Above: A group of past and present members of the Johnsonville Rugby Club parade down a street in Johnsonville, in decade groups, as part of the club’s Jubilee in 1950. Photo credit below.

 Jubilee Cup Premier

Going into the 2017 season, the Wellington Rugby Football Union has 17 member clubs affiliated to it, all of who have had at least one team taking part in the WRFU’s competitions; but what of the history of the club game in the capital?

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A perusal of the lists of championship winners, and the names engraved on the Jubilee and Hardham Cups themselves, reveal a number of names that have since disappeared; and many other names have also come and gone from the roll of clubs. Wellington FC (constituted in 1871) is not only the oldest club in the capital, but is the second oldest rugby football club in New Zealand by establishment behind the Nelson club, though unlike Nelson who have had periods of abeyance the Axemen have fielded a team every year since formation (Christchurch is even older than both, but played soccer and Australian Rules in its early years). The founder of the Wellington club, British Army officer Captain JRC Isherwood, was also responsible for the forming of the city’s second club; Athletic, in 1877 and these two clubs were amongst those that formed the WRFU in 1879.

The inaugural WRFU Senior Championship was contested in 1880 between Wellington and Athletic, who played in the city division, and Greytown, Masterton and Carterton, who played in the Wairarapa division. Athletic were the first winners, beating Greytown 6-0 in the final on 31 July 1880 at the Basin Reserve.

The Wairarapa clubs played in the Wellington competitions until 1886 when they formed their own union. By that stage however a clutch of new clubs had sprung up in Wellington and the Hutt Valley including two famous clubs that remain in existence today, Poneke (1883) and Petone (1885). Poneke, like many early clubs actually started life as a ‘junior’ club and was originally constituted in 1882 as ‘Our Boys’ Club’.

The early years were not without struggle. Despite a stop-start introduction that included seeing off an early toehold by proponents of Australian Rules and the myriad of teething problems that could be expected, by 1900 rugby was firmly ensconced as the number one sporting code in Wellington. The new English professional game of rugby league also rivaled rugby in the early years of the 20th century, and the first ‘All Golds’ tour to the UK in 1907 included several prominent Wellington rugby players of the time, including Petone’s All Black Duncan McGregor. That code was also dominant in the Hutt Valley in pre-WW1 years.

The popularity of rugby saw no fewer than 57 different clubs established and affiliated to the WRFU at some point before the turn of the century. 1884 alone saw nine clubs join, none of which survive today. Many of the clubs formed during this time didn’t stick around long. Most were formed along mercantile lines, or were offshoots of other fledgling sporting and non-sporting clubs and groups, rather than being geographically aligned. Examples of early rugby clubs that came and went are Thorndon Classical School, Union-Diamond and Star. Others such as Athletic, Karori, Oriental , and Taita were the original forerunners of today’s clubs. Some of these such as Selwyn, Southern and Melrose played in the Senior championship for many years.

Melrose was a notable early club, winning six Senior championships between 1896-1908 including three in a row between 1896-98. With its training facilities at Newtown Park, Melrose originally represented the Melrose borough which incorporated large swathes of southern and western Wellington. But after Melrose amalgamated with the Wellington Town Board in 1903 the club of the same name slowly but surely lost its identity, before amalgamating with Selwyn in 1932 and then dropping out of existence sometime after that.

Other clubs that are now long forgotten also performed with distinction throughout these golden years of Wellington club rugby with St James being one example. One of a clutch of clubs that sprung up around the turn of last century, St James went within a whisker of winning the Senior championship in 1911; holding a clear lead deep into the 18-round competition, St James’ grip on glory was only relinquished in the penultimate round when they were defeated 8-9 by then-defending champions Oriental. Athletic then defeated Oriental in the season decider and St James found themselves relegated to third.

Another group synonymous with the game in Wellington, the Wellington Referees Association, was also formed before the turn of the century and was aligned with the WRFU in 1894. This organisation was the forerunner of today’s Wellington Rugby Referees Association,which was formed in 1914.

Also noteworthy is the history of the grounds that the game was initially played on. The big matches were played on the Basin Reserve in the early days, then on to Newtown Park and finally Athletic Park for the most part from 1896-1999. Included in that was an unsuccessful move for several seasons across the water to Miramar Park in the early 1900s but a lack of patronage to watch games there and tentative moves made by the fledgling rugby league game to move into Athletic Park heralded a move back there. The Petone and Hutt Recreation Grounds were also in use as rugby venues from early on, while other venues have long been lost to development

Another feature of this time was the ‘Wednesday Championship’ that ran from 1896 until the outbreak of World War One in 1914 – the war and the introduction of ‘half holiday’ labour laws on Saturdays combined to spell the end of this once hotly contested grade. Petone won the first Wednesday Championship, but others to win it included ‘Tradesmen’, ‘Permanent Artillery’ and ‘Tramway’.

In 1904 there were 17 active clubs, fielding 43 teams to the official WRFU competitions. The following year, 1905, there were 20 clubs fielding 58 teams. By 1910 active players in the union totalled 1,400 in Saturday grades, 108 in the Wednesday Championship, as well as 500 in the school grades that are now administrated by College Sport Wellington but have at various times have come under the auspices of the WRFU.

Leading school teams such as Wellington College (formed 1879) and St Pat’s College (1886) played in the WRFU competitions in these early years, competing for the WRFU’s Junior Cup. From 1886 to 1903, St Pat’s College (SPC) competed for the WRFU’s Junior Cup, which was won in 1888 by SPC by beating Epuni Club. Of note, SPC was not only unbeaten, but they scored more points (125) than any other single club in New Zealand that season, and conceded just nine. In recognition of this victory, the entire College was granted a day’s holiday and a silk banner was commissioned which is still held in the College’s archives.

Eventually players from the two schools – that at the time faced each other across the Basin Reserve – established their own respective ‘Old Boys’ clubs that competed in the senior championships. Wellington College Old Boys was formed in 1897, St Patrick’s Old Boys followed in 1909.

This time was also marked by competing interests within clubs, with the establishment of the Hutt club an example. Formed in 1910 by the merger of Epuni and Kia-Ora, competing factions saw a group breakaway and form a club in nearby Waiwhetu the next year. After Hutt failed to field any teams in 1912 the Waiwhetu group took the Hutt name; the club would go on to win three champions between 1931 to 1941 and endures today as part of Hutt Old Boys Marist’s history.

By 1912, there were 68 teams and 1,750 players playing in the senior competitions. Rugby was taking off,the game was flourishing, and the Wellington representative team reclaimed the Ranfurly Shield. World War One put a halt to most rugby though the Senior championship was still contested albeit with the strict caveat from the WRFU that ‘no unmarried man eligible for military service shall play rugby’. Athletic, Wellington (Athletic and Wellington declared joint winners in 1914) Petone and Poneke won Senior titles in the war years.

Poneke defended their title in 1919, a vintage season for Wellington rugby in which they took the Ranfurly Shield on the road and Wellington enjoyed a rich vein of form. On the club front, some 22 new clubs joined the WRFU’s Senior competitions in the interwar period, though only one – Eastbourne – still survives as a standalone club. Another was the Centurions RFC in 1939, modelled on the famed Barbarians Club of London.

World War Two again saw the amount of rugby restricted, though like in the First war the Senior competition continued. However with fewer players some clubs combined their efforts on the field such as Poneke and Oriental who won the competition in 1943 and 1944.

The decade following the war saw the establishment of no fewer than 11 new clubs, mostly in the rapidly developing and expanding Western Bays and Hutt Valley.

In the latter part of the 20th century the club scene continued to evolve and change. The late 1960’s and early 80’s & 90’s all saw high-profile amalgamations take place that have created many of the clubs of today.In fact, 9 of the current 17 clubs are the results of mergers that have occurred since 1959 when the Paremata and Plimmerton clubs combined, through to the most recent, the 2014 amalgamation of Upper Hutt and Rimutaka.

While the traditional clubs have still enjoyed long periods of time in the sun, like Petone did when they dominated for a decade from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, several community clubs have also flourished at one time or another. Three such community-based clubs that have won Jubilee Cups in the second half of Wellington club rugby’s history are Onslow (1955 and 1962, shared with Marist Brothers Old Boys), Western Suburbs (1998) and Tawa (2013 and 2016).

Here is a history of all the clubs that have been affiliated with the WRFU at various times (not counting known ‘college clubs’ such as Wellington College and St Patrick’s College Wellington that at various times have participated in the WRFU competitions):

1871 Wellington FC (NZ’s second club formed and the oldest continuous club)
1876 Greytown (Left WRFU to Wairarapa when clubs formed own union in 1886)
1877 Athletic (Merged with Onslow and Karori in 1983)
1878 United, Excelsior, Union Jack
1879 Masterton, Carterton (Both left WRFU to Wairarapa when clubs formed own union in 1886)
1883: Poneke (Formed as Our Boys’ Club in 1882), Ashley, Wellington Union
1884: Union-Diamond, Leopards, Mt Cook, Rivals, Rugby, Star, Thorndon Classical School, Karori (Originally formed in 1876, playing debut in 1884. merged with Athletic and Onslow in 1983), United.
1885: Petone, Taita (Merged with Naenae Old Boys in 1979)
1886: Melrose (Formed out of the previous Star club (1884), Epuni (Joined Petone in 1891)Orient, Welcome.
1887: Belmont, Pirates
1888: Albatross, Oriental, Carlton, Everton, Oriental (Merged with Rongotai College Old Boys in 1968), Petone-Albion (Joined Petone in 1889), Pioneer, Rapids
1889: Clifton, Midland, Naval Artillery, Selwyn, Sydenham, Wanderers
1890: Montrose, Prince Albert, Red Star, Roseneath
1892: Epuni (Revival of the club that merged with Petone. merged with Kia Ora in 1910), United Tradesmen
1893: Half-Holiday Drapers
1895: Brooklyn, Merrivale (Amalgamated with Petone end of that season)
1896: St John’s
1897: Wellington College Old Boys (Merged with Victoria University in 1992)
1898: Kia Ora (Merged with Epuni in 1910)
1899: Southern, Wellington Rowing Club
1900: Johnsonville
1901: St James’, Kaiwarra
1902: Waratah
1903: Victoria University (Merged with Wellington College Old Boys in 1992)
1904: Railway
1905: Institute Old Boys, St David’s, United (A separate club to the one of the same name (1884), Star Boating Club
1907: Polhill, Bakers
1908: St John’s, Boys’ Institute, Tramways, Butchers, Artillery, Marist Old Boys
1909: Upper Hutt (Merged with Rimutaka in 2014), Exchange, St Patrick’s College Old Boys (Merged with Marist Brothers in 1971)
1910: Hutt (An amalgamation of the Epuni (1892) and Kia Ora clubs), Porirua (Merged with Titahi Bay in 1990)
1911: Waiwhetu
1912: Wadestown, Wellington Catholic
1913: Berhampore (Changed its name to Pirates in 1936)
1914: United Methodists
1918: Trentham, Railway Battalion, YMCA
1919: Marist Brothers Old Boys (Merged with St Patrick’s College Old Boys in 1971), War Expenses, Mascot
1920: Miramar (Merged with Seatoun-Rongotai College Old Boys in 1950), HMS Amokura
1921: Eastbourne, Boys’ Institute Old Boys, Public Service
1922: Technical College Old Boys, Onslow (Merged with Athletic &Karori in 1983), Khandallah (Joined the Onslow club in 1926)
1923: Foresters (Joined Wellington FC in 1926), Community, Olympic
1924: Brooklyn United
1925: Scots College Old Boys
1929: Seatoun (Merged with Rongotai College (‘school’ club) in 1936), Moera, Railway Training School
1932: Plimmerton (Merged with Paremata in 1959), Melrose-Selwyn (An amalgamation of the Melrose and Selwyn clubs)
1936: Seatoun-Rongotai College Old Boys (An amalgamation of the Seatoun club & the Rongotai College ‘school’ club. Merged with Miramar in 1951)
1940: Air Force
1943: Navy, Fortress Maoris
1945: Paremata (Merged with Plimmerton in 1959), Woburn (Changed name in 1953 to High School Old Boys)
1946: Wainuiomata, Belmont, Makara,
1947: Tawa, Te Tau Aroha
1949: Stokes Valley, Hutt Valley Marist (Merged with Hutt Old Boys in 1993)
1950: Eastern Suburbs (An amalgamation of the Miramar and Seatoun-Rongotai Old Boys clubs. Changed name to Rongotai College Old Boys in 1966. Merged with Oriental in 1968)
1951: Naenae Old Boys (Merged with Taita in 1979)
1952: Kimi Ora,
1955: Titahi Bay (Merged with Porirua in 1990)
1959: Paremata-Plimmerton (An amalgamation of the Paremata and Plimmerton clubs)
1967: Hutt Old Boys (An amalgamation of the Hutt and High School Old Boys’ clubs. Merged with Hutt Valley Marist in 1993)
1968: Oriental-Rongotai (An amalgamation of the Oriental and Rongotai College Old Boys clubs)
1971: Marist St Pat’s (An amalgamation of the Marist Old Boys and St Pat’s Old Boys clubs)
1979: Avalon (An amalgamation of the Naenae Old Boys and Taita clubs)
1982 Rimutaka (Merged with Upper Hutt in 2014)
1983: Western Suburbs (An amalgamation of the Onslow, Karori and Athletic clubs)
1990: Northern United (An amalgamation of the Titahi Bay and Porirua clubs)
1992: Old Boys University (An amalgamation of the Victoria University and Wellington College Old Boys clubs. Originally called Harlequins)
1993: Hutt Old Boys Marist (An amalgamation of the Hutt Valley Marist and Hutt Old Boys clubs)
2014: Upper Hutt Rams RFC (An amalgamation of the Upper Hutt and Rimutaka clubs)

Photo credit: Johnsonville Rugby Club jubilee. Evening post (Newspaper. 1865-2002) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: 114/193/05-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22372770

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