Waiapu Rugby Club

Wed 19 May 2010
It was a brilliantly fine autumn day when I pulled into George Nepia Memorial Park, a few minutes drive past Tikitiki.
This is Rangitukia, rural East Coast, and the spiritual home of one of the All Blacks greats, who is buried just down the road. It’s a couple of hours drive back down to Gisborne. This is the land from which Ngati Porou picks its rep team, and there have been plenty of Waiapu men in the East Coast side down the years.
The Waiapu clubrooms are basic, but the people make the club and on Saturdays it is a hive of activity, with a fitting feast after the senior match.
On my visit, there are sheep grazing in the in-goal area of the sole field. Club stalwart John Manuel jokes that they could be providing the meat for the after-match on the weekend.
A picture emerges of a proud old club that has spawned some of the finest players on the Coast and still commands respect from other clubs in the far-flung union.
But first, a brief history lesson.
There has been rugby at Rangitukia since at least the early 1900s, when the land was cleared to provide a sports ground. On either side grows maize and many is the time when one of the crowd has to nip into the maize fields to retrieve the ball.
Waiapu is actually the name of the old sub-union, and in the days when the population was much larger than now, there were four clubs in the region. Nepia was a galvanising presence when he returned to play his rugby here. There were frequent working bees and two senior sides, now down to one, as is vogue on the Coast. One of the old buildings, used as a gym, is preserved to maintain that link with the past.
Manuel played when the club at Rangitukia Park was known as Ngati. The region morphed into one club and reverted to the Waiapu name in the 1970s.
“We had two sets of jerseys, red for the club, and green for the sub-union, but then the money started to disappear and so we went back to one colour,” says Manuel. That colour is now predominantly orange, with black and white trimmings.
Families have played central roles in Waiapu rugby history, with the Kururangis, Waitoas, Manuels, Pois and Haeangas tending to crop up in photos and rugby lore.
Waiapu is enduring a tough season in 2010 and it is a challenge finding a full contingent of 22 each Saturday, but one senses that numbers are cyclical, often linked to employment in the region, and that the Nepia name and the Waiapu reputation will allow it to fight on and survive.
Finding a full team and five front rowers is an issue throughout the Coast. Hildaren Haenga, who has played prop for East Coast and is the delegate to the union, has only just hung up the boots, but might find himself sitting on the bench if he is sideline on Saturdays.
“We rely on top players coming from further afield,” says Manuel. “When we advertise for school teachers we make sure they are male and play rugby. They might come from Tikitiki. That’s how you get a job here!”
Waiapu elders have even been known to line their daughters up with good players from another area and bring them back to the club.
There are JAB grades, but of course many shoot through to Gisborne for college and it is no easy task to get them back.
“We’ve got three or four schoolboys in our team. That’s tough on the young fellas but they are keen,” says Manuel. “It’s no good saying to the opposition, ‘go easy on our young fellas.’ There’s no such thing.”
But the struggle for numbers on the field is not necessarily paralleled in supporter numbers, with often 200 or more rocking up to home games. On occasion there would be more than at East Coast home matches.
“It’s good to see the young ones coming through. We’ve got to encourage them a bit more because playing rugby will keep them out of mischief,” says chairman Willy Kapa.

The club once counted five New Zealand Maori reps in one season in the 1920s, but the golden run came from 1985-97 when Waiapu won seven titles in 13 seasons.
That included the King of the Coast in the early 1990s when Waiapu beat Poverty Bay’s top side, Old Boys, in Gisborne.
“All the supporters came out of the woodwork,” says Manuel, who also recalls fondly the days when the club included four Waitoa brothers – Kahu, Dave, Hone and Koro – and five Kururangi siblings – Kurt, Keith, Noel, Gerald and Jamaal. Most of them played for East Coast, and is a striking parallel to the famous Clarkes who donned Kereone colours in Waikato.
“They all trained hard and were dedicated to the club,” says Manuel.
Club manager Paka Te Whiti looks back on the occasions, four of them, when Waiapu has won the Barry Cup, played for among the various sub-unions on the Coast.
“That’s the Ranfurly Shield of the East Coast. You put your bodies on the line and that was when Waiapu was on top,” says Te Whiti.
Check out the team photo from 1997, and you will see the club won the lot, including the Barry Cup. “They were all employed too,” quips Manuel. “Not like now, with too many bloody flycatchers!”

John Manuel is not a current office bearer at the Waiapu Rugby Club.
He doesn’t need to be. He does everything, including organising the speeches and cooking for home games, not to mention ferrying the juniors up hill and down dale for Saturday morning games.
Manuel was a lock or back rower for the Rangitukia Rangers and Ngati in the 1960s and also appeared for Ngati Porou East Coast. He has the weather-beaten look of a man who has worked on the land all his life. Formerly the president of the union, he is now the patron. It is fair to say everyone involved in East Coast rugby knows and respects John Manuel, and his contribution to Waiapu is inestimable.
Asked if he was a club life member, he replies: “We’re all life members here.”

George Nepia 1929-30
* The club was known as the Rangitukia Rangers when Nepia played. 
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