WORKING ITS WAY BACK
THE NGARUAWAHIA Rugby Club is currently going through a rebuilding stage.
It’s not the first time this Waikato rugby joint – which was once the most respected and feared dog prowling the region – has had to undertake such a process. Rural clubs, as anyone associated with rugby out in the wopwops will tell you, always experience ups and downs during their lifetime. It’s part and parcel of the landscape they do business in.
After a golden period in 2008 when it fielded a senior, under 85kg and eight junior boys’ teams, the playing resource cupboard at Ngaruawahia is nearly bare. Last year, the club had no senior side for the first time. In fact, only two junior teams – an under six and under seven side – sported its colours on the paddock during the winter.
However, club president Alex Henry, who has been steering the ship since 2002, is confident there will be a senior team on the park this year.
“I’m calling guys together to have a talk to them,” he says.
If anyone can get Ngaruawahia off the ropes and back into tip-top fighting shape, it’s Henry. After all, he faced a similar situation in his first year in the job. Back then, Ngaruawahia was in a financial pickle and could barely field a single team. Going under was a real possibility.
Fortunately, things are not so bad this year. With great support from the community and money in the bank, Henry is positive about the club moving forward and determined not to see it fall over.
“Overall, the club and community are doing well, so we’re pretty happy,” he says.
“Rugby won’t die in Ngaruawahia as long as someone who has got a rugby heart keeps it going.”
Ngaruawahia’s own heart has been beating like the rhythm of a drum at its Paterson Park base since 1952.
While it is currently going through a lean patch, it has also experienced its share of good times. None more so than in 1985-86, when it was the best team in the Waikato region and the Breweries Shield took pride of place in the trophy cabinet at the clubhouse. The games of housie it ran on the side ensured there was also plenty of dosh in the cash register back then.
Those ‘good ol’ days’ may be confined to the museum now, but the club’s cultural fabric remains the same.
“It’s a real family club. You can really enjoy yourself and bring your children here,” says Henry.
As well as being family-orientated, Ngaruawahia enjoys a good relationship with the local community. There is no bad blood between it and the town’s two thriving rugby league clubs, with whom it competes with for players. In fact, when Rugby News visited the club, it was hosting a league tournament!
It also maintains a close bond to the Maori King movement, which has historical ties to the area dating back to the New Zealand Land Wars. The club has hosted the Maori King and Queen on occasion.
Ngaruawahia also hosts the annual Tainui rugby tournament which is contested between the tribes which comprise that iwi.
It also takes part in a tournament of its own at the end of the regular season against Huntly, Te Akau and arch-rivals Taupiri. Matches against the latter are usually humdingers and have an added bite to them.
“It’s always a good clash and they’re pretty full-on,” says Henry. “Guys put their hearts on the line and tend to damage themselves in the process.”
Plans are underway to have a reunion for the 1985 championship-winning team to coincide with Ngaruawahia’s 60th birthday bash. It aspires to replicate the achievement of that side as it takes another step into the future.
“Our goal is to try and get up to that premiership again. It may take a bit of time, but I’m hopeful we’ll get there,” says Henry.
NGARUAWAHIA SAT atop of the Waikato club rugby mountain when it won the Breweries Shield in 1985 and 1986 under the tutelage of charismatic coach Doug Forsyth.
To understand why club members speak so highly of this achievement you have to wind the clock back to 1981. Back then, as life member and ex-club president John Edmonds recalls, Ngaruawahia was at the bottom of the third division and facing the possibility of being relegated to the senior reserve grade.
“In those days, we were known as a party club. If you ever wanted a piss-up, this was the place to come.
“But that (being relegated) gave us a bit of a fright for the club’s future, given just how vulnerable we were,” says Edmonds, adding that it was the catalyst behind a series of changes that were to reap the sweetest of rewards.
Edmonds, who had been coaching the senior team, became club president and there was also an injection of fresh, young blood on the committee. The big coup, however, was persuading Forsyth and Waikato and New Zealand Maori loose forward Miah Melsom to link up with the club.
Under Forsyth, who had guided heavyweights Fraser Tech to successive top-flight club titles in 1975-76, Ngaruawahia became a force to be reckoned with.
The third and second division titles were won in quick succession. Its first game in the top-flight, against, you guessed it, defending champions Fraser Tech, was also won in commanding fashion as Forsyth’s men went on to lift their first-ever Breweries Shield.
Ngaruawahia would repeat the dosage in 1986 and finished as runner-up in 1987.
“It was great for the club and also the town. The achievement was huge,” says current club president Alex Henry.
“HE WAS a god in this place.”
With those few words, life member and ex-club president John Edmonds sums up just how valuable Miah Melsom was to Ngaruawahia during his time at the club.
It was Edmonds who managed to persuade the tough-as-teak New Zealand Maori and Waikato loose forward to ply his grassroots trade with them after agreeing to lend him money so he could refurbish his kitchen.
“He said, ‘Mate, if you give me a $10,000 loan and agree to pay the interest, you’ve got yourself a deal,” recalls Edmonds.
And Melsom, who played 110 games for the Mooloos between 1977 and 1984 and represented the New Zealand Maori between 1978 and 1982, proved to be a good club man.
Not only was he one of the stars of the 1985-86 Breweries Shield-winning side due to his uncompromising play at either the boot or on the short side of the scrum, but he also spent time passing on his valuable pearls of wisdom to the club’s younger players during his time as a coach.
Melsom currently resides in Australia’s Northern Territory, where he works as a builder.« 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.