THE HUB OF RUGBY
WHANGAREI'S OLD Boys clubrooms enjoy one of the best vantage points you will find anywhere in the city.
That much is apparent when you step into the spacious clubhouse up on the hill at Port Road. The vista is marvellous, though it did once look down on a rubbish dump. Right next door is Okara Park, now Northland
Events Centre, or Toll Stadium, to be precise. Cobham Oval, a delightful cricket ground, is next to that. This is a veritable Northland sporting hub.
You can expect a good battle – at altitude – on the field and then some good old-fashioned Old Boys’ hospitality for the after-match. In fact, some clubs who play on Okara Park use the Old Boys’ facilities for their post-match speeches and drink. The Taniwha train on the fields and some age-group rep rugby is played here. Why? Because it is so central.
Club captain Colin Shirley and immediate past president Roger Easterbrook give me the inside oil. Around us is a hive of activity. It is early Saturday afternoon. Match day, the opener of the season.
Old Boys started life in 1922 as Whangarei High School Old Boys, and changed to Old Boys in 1952 when they were incorporated. They installed themselves at the current Port Road venue in 1968 after having previously used the high school and Rugby Park grounds for training and play.
Being adjacent to Okara Park has been a real advantage to Old Boys, though more so back in the day before access was sealed. There was a gap in the upper gate which allowed easy flow of patrons and there was often a handy keg just at the entrance, so the supporters could have the best of both worlds – watching the mighty Taniwha go at it and then retreating for a beer with a prime view.
Though Old Boys own the clubhouse, they have little say over what happens with their two fields, both council-owned. In fact, their whole future on the hill is in limbo as there are plans afoot to put in a shopping complex. The council would first have to find a buyer for the land, so maintenance projects are on hold.
In the meantime, Old Boys will plug on, growing their playing strength back after a 6-7 year stint in second division, which ended in 2007. They were not able to field a second senior side, as the rules at the time stipulated, so took the drop.
“We did what we thought was the right thing and pulled out, but in hindsight it was the worst thing we ever did because it’s been a helluva job to get back up there. They (the union) put everything in our way to stop us getting back up,” says Shirley.
Now there are two good senior sides – the premiers finished seventh in 2010 – and the junior section, catering for ages five through to 13, is strong. Former Thames Valley prop Pat Stevens has returned to guide the premiers, captained by Matt Harrison, a loose forward who is in the Northland squad.
Some fine players – and indeed around 70 Taniwha reps – have worn the white of Old Boys. In more recent times, they include Mike Budd, Joe Veitayaki, Karl Haitana and Mikaele Tu’u.
There is a strong Golden Oldies movement too, though they play in black, the original Old Boys colours. A women’s team was active for several seasons.
Shirley has done the lot at the club, and was Northland assistant coach from 1991-92. He still loves it.
“Staying involved with the young fellas keeps me young. I just like seeing them come through, though players have changed big-time,” he says.
After the chat, Rugby News had a stroll around the two grounds, just a matter of 100 metres from the clubrooms. You can park your car behind the dead-ball area on one end and take in the action. Or you can park up under an umbrella or tent.
The locals know what to do. The sun was shining brightly, and Old Boys did battle with Kamo for the time-honoured McMahon-Norton Trophy. Just a typical rugby outing in the north. Good to watch, and though the Old Boys supporters didn’t have too much to cheer about, they did not have far to stroll back and analyse the game. Out the back, the Blues were about to play the Cheetahs in Northland’s first Super Rugby game in eight years.
Now if only they could re-open that famous gap.
EASTERBROOK AND Shirley have a combined 91 years experience of Old Boys rugby to draw on when mulling over their respective greatest moments.
For the former, it is the 1971 premiers’ championship win.
“It was a good team and we played some good rugby. We’d been runner-up a few times,” he says. Old Boys defeated Mid-Western in the final at Okara Park. You can imagine the party they had as the supporters streamed back through the gap. Easterbrook recalls vividly some dancing on the tables. The Old Boys premiers had rebuilt after losing several key players from the 1950s and ’60s, men such as Lloyd Russell, Laurie Dean and Don Hewitt.
Shirley recalls the 1983 season with real fondness.
“We won everything you could possibly win in the north, and we were strong in the juniors and Under 19s too.”
ROGER EASTERBOOK'S name has been synonymous with Old Boys rugby since he linked with the Under 21s in 1958, aged just 16.
His family has been prominent in many roles, and his father, like son, was a life member.
Easterbrook junior joined the committee in 1965, while he was still playing as a prop or lock for the premiers. His 13-year career in the top side came to an end in 1973, after which he coached through the grades and served as delegate before assuming the presidency from 1997-2005.
He quips that he is one of the few farmers left at the club. You’ll find him at most Old Boys game, cheering the boys on.
“It’s just good people. You make bloody good friends. It’s a lot better than sitting out in the country and not being involved in things.
“I loved playing. I should have played longer,” says Easterbrook.
ALL BLACKS (3)
Ian Irvine 1952
Des Webb 1959
Eddie Dunn 1978-79, ’81
There are plenty of mouth-watering clashes on offer this weekend.
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Gordon Tietjens’ success in sevens is unrivalled and should place him in the same coaching league as Sir Alex Ferguson.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen named a 38-man training squad and there are a couple of oversights worth highlighting