LEADING THE PACK
THEY RAN out of candles at Centennial Park at Easter – but the memories will last a lifetime.
Oamaru's Athletic Marist club made the most of a two-day celebration to proudly mark 125 years of existence. ‘Athies’ became the first of the six North Otago clubs to reach the milestone.
At a time when rugby clubs the length and breadth of New Zealand are merging, folding or just plain struggling, there is justifiable pride that the Oamaru powerhouse has made it this far as a single, thriving entity.
One of the highlights of the 125th jubilee was the auctioning of 15 replica jerseys from 1896, the year the club adopted its famous maroon and gold strip, colours which would later be adopted by the North Otago union.
Ten years earlier, a local bigwig by the fancy name of Lord Redhaven had gathered a few of his cronies together and decided it was time to form a rugby club.
From low-key beginnings, Athletic would quickly develop into the dominant club on the local scene. So much so that, for generations of North Otago kids from other clubs, the Athies boys were the ones you loved to hate.
Success always breeds envy, and great stalwarts of Athletic – families like the McLeods, the Byrnes and the Burnses, and people like patron Ray Collett, who sadly died just weeks before the 125th – could handle some gentle ribbing.
More recently, the club has been blessed with fine coaches in Ross Lory and Wayne Kinzett, an indefatigable club council representative in Mark Herron, and vibrant administrators like Gerard McCarthy and Warren Pitches.
Athletic has not produced an All Black but it has not lacked for outstanding players. A favourite son is the versatile Kenny McGregor, who was at halfback the famous day North Otago beat Australia in 1962. McGregor was also a South Island representative.
More recently, Athletic has had three players named in the New Zealand Divisional team: rangy lock Cam McKenzie (who has since been playing overseas in various countries), halfback Kilifi Fangupo and centre Faaitu Tuamoheloa.
The last two names reflect the big cultural shift that Athletic – and North Otago rugby, in general – has experienced in recent years.
The loss of hundreds of home-grown young men to bigger cities and better opportunities has been offset by an influx of Pacific Islanders, who now form part of a vibrant community. For clubs like Athletic, the Pasifika men have become a vital and valuable part of the fabric.
Club stalwart Pitches says Athletic has an excellent mix of talent on the field and dedicated administrators inside the clubrooms.
"Like all rugby clubs, we lack resources and finances," Pitches says. "But we’ve got a very strong schoolboy section – about 100, which is pretty strong for a place like North Otago. Then we've got our premier team and a president's team that plays in the Timaru competition.
"The key is we've got a very strong infrastructure. We've got good people working hard to help the club thrive, and we try to stay a step ahead of everyone else."
Athletic looked to the future last year when it forged a link with the Marist chain of clubs.
Pitches believes North Otago was one of the only provinces not to have a Marist club.
"It's a big support network and it really helps give us some direction. I suppose it's our way of securing our future.
"The great thing for our players is that they now get the chance to tour with Marist teams if they are good enough."
OVER 125 years, Athletic has had a lot of outstanding seasons – including several in which the club was unbeaten.
But it will take some topping 2003, when Athletic claimed a rare trophy double. The maroon and golds claimed the Citizens Shield with a dramatic 24-23 win over Old Boys in the final. Then they won the (sadly short-lived) Aoraki Cup with a come-from-behind 24-20 win over MacKenzie in the final.
YOU JUST can't miss Warren Pitches.
He's the guy in the big hat. Or the fluoro vest. Or the rather distinctive voice you can hear from the sidelines.
Pitches played his first game in Athletic colours when he was nine, and his last when he was 50. A loose forward, he "wasn't a great player" but managed to get in three seasons of premier rugby.
He's been on the club committee for as long as he can remember, he was the chairman of the 125th jubilee committee, he spent four years as president, he was the club captain and he coached lower grade teams.
He's done everything but paint the clubrooms... no, wait, he's done that too. Pitches helped build the rooms in 1971 and he's done a dozen repaintings since. His business, P & W Painters, is now working on the new stadium in Dunedin.« Back to Club of the Week
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.