COUNTIES GIANT STIRS AGAIN
They used to say when Manurewa rugby was strong, Counties rugby was strong. This proud, 89-year-old club has plans to once again be leading the way in the union.
BY CAMPBELL BURNES
Manurewa once called itself the top club in New Zealand.
That was in 1978 when it had just moved into its new premises, now Mountfort Park. ‘Rewa’ was coming off 14 senior titles in 18 seasons, and was stacked with Counties reps. Club legend Pat Walsh was president and there was a ‘know how, can do’ attitude to the place.
Now, in 2010, Manurewa has not seen a senior title since 1998, but that should not be taken as a sign that the club is in decline. Indeed there is a drive on to attract the supporters and former players back to the club, the district is awash with young talent in a burgeoning population, and the club is working hard to restore pride in the club name.
Director of rugby and former Manurewa player/coach and Counties coach Andrew Talaimanu knows the club cannot rest on its laurels and storied history, but is working hard to reconnect with the past, as that can galvanise the club for the future.
“Manurewa has over 80,000 people in the district. That’s larger than Palmerston North and (close to) Southland. We are up against other codes… but we are confident of a good showing in all the grades. Last year we had two Black Ferns, and the reserves won the championship.
“Support is all down to good results. We had good crowds last season, the premiers came third,” says Talaimanu.
He’s a busy man, getting round the schools to fly the flag. Mountfort Park is just over the road from James Cook High. Manurewa High is also not far off, and a good chunk of the playing membership hails from Manurewa and its surrounds. Talaimanu played in a dominant era for the club, when championships were regular. That made it the club to beat, much like Takapuna in North Harbour and Ponsonby in Auckland.
There is a strong junior section, with up to 25 teams last season. The premiers have former club and union reps Lee Lidgard and Harley Crane at the helm. George Leaupepe was on the staff last season. He was one of several Manu Samoa reps, along with the likes of Junior Paramore and Lama Tone, who turned out for Manurewa.
The Mountfort Park clubhouse is spacious and there is no shortage of council-run grounds for the sides to play and train on. The whole sporting complex, which takes in softball in the summer, is larger than even Lloyd Elsmore Park in Pakuranga. Life members Bert Knight and Pat O’Connell join myself and Talaimanu to chew the fat.
Knight started his association with the club in 1949, and has seen players come and go, championship runs, big nights either at the ‘Old Black Shed’ (Jellicoe Park) or here, and the strip evolve into the present green and white hoops.
“The camaraderie stands out for me. I started out when we were losing, so then it was good to win all the time.”
He runs his eye over some of the great Manurewa names on the wall: Mac McCallion, John Hughes, Errol Brain; there was the great coach Warren Owens, along with Walsh a driver of the new clubrooms in 1978. And there was Terry Burns, another club legend.
Knight started the Old Boys Association at the club. You will find him sideline on Saturdays during the winter, and then at the bar enjoying the rugby fellowship.
O’Connell has fulfilled most roles over 50 years at the club. His son has played and now he himself is club manager. He is acutely aware that Manurewa is still seen as the team to beat, and the close rivalries with clubs such as Papakura and Ardmore, though not as passionate as once upon a time, are still the bedrock upon which the Rewa club spirit is forged.
The northernmost club in the Counties union, Manurewa is still widely respected, though is viewed more as the city boys when compared with the likes of rural Bombay or Patumahoe or Onewhero.
Manurewa has been seen as a side that likes to throw the ball around, and Knight believes that style evolved with Counties in the 1970s under the coaching of Barry Bracewell and Hiwi Tauroa.
There is plenty to enthuse about from this large club, and one of the few with a Latin motto adorning the clubhouse wall on an evocative painting: ‘Per ardua ad astra.’ Through adversity to the stars. Manurewa is again reaching for the stars.
Where do you start?
There are 26 premier titles since Counties came into being in 1955, plus several in the old sub-union days from 1921; there are six All Blacks to toast and many, many Counties reps, several of whom have gone on to coach the club and the union with notable success. Bert Knight looks back to 1978 for his moment: “It was a big thing moving into this clubhouse. We loved that place – the so-called ‘Old Black Shed’ at Jellicoe Park – but it was falling apart.
“Also, the advent of Bruce McLeod making the All Blacks was a personal thrill. That’s a selfish emotion on my part.”
McLeod was a local lad who made good. There have been a few of these at Manurewa.
The former threequarter is actually an All Black out of four Counties clubs, but he is recalled fondly as a Rewa man, a man who, galvanised by an enormous amount of contacts in the rugby world, was able to get things done for the club. Need a guest speaker for the club dinner? Walshy would tee someone up.
Life member Bert Knight recalls Walsh’s organisational skills: “An ideas man is the best way to sum him up. He seemed to know everyone in New Zealand. It helps your club function. We all thought highly of him.”
This Saturday (March 27) will be the third annual Pat Walsh at the club. This includes a junior muster day, a Golden Oldies game, and then the premiers play Waiuku, also a Walsh club. The Walsh family will be out in force, and there is a striking trophy up for grabs.
Last year the Toyota Grassroots Rugby cameras were along. Walsh is no longer with us, but as long as there is a rugby club in Manurewa, his name will endure.
ALL BLACKS (6)
Pat Walsh 1963
Bruce McLeod 1964-70
Michael Knight 1968
Nicky Allen 1980
Mark Cooksley 1992-93
Lelia Masaga 2009
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