CLUB SPIRIT REMAINS STRONG
The first thing you notice about Alexandra Rugby Club is the sheer size of the clubrooms and the facilities.
This is not some pokey little hole with changing sheds you can hardly swing a cat in. We are at Molyneux Park, a ground which has seen its fair share of Otago first-class cricket matches over the years. And which has been the home of Alexandra rugby since way back when. The current clubrooms were built in 1973, with extensions made in 1989 in time for the centenary. The club itself was formed in 1890, just after Cromwell and Clyde, in a time of booming population and the sprouting of rugby clubs in the Central Otago region.
Alexandra is now a town of about 5000, and is literally five minutes down the road from the Clyde-Earnscleugh club. There is a long-standing rivalry and the local derby is played for the James Wing Memorial Trophy.
On a chilly late autumn night, I am greeted by club president and 2006-09 premiers coach Lindsay Breen. He looks young enough to still be playing, but tells me his knees are shot.
“I returned to Alexandra in 1995. I missed footy, but I didn’t know why. When I came back to this club, I knew why,” he says.
With Breen is another Alexandra stalwart, Wayne Harrex, who joined the club at 16 in the juniors and was playing up until last season. Then there is Trevor Washington, who looks and sounds like a bit of a character.
The showers might not be the warmest, but the No 1 field (there are a couple more out the back) is regarded as the best surface in Central Otago rugby. The venue is administered by the Molyneux Park Trust through the local council and the rugby club pays a ground hire fee for a fulltime groundsman.
It is not just rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer. There are netball courts out the back of this vast complex.
The senior, or second team, combines with Roxburgh, as has been the case since last year. Numbers are problematic through the region, but Alexandra taps into the local Dunstan High School for players.
“We try and grab anyone who looks like they can play rugby when they move into the town,” says Breen.
“I believe our junior rugby is very strong. There’s 130 kids, from under 7s to 13s before they head away to secondary school.”
Alexandra gets plenty of support, especially on home match days, and the bar does a relatively good trade, even in these tougher financial times.
“We’ve had some good nights and that’s what country rugby is all about,” says Washington. “Here you go to the clubrooms, you meet the opposition at the same pubs on the way home and we have some bloody good times. Guys in the city are always amazed at what we do here.”
Though the premiers have had a difficult 2010 with a very young side, these things are cyclical and these gentlemen are confident Alexandra will bounce back in time.
“All clubs have their turn (at struggling), but we have the facilities, the population and, we believe, the infrastructure,” says Breen.
And, it would seem, a very strong club spirit.
It was a big year in 1990 for Alexandra’s centenary season.
Sounds like it was a huge weekend of celebration too.
“The centenary season jumps out,” says Washington. “Nowadays we go in smaller steps, so 125 will be big in five years time for this club.”
Both Harrex and Washington have vivid memories of the 1990 centenary weekend.
“They ordered enough kegs to last three days and we drank them on the Friday night,” says Washington. “It was unbelievable. First night, gone.”
The kegs were piled up under the stairwell. But the Thursday night session, which had been planned for a few snifters while decorating the place, kicked on until 4am.
There have been eight White Horse Cup wins (or at least engravings) to savour, including one in 1970 when former Otago coach and All Blacks selector Tony Gilbert was playing. He’s still a regular sideline and occasionally at trainings to help out. The last White Horse Cup win was in 2008.
This bloke is incredible, and yet they tell me his long, long senior footy career is not necessarily unique in Central Otago rugby circles.
Washington joined the club in 1978 as a junior and debuted for the premiers in the early 1980s, when he joined the committee. He hasn’t been off it since, served as president in 1999-2000 and made a life member in 2002. He last took the field in 2009 and suited up as a reserve at the start of 2010. But a heart condition ruled him out of contention. He was in hospital two days after he was close to again taking the field.
He cannot guess how many premier games he has played, but says he recalls a newspaper article in 1994 when he hit the 250 mark. On that basis, 400 would seem to be not beyond the realms of possibility.
“It’s home away from home, basically. It’s just enjoyment. We love winning but it’s also the friendships we make. If we go to a test match in Dunedin, we meet up with all our old mates.
“I was going to retire in 1994 when we won the White Horse Cup and the competition, but it didn’t quite work out that way,” says Washington.
He was made to feel old in a game last year when about five teenaged teammates quipped that he’d played with their fathers!
Washington was hoping to emulate club patron Murray Ashton who was still turning out at 50 but the heart troubles appear to have put the kybosh on that.
ALL BLACKS (1)
Bill Lunn 1949
This weekend throws up another set of games which could go either way.
Which player was unlucky not to make the Wallabies’ preliminary squad for the British and Irish Lions series?