A GOOD OL’ COUNTRY CLUB
The Pirongia Rugby Club is pretty easy to spot.
Situated on the corner of Franklin and Kane streets, it sticks out like a bloke in a pink shirt at the footy as I drive into town.
On arrival I’m greeted by club president Te Oti Kaihe. A born-and-bred Northlander, he’s been in these parts for the past eight years. As we shoot the breeze, I’m told we’ll be joined by club legend Neil Findsen, patron Noel Johnson and life members Keith Ormsby and Charlie Coles. What the latter three don’t know about the club’s history isn’t worth knowing, so I take heart they will be able to give me the good oil.
All five are proud of this club. Rugby News gathers this when they turn up wearing full number ones.
Those who wear Pirongia’s colours are known as the ‘Mountain Men’. It’s a nickname derived from Mt Pirongia, which is opposite the clubrooms and a key component to the club dating back to the days when Steve Thackeray used to write the humorous Mad Mac column for the local rag.
“In all our team photos we have the mountain behind us. We’ve got a mountain window so we can see it when we are on this side of the buildings, we put a picture of it on the glass in the toilets so you can see it when you’re taking a piss and a few weeks ago we put a picture of one on the doors into the changing rooms so the players can see it when they run out onto the field,” says Kaihe.
Pirongia itself took to the field in 1876. Originally known as Alexander, the club underwent an identity change when the frontier town reverted back to its Maori name in 1895, and aside from a brief period between 1934 and ’38 where it fused with Ohaupo and Kihikihi to form Waipa Suburbs, the club has been going strong since.
Ormsby reckons it is the people that have kept the club ticking over during the last 134 years.
“It’s always had enthusiastic people and it’s been a help yourself club when we’ve done things. You look up at all those guys (life members) there, they were dedicated to the club and it was their whole life.”
They’re not the only ones, according to Johnson, with generations of the same family having passed through the club over the years.
Many of them had strong farming backgrounds, which at one point linked tightly into the fabric of the club.
“We used to have to chase the sheep off the field and put them in a paddock at the back before we played, and there was a little sheep trough to have a wash in afterwards. That’s all we had – there was no showers.”
The clubrooms weren’t much better prior to the existing ones being built in 1976 either. Remembers Ormsby: “We had an open pavilion with two smallish changing rooms and a kitchen.”
After chewing the fat with these committed Pirongia men, there is much to like about how this rural club is handling itself in the current rugby climate.
As well as having a website (a rarity for many clubs cut from the same cloth), Pirongia has big plans for the future. Among them is building a new set of clubrooms overlooking Pirongia Park and finding a sister club overseas to swap players with, while the 135th birthday celebrations are also on the horizon next year.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Another thing which isn’t bad is the atmosphere in the clubrooms. Kaihe reckons they’re packed when a game is on. Those who come along are also treated to a slap-up feed.
“We probably have the best cook in the whole Waikato rugby community and they do a bloody good job for us. The best thing about it is we get farmers around here who donate the meat. Because we can get the best cuts, we can throw it out on the table.”
Adds Coles: “I have to say the next morning the carpark is full and you wonder what’s on, when in fact it’s people who haven’t driven home. It’s not as big as it was when people used to stay until daybreak.”
On the field there hasn’t been much celebrating in recent times. The last Mooloo Shield success was in 2000, although the Senior As have lost the last two finals (to Raglan). The Bs gained some consolation beating the same opponents in theirs, while the Under 19s finished as runners-up to Hamilton Marist in the top grade this year.
The latter comprised many players from Hamilton. Says Ormsby: “We’ve got as good a set-up as anyone. Here we are in a Waikato competition and these guys are prepared to come out to Pirongia. They must be getting treated right, eh?”
That treatment extends to rivals Ohaupo, even if Kaihe reckons those games are as fierce as they come: “You’re lucky you’ve got referees, as each team really beats each other up. It’s club rugby at it’s best.”
No, Pirongia. That would be you.
Some New Zealand clubs can claim they’ve had an All Black speak at their clubrooms; but a highly regarded Wallaby captain?
It happened on Queen’s Birthday weekend in 2001 when Nick Farr-Jones agreed to be the guest speaker at the Mountain Men’s 125th jubilee.
“We were looking to ask Brian Lochore because he’s the icon of New Zealand rugby, but he couldn’t commit to it, so we had to look further,” says Coles.
“It went well. His ability to mix with anyone and everyone was remarkable.”
Johnson says the World Cup-winner also presented three members of the club with life membership.
“He didn’t charge at all for his time and he bought his family over and they stayed with Keith,” he says. “He was absolutely brilliant – down to earth, humorous, and everyone respected him.”
Neil Findsen’s been a loyal servant since joining Pirongia as a nine-year-old in 1975.
As well as playing over 500 games for the Senior As, ‘Feefi’ has also been the club secretary and president. He still laces the boots for the Bs.
“In my eyes, it’s just the stature of the man that makes him a legend,” says Kaihe. “The young people look up to him and how he’s still performing on and off the field.”
Aside from a brief stint studying in Christchurch, where he played for the Canterbury Colts, the 43-year-old farmer has been there through the highs and the lows.
“I can remember in the mid-1990s when we had one team and if we were talking a bus somewhere and someone was on the side of the road, we’d stop and say ‘Do you play rugby? We’ll give you a ride if you can’,” he laughs.
“Rugby is a game that is supposed to be enjoyed and that’s what we really focus on out here.”
Ormsby has his own story about Findsen when he coached him as a boy: “He was a pretty solid guy then, but I reckon the first two years he never touched the ball. We used to give him a pat on the head and he used to rush out with the rest of the guys.”
ALL BLACKS (1)
Jim Wynyard 1935-36
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?