College and St Pat’s Town jointly the Sixth Grade and Technical College the Seventh Grade.

Wellington College won the second annual Dewar Shield Club Championship competition, ahead of inaugural winners from 1923, Petone. Wellington College would win this three years in a row.

Part 2 – the 1924 representative season to come.

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.

Read the 1923 club rugby season summary:

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

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