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Great days in club rugby 007: Supernovas

Teenager Buxton Popoalii scores one of his two tries for Northern United in the 2008 Jubilee Cup semi-final win over Petone.

Since the first season that the Jubilee Cup was contested in 1929 there have been approximately 8,000 Senior A/Premier club rugby matches contested in Wellington.

In this new series for 2024 as part of our ongoing celebration of community rugby in Wellington, we have broken into the ‘Today in Club Rugby History’ files, selected a small sample of these matches and divided them up into similar categories of occurrences.

This article looks at some of the exciting young players to have exploded on to the scene and instances of when they set down their early markers.

Young guns explode

4 September 1897 – Billy Wallace

Billy Wallace was one of several promising local teenagers to join the Poneke club in the mid-1890s. Wallace was put at centre for Poneke and as well as being fast and elusive, he was a strong kicker, and would later play much of his rugby on the wing and fullback. He soon made his Wellington representative debut as an 18-year-old in 1897. In this, his fifth game for the province and the first match on Wellington’s four-match tour to the South Island, the now 19-year-old Wallace won the match against Canterbury with a dropped goal. This was Wellington’s fifth ever match in Christchurch and they had won there just once before, in their first visit in 1879. There was no score in the first half, but midway through the second, Wallace kicked his dropped goal to give Wellington their 4-0 lead, and they clung on to fulltime. This was the first of many match-winning turns Wallace would make in his Wellington and All Blacks career over the next several years.

Billy Wallace – photo taken here on the 1905/06 northern hemisphere tour when Wallace was in his mid-late 20s.


7 July 1920 – Mark Nicholls

The Nicholls name was already well-known by the time the Poneke and Petone club’s co-founder Sid’s younger son Mark finished his three years in the Wellington College First XV and joined the Senior ranks at the Petone club the following season in 1920. The 18-year-old five-eighth joined his brothers Ginger, Doc (both also All Blacks), Geoff and Guy at Petone and he helped Petone beat their keen rivals Poneke to win that year’s Senior Championship. Mark Nicholls was then fast-tracked straight into the Wellington Senior A side, who were the best team in the country and Ranfurly Shield holders. On this day, a week after his 19th birthday, Wellington successfully defended the Ranfurly Shield against Taranaki with a 20-9 win and Nicholls scored in four ways – a try, conversion, penalty goal and a goal from a mark taken by another player. Such was his talent; he was playing for the All Blacks the following year against the Springboks.


19 August 1933 – Joey Sadler

In his first year out of Wellington College in 1933,  Bernard “Joey” Sadler burst on to the Wellington club rugby scene – rising to be the All Blacks’ first-choice halfback in the less than three years later on the 1935/36 tour of Britain. Sadler’s career was then cut down with a knee injury in 1937 forcing his premature retirement aged just 22.  That was in the future as he joined Wellington College Old Boys and was soon playing in the Senior Championship, along with his two older brothers. Under the captaincy of Jack Lamason and coaching of Alex McDonald, WCOB won their first and only Jubilee Cup title that year with a 12 win/2 loss/ 1 draw record from 15 competition games and Sadler was on his way. On this day, the recently turned 19-year-old Sadler and his team convincingly beat Poneke 14-0 in front of 7,000 at Athletic Park to move 5 points ahead of the pack and seal the Jubilee Cup title.

Joey Sadler.


31 August 1949 – Ron Jarden

Ron Jarden is widely recognised as the G.O.A.T Wellington winger, but the 1951 NZ Sportsman of the Year didn’t scream on to the scene as one might expect to have been the case. He spent one season only in the Hutt Valley High School First XV, in 1947, and in his first year out of school by his own admission in his book Rugby on Attack he ‘self-cotton-wooled’ himself by playing a season in fourth grade club rugby for Woburn. A secret to Jarden’s success was relentless practice and training, often by himself, and during this time he was busy honing his skills and fitness. In Jarden’s case, practice made perfect. He was a gifted athlete and in early 1949 he was crowned NZ Junior 440 yards champion.  Now a fulltime student and just turned 19 the previous December, he transferred to the University club, where he started to make his reputation on the rugby field. He played his first serious season in the senior ranks and was elevated the Wellington representative team where he would make the first 8 of 61 appearances for his province. Both University and Wellington had poor years in 1949, but on this day at the end of August in his second first-class game he ran in his maiden first-class try as Wellington beat Southland 9-3. This was the first of 70 career tries for Wellington and 145 overall in first-class rugby.


3 July 1965 – Graham Williams

Flanker Graham Williams was born in 1945 and educated at Rongotai College, appearing in the First XV from 1960-1963. He left school and joined the Wellington Axemen club and was immediately fast-tracked to the Senior A team. Such was his form, he was picked for the Wellington representative team later that same season, a rare feat for a school leaver then, and more so playing in the forwards. He played 17 first-class matches in 1964. In these the teenaged Williams forged his reputation as a skilful and uncompromising flanker, going on to appear in a record 174 games for Wellington up to his retirement in 1976. In 1965, Wellington hosted the touring Springboks, in the second match of their 24-match tour, with the All Blacks going on to win the test series 3-1. After beating a misfiring Poverty Bay-East Coast combination, the Springboks were close to test strength against Wellington, but it was the home side’s forwards including dynamic flanker Williams that took it to the visitors and paved the way for a famous 23-6 win. The following year, Williams was imperious in Wellington’s 20-6 win over the British and Irish Lions.


23 May 1970 – Grant Batty

The original pocket-rocket sensation, Grant Batty had a remarkable schoolboy career. He spent three years in the Kuranui College First XV and scored 112 tries. In his final year in 1969, man went to the moon but Batty went to the stars, scoring 61 tries in 20 unbeaten matches. He did so playing halfback. Thus, there was tremendous interest in him when he entered Wellington club rugby in 1970. Six clubs bid for his services, but there could only be one that got them and in his first year it was University. In his first five Senior A club rugby matches playing second-five the 18-year-old scored a hat-trick against Taita and set up a hat-trick for wing Graham Wallis against Ories. Wellington coach Bill Freeman was quick to select him in the wider Wellington represeantive squad. Batty was then sensationally named at centre on 23 May in the early All Blacks trial at Athletic Park, from which the 30 players to tour South Africa would be selected. He played 55 minutes, making one scorching break in the process, before leaving the field concussed. He was told a couple of years later by ABs coach Ivan Vodanovich that had he stayed on for the 80 minutes he would have been an All Black tourist. He subsequently played eight matches for Wellington in 1970, his maiden first-class try coming in the Queen’s Birthday fixture against Manawatu when he fielded a 22-metre dropout near halfway and ran back a stunning individual try. He would go and score 45 tries in 58 matches for Wellington and 109 in 142 first-class matches overall.

 Grant Batty scores his first try for Wellington in 1970. Photo credit is from Batty’s self-titled book.


2 August 2008 – Buxton Popoalii

Almost four decades after Batty had burst on to the scene, another excitement machine who played his rugby in similar vein came out of the successful Wellington College First XV in 2007 to champion club team Northern United and straight to a Jubilee Cup title and then a Ranfurly Shield win with the Wellington Lions. This was Buxton Popoalii. In 2007, the fullback scored 22 tries for his school, scoring 44 points in one match alone, and finished the season as the top college points scorer in the country. He was duly selected for the New Zealand Secondary Schools team to tour Australia but was forced to withdraw with a knee injury. Starting in his first year out of school in 2008 he lit up the fields of Wellington for three years before a shift south to Otago and then eventual early retirement owing to heart valve issues. None of his early contributions was more valuable than the two tries he scored on this day in 2008 in the gloom at the Petone Recreation Ground that booked his team a place in the following week’s Jubilee Cup final against MSP. After scoring early, Popoalii’s brilliant second half try proved to be the game-breaker. The long-range try was started from a scrum on Norths’ 10-metre line They swung the ball wide from the set-piece to the flying Popoalii positioned in front of the packed grandstand crowd. He cut back on his inside, sliced through the defence, pinned his ears back and scored unopposed under the posts. Norths won 18-5 the semi-final and Popoalii scored all the points. Two years later he scored two tries in his second Jubilee Cup win in 2010, finishing with 23 tries in 19 matches for Norths that season.


9 June 2012 – Ardie Savea

Ardie Savea spent four years in the Rongotai College First XV and captained the New Zealand Secondary Schools team in 2011. He made his debut for the Hurricanes on the wing in a non-Super Rugby mid-season match against the Reds in June 2012 – scoring a try with his first touch of the ball when he came on after halftime. Injury meant he missed the start of his debut club rugby season when he joined older brother Julian at Oriental-Rongotai. On this day in June 2012, HOBM were winning the Swindale Shield, but at Kilbirnie Park, Ardie Savea was making his second Premier start for Ories – on the right wing. This was in the annual Jim Grbich Memorial Shield and derby match against Poneke. Ardie scored his first two tries in Premier rugby and helped his side to a 31-13 win. Ardie went on to star for the Magpies in the 2012 Jubilee Cup, moving to openside flanker. With four Player of the Match performances in his first nine Premier games and another strong game in the final, which Ories lost 8-14 to MSP, Savea was the joint winner with Wainuiomata’s Shahn Eru of the 2012 Billy Wallace Trophy Best and Fairest competition. He then earned selection in the Wellington Lions squad for the 2012 NPC, scoring seven tries in his debut Lions campaign.

Ardie Savea playing for Ories in 2012.


10 October 2015 – Ayesha Leti-L’iga

After scoring a hat-trick for Ories in his debut Wellington club rugby match early in 2015, whilst being year 12 at Porirua College, this website wrote about her: “Fearless on both attack and defence, with a low centre of gravity and powerful in contact, Ayesha is definitely a player for the future and could attain higher honours in the future.” As at the time of publication in early 2024, Leti-L’iga had scored a remarkable 188 tries in 76 matches for Ories and was a Rugby World Cup winner in 2022.  In 2015 she scored a try in her debut NPC match against Manawatu and went on to play in every subsequent match up to and including the final against Auckland. Auckland won 39-0. She scored six tries for Wellington in her debut season, none more thrilling than in a tense semi-final at the Petone Rec as featured here. Wellington had home ground advantage for this semi, but the Heat had a number of strong performers, and this was far from a foregone conclusion. Counties Manukau led 23-17 with only a couple of minutes to play. Then Leti-L’iga scored her try. First five Llizzie Goulden missed the conversion and the visitors still led 23-22 and looked to hang on. But enter centre Georgia Daals, who scorched 50 metres with Leti-L’iga on her shoulder to score the winner on fulltime.

Ayesha Leti-L’iga playing for Ories in one of her early matches of her career in May 2015. 


6 May 2023 – Stanley Solomon

After coming up through the junior ranks and leading the Wellington College U15s to win the Father Gus Hill Cup in 2020 with a 35-point haul in the final, and also star on the athletics track, Solomon captained the Wellington College First XV in his final year of school in 2022. He produced several star performances from first-five during that season. This included scoring the try below (link to Mike’s video) and a similar solo stunner in the annual traditional against St Pat’s Silverstream. . After making his Premier debut off the bench for Petone at the start of round three, he made a run of six consecutive starts on the wing, scoring 11 tries in this period including four in one match against Tawa in Petone’s 41-17 first round win over them – on this date featured here. This was followed by a seat on Petone’s bench against Paremata-Plimmerton and then three more starts on the wing, scoring a hat-trick against Avalon. Solomon was then in the 10 jersey for Petone’s last two outings of the year in the Hardham Cup, helping them beat Marist St Pat’s 30-13 in the final and scoring the match-sealing try in that decider. For all that he won the 2023 Wellington club rugby best and fairest competition. Injury curtailed his Wellington U19s campaign, but he was subsequently selected for the New Zealand Maori U18s and finished the year off strongly in the sevens game.

Solomon scores against HIBS in 2021. 

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