RICH IN HISTORY, STRONG IN SPIRIT
ONLY ONE THING was missing from an otherwise perfect setting when I caught up with well-respected University of Canterbury Rugby Club identities, Brian (Chub) Hays and Ivan (Bolty) Bolton, on a sunny Saturday winter’s afternoon at the Ilam fields where the goalposts were still standing and Canterbury University itself provided the backdrop.
Hays, chairman of the board, and Bolton, president since 1984, would have loved to show off some silverware, but the students were denied by High School Old Boys of both the metropolitan Cup and Trophy, finishing runners-up in the two division one competitions. They were a point behind Old Boys in the round-robin Cup series, then lost 15-10 in the championship final. At least they made the final for the first time since 1995.
After more than a decade in the doldrums, however, the signs for the future were promising for a club which has been an institution of Canterbury rugby for more than 100 years. From its first championship success in 1928, University has collected 18 further titles, but its last was in 1990 when its present coach Victor Simpson was a member of the winning team. No less than 26 Black Ferns have come from the club.
As with other universities around the country, the changing social climate has made it difficult for University senior sides to maintain a top core of players for any length of time. The hostel charges and increasing course costs have forced students to seek part-time weekend work to pay their way. University fields many social sides which play Saturday mornings before the students head to work.
But Simpson and fellow coach Derek Todd have moulded together a talented squad, with the perfect mix of experience and youthful enthusiasm and with most swearing their allegiance to the maroon-and-gold colours, Simpson and new coach Mark Ranby will not have to start from scratch next season as has been the case previously.
Apart from improved playing numbers at senior and colts levels, University augmented a strategic plan in the new millennium which has put it in good stead and it now has its own clubrooms at Ilam after being homeless for more than 100 years, moving from hotel to hotel or using university association quarters as venues for its after-match gatherings.
University has enjoyed two playing heydays, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s and in the 1980s. The club won four straight championships from 1956 and four more between 1961 and 1965. From 1980 to 1990 it claimed another five trophies as well as winning the cup round-robin in 1985 and 1987.
Hayes can recall a match in the 1950s which bears testament to the University influence.
“Canterbury played West Coast on the coast on a Sunday and the 15 players who took the field were all from University and another was in the reserves.”
Hays and Bolton reel off a list of names who were part of that dominant University era – Allan Stewart, John Creighton, Alby Orme, Ray Moreton, Brian Weenink, Mick Bremner, Brian Molloy, Lindsay Taiaroa, and Dick Hockley, to name a few.
Hays and Mark Romans were a coaching combination when University was dominant in the early 1980s, Laurie O’Reilly was in charge when the students won in 1987 and Dale Atkins was coach of the last successful senior side in 1990.
During Canterbury’s 1982-1985 Ranfurly Shield era, University supplied as many as nine players to the Canterbury team, among them Warwick Taylor, Andrew McMaster, Simpson, Atkins, John Buchan and Phil Robson, and coach Alex Wyllie did not make any concessions to the ‘scarfies’ when it came to releasing players for club practices. Canterbury and club trainings often overlapped.
“We won the championship two years in a row (1982, 1983) and the average number of players we had at the A team training was 12 because Canterbury were training at the same time as us,” Hays said.
“But we had such a strong group that as coaches we only had to say to them to be at Rugby Park at 2pm – we didn’t have to coach them, really.”
University had been a closed club until the early 1980s and for Simpson to be eligible to play for the students he had to enrol with the university.
“We enrolled him for a unit and he went to a couple of lectures but that was about all he did,” Hays laughed.
The club endured some tough times in the 1990s with a shortage of players and administrators. “Julie Reynolds (a Black Fern from 1992-94 and recent addition to the life members list) and Bolty held the club together for a decade and basically ran the club by themselves,” Hays said.
“We had 15 social teams who played Saturday mornings but more and more guys were unable to commit to seniors. It all changed when you had to pay to stay at the hostel and university fees became more expensive. People had to find part-time jobs and that really hit the club.”
Bolton jokes about the time he told his wife he had bought all the medical equipment for the club which cost ‘three and half grand.’ She said: “I knew when you got involved with a rugby club that you would end up out of pocket.”
There were even talks of mergers, firstly with Albion then with High School Old Boys, but that was tackled head-on by former players who rallied to support the club.
“The Old Maroons, the ex-players who are a strong lifeline of the club, came to the AGM or special general meetings and voted against it,” Hays recalled. Benj Drake and Molloy railed against any such proposal.
After the merger proposal with Old Boys was rejected, some of University’s wise heads – Hays, Bolton, Les Black, Steve Surridge and Mark Meates – designed a strategic plan modelled on that of Sydney University where Surridge had coached. Qualified people were appointed to run the club’s daily operations and finances.
Before finishing our chat, Hays said it would be remiss if mention wasn’t made of the late O’Reilly’s contribution to women’s rugby at club, provincial and national level. “University won countless championship titles and was the strongest women’s club in New Zealand for many years. Laurie rekindled women’s rugby and coached the Black Ferns and that led to myself, Warwick Taylor and Dale Atkins doing the same.’’
The Meates brothers – Robin, Jeremy, Mark and Julian – have also proudly borne the University banner and Hockley was influential in creating the pathway to Japan with rugby players still being exchanged. Brilliant Canterbury wing Demi Sakata was one to make an early impact.
On the coaching front, Sir James Stewart, Molloy and Des Loveridge have done their jobs admirably and the likes of Kevin Jennings, Doug Heffernan, John Edmondson and Les Black are first to return to the club come reunions.
“You can say the club is in a fairly healthy state,” Hays said.
One-test All Black Ranby has joined forces with fellow former All Blacks back Simpson to coach the University senior side next season when it attempts to go one better than its runner-up position in both the Cup and Trophy competitions.
With long-time University mentor and Simpson’s senior co-coach, Derek Todd, bound for Australia, Ranby, who has helped coach the Colts for the last two seasons, has taken over his coaching director’s role and will assist Simpson and a yet-to-be appointed forward coach with the seniors.
“It’s a very exciting time for the club. There were a number of guys in the senior side this year who were eligible to play Colts but had the wherewithal to play seniors. The real challenge for us as coaches, as management, and as a club is to work hard and make sure we are retaining those guys,” Ranby said. “I love being involved in scarfies rugby.”
ONLY ONE name came from many lips when asked who might be the University of Canterbury club legend – ‘Bolty.’
Ivan Bolton, at the age of 81, is still sprightly, alert and actively involved at the heart of all the club’s activities. Before being coaxed to University in 1961 to play and coach by another Varsity legend, the late Dick Hockley, Bolton was an 18-year-old wing for the Technical Old Boys team that won the senior championship in 1949 and he turned 19 when with Canterbury on a four-match North Island tour.
Teaching took him to the East Coast of the North Island where he met wife Lesley, who was the dental officer at Tolaga Bay School. On their return to Christchurch, Bolton bumped into Hockley, who also hailed from the New Brighton suburb, and he was enticed to University where his 50-year association with the club began as player-coach for the senior reserve B team.
When a second University side was added to the senior competition in 1964, Bolton coached that team along with Jim Fitzgerald. He continued coaching various teams until 1969, then stepped into the administration, serving as deputy club captain from 1970-73 and club captain from 1975 to 1984 before being elected president, a position he holds 27 years later.
Since 2005 he has also acted as secretary and is responsible for all of the club’s registrations.
He has managed two senior teams on tours of Japan and a Colts team trip to the United States and Canada.
ALL BLACKS (24)
Frank Brooker 1897
Geoff Alley 1928
Jim Burrows 1928
Claude Williams 1938
Larry Savage 1949
Bob Stuart 1949, ’53-54
Mick Bremner 1956, 60
Brian Molloy 1957
John Creighton 1962
Ray Moreton 1962, ’64-65
Allan Stewart 1963
Howard Joseph 1971
John Black 1976-80
Kieran Keane 1979
Warwick Taylor 1983-88
Victor Simpson 1985
John Buchan 1987
Dallas Seymour 1992
Steve Surridge 1997
Greg Feek 1999, 2001
Mark Robinson 2000, ‘02
Campbell Johnstone 2005
Andy Ellis 2006-11
Kieran Read 2008-11
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.