SURF’S UP IN RAGLAN RUGBY
MENTION Raglan and most New Zealanders think beaches, surfing, sunshine and barbecues.
While those features form a huge part of this seaside town’s identity and are among its main attractions, it is also home to a half-decent rugby club.
It is the latter which brings Rugby News to town.
As is the norm in these parts, Raglan turns on yet another absolute scorcher of a day as I arrive eager to find out exactly what makes this club 45 minutes west of Hamilton tick.
The club itself is about a five minute drive from the town centre. Club president Frank Turner isn’t far either – he stays just down the road. He’s a hands-on type from what I’m told. As well as pulling pints behind the bar, don’t be surprised to see Turner making sure the lines on the field are primed for the workout they will receive on Saturdays, something he was doing when I pull up in the carpark.
As Turner backgrounds his association with the club and talks about the new changing facility that the council built three years back – “it’s one of the best in the Waikato” – committee member Brett Millward arrives.
Millward has been with club for 25 years. Aside from coaching junior rugby, he took the Under 19s to the final of the Waikato competition and was in charge of the Senior A side between 1999 and 2009 before relinquishing the reins following a hip replacement. He still helps out occasionally with the team when and where he can.
It’s hard to know when Raglan’s story officially kicked off as many of the club’s records were lost when the local hotel went up in flames, but, according to these blokes, rugby has been played down that way since 1890.
Back in those early years, they used to play code on paddocks. Nothing fancy, just farmers having a bit of fun after a hard day’s graft.
That flashiness associated with some clubs in the big smoke won’t be found around here either. Hell, Raglan made little fuss when it blew out 100 candles, instead opting to roll up the sleeves, put the heads down and get back to the task at hand rather than toast the occasion with a big fancy do.
Those men of the land who called the paddock their office may be few in number these days, but their values are something this rugby institution buys into. The local shearing sheds – which were used as changing rooms – are attached to the clubrooms.
The commitment of those who milked cows, sheared sheep and put up fence posts for a crust might not be once what it was among some of the players nowadays, but in Turner, Millward, Shilton and long-serving players like lock Cliff Bell, Raglan has some prime stock to ensure the club continues to survive in what is a difficult time for those in rugby’s heartland.
Raglan has had its fair share of those in recent times, none more so than in 2008 when it was on the verge of being demoted to division two after struggling to cobble together Senior A and B teams required to retain division one status.
With player numbers plummeting to record lows – they fell from 58 registered senior players in 2006 to a mere 28 in ’08 – the club decided to host its trainings at Wintec in Hamilton to try and attract players after losing some frontline cavalry through injury, retirement and travel factors.
However, as Millward recalls, the experiment was not very successful and was abandoned: “It didn’t really attract players and took away some of our club identity.”
Raglan doesn’t have problems attracting players at junior level (this year there were approximately 90 wee nippers running around on Saturdays) – it’s getting them back when they’re older that’s difficult.
That’s because many are forced to move to greener pastures for work. It also does not help their cause that they have to compete with the local surf school, which is popular with the younger generation.
Like many clubs, generating income in this day and age is difficult at times. Turner says that doesn’t mean the club is broke or has creditors breathing down its neck; it means it has to be proactive and think outside the square a little in terms of generating some extra moolah. Raglan does exactly that, letting out its clubrooms for functions and other purposes to help boost the coffers during the summer months where it would otherwise lie dormant.
Perhaps it could even charge a little more for the lagers and ales it serves to those who prop up the bar on a Saturday afternoon when there’s footy in town.
“We’ve got the cheapest piss and biggest selection out of all the clubs in the Waikato region,” laughs Millward.
Another thing this family-orientated, community-based club (Shilton reckons the juniors are a big part and can be seen on the sidelines cheering the seniors and running around in the clubrooms after the games) with huge country hospitality can lay claim to is a couple of famous players.
The likes of Con Hird, Ponty Reid, Bill Parker, Rhys Ellison, Deacon Manu and Arran Pene have passed through the club at various points. The latter was a player-coach for the Senior A side in 2008 and ‘09, but was unavailable this year due to business commitments in Hamilton.
In terms of finest hours, they do not come much sweeter than the groundbreaking 1991 season.
That was a year when the tiny club from the out in the whops won the right to test itself against some of the powerhouse teams in the Waikato region.
Club legend David Shilton played in the Senior A team which beat Melville to gain promotion to the top grade.
“It was close, we won 9-3,” he remembers. “We had a really good kicker in Tony Gibson and that was the difference in the end.”
The team’s time in the premier division was short and sweet, however, as it was relegated the following season.
But Brett Millward reckons it was still quite an achievement: “It was massive and they didn’t do too badly when they went up either.”
He also has fond memories of the class of 2002, which beat a Taupiri team featuring All Blacks lock Royce Willis and came within a whisker of gaining promotion to the premier division after missing out by one point.
“We had some good players in the team back then, but it was probably lucky we didn’t go up as we lost 10 players the following season.”
David Shilton earns the title for the work he does fostering junior rugby in the Raglan area.
Shilton has been a prominent member of the club’s junior committee for the past 12 years.
“He’s always down here at the weekend with the teams he coaches, supporting the senior teams and in the clubrooms after the games,” says club president Frank Turner.
Joining the club as a seven-year old, Shilton played rugby for the Under 19 side and also notched up a “couple of hundred games” for the Senior As between 1989 and 1999.
The man himself, however, is modest about the work he does with the club.
“I don’t see myself as anyone different. I really love the club and it is just really good to see it carrying on as it’s a community club.”
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.