THE BLUES BROTHERS
THEY ARE a hard-case bunch at Blenheim’s Central Rugby Club.
Plenty of laughter, jokes and piss-taking. That helps them not just get by, but thrive, and seems to have been the way since the club’s birth in 1906.
Nestled just a stone’s throw from the main ground at Lansdowne Park, Central owns its own clubhouse. It’s not huge but the intimate atmosphere has lent its weight to some legendary parties over the years. There is also a superb mosaic of the club logo to greet you on the floor of the main entrance. Now it is very much a community operation, with various groups using the interior. On the day Rugby News rocked up, there was a ballet class in full swing, so we headed to the changing rooms for a yarn.
You only have to spend half an hour or so with chairman Mark Saul, his father and club legend Doug Saul, and stalwarts/life members Rex Gapper, Kelly Landon-Lane and Bill Matthews to get a sense of what Central rugby is all about.
Central is a successful, and, it would seem, popular club. The Blues bar is the centrepiece of the clubhouse, the walls adorned by photos of teams past. There was an addition to the clubhouse during the 1980s. Sadly, many records were lost in a fire further back in time, but the club still produced a good centennial book, packed with salient information and amusing yarns.
Central plays its home games at Lansdowne Park, but there is a natural rivalry with the Harlequins club, based on the other side of the ground. When it is suggested that there would need to be a good referee to handle those fierce local derbies, Mark Saul quips that there is no shortage of referees on the sideline anyway!
“It’s always been a pretty intense rivalry, but we’ve only started to get on top in the last few years,” he adds.
Central has a strong JAB division, with at least one team for every grade, while in 2010 it was the only club to field an Under 18s side, which had to play in the Nelson Bays competition. Matthews coaches the women’s team, also the only senior club side of its kind in the sub-union. The club draws its numbers mainly from local boys, though, like any small province, it is a challenge to hold onto them when they leave school.
Gapper, though, was one of the youngsters who stayed. He joined in the early 1970s, was coached by Doug Saul, and played his last competitive game as recently as 2006.
“The boys were even talking about a comeback this year, but I poured cold water on that,” says Gapper, whose six brothers all played up the road at Moutere. So why did he break the tradition?
“When I was younger, Central looked after me, so I had no reason to leave.”
The Landon-Lane name figures prominently in the Central annals. Life member Kelly Landon-Lane joined in 1955, was another to come under the coaching wing of Doug Saul, and has done yeoman work since for both club and union.
“Central’s contribution to the union has been quite huge, really. Doug was coach during the [Marlborough] Shield era and others served on the union going way back,” says Landon-Lane.
Matthews calls himself “the new chum” but in fact he arrived in about 1980.
“I originally came from Northland, so it was ironic that I ended up playing for the Cambridge Blues. I turned up to watch rugby one day, I shook Doug’s hand and next thing I was on the paddock!
“But I’ve enjoyed every moment of playing here,” says Matthews.
There have been myriad Marlborough reps over the years, and one All Black, Ian Hammond, another top clubman. He played with Doug Saul, and was recalled as a highly respected man “in the mould of Brian Lochore”.
Toby Morland started at Central, as did Hayden Pedersen and Jeremy Manning, who plies his trade at Munster now.
So Central’s place in the Marlborough rugby scene is secure.
“We’re not looking too bad for 105,” says Doug Saul.
There was a rollicking party for Central’s centennial in 2006, with around 400 pitching up for the main function, held at the stadium next door. Unfortunately on the field, just one of the club sides – the Golden Oldies – won that day.
But there was consensus on the greatest moment. And it was not long ago. In 2009 Central won its 12th Marlborough premier club title, hammering Waitohi 36-0 in the final.
The side was dominant, only once failing to accrue a bonus point during the competition. But there was a special moment during the final. Club stalwart Paul MacDonald, into his 40s, got on the field, to play with his sons Quentin and Jessie. Also playing that day was Kade Poki, who has always been a good Central club man. So attached is Quentin MacDonald to his club that after last month’s earthquake he went straight home on Crusaders leave to Blenheim and rolled up at Central training to offer a few tips and get stuck into the hard pre-season yakka.
Not just a club legend, Doug Saul is a Marlborough rugby legend.
He first played for Central as far back as 1945, and has done the lot as player, coach and administrator, winning one premier title as player and one as coach. Saul reckons he has only had two brief breaks from active involvement in the game. One year was to build his house and the other was to play golf. A 40-year life member, Saul’s family has Central blood in their veins. His late brother Ray was also a life member, son Mark is chairman, and nephew Neville was premier coach.
“I can’t get there every Saturday now, but I like to keep in touch. It’s a real friendly club. Everyone gets on well, except the odd scrap (he laughs heartily). But we’ve got a good name in town,” he says.
Saul’s also got a good name in town, having helped coach Marlborough, with former All Black Ralph Caulton, in the glory days of the Red Devils, when they took the Shield in 1973, and chalked up 12 wins from 14 games that season. Strangely, no Central player was in that Shield-winning side.
There is a classic Marlborough Express photo hanging on the clubhouse wall of Saul and his brother Ray in a 1948 V8 under the headline ‘Blues brothers.’
ALL BLACK (1)
Ian Hammond 1951-52
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.