PLENTY TO CELEBRATE
THE RIMUTAKA Rugby Club’s 30th birthday cake will taste even sweeter this year.
That’s because it has overcome the odds and will field for the first time in its history a team in Wellington’s premier competition.
After knocking loudly on the door in recent times, ’Taka finally kicked it off its hinges when it beat the Hutt Old Boys-Marist senior reserve side 26-14 to book a spot in the semifinals of last year’s Hardham Cup and thus secure a place in the capital’s box office grade for 2012.
Excitement levels are at an all-time high as the Rams prepare to butt heads with heavyweights like Petone, Poneke, Norths and Marist St Pat’s.
“Making premiers finally gives us a chance to fly our flag at the top level,” says premier team manager Dustin Brattle, who is joined for this interview at the Rimutaka clubhouse by club legend Ainsley Mei, premier coach Ray MacDonald – of Southland and New Zealand Maori fame – life and foundation member Lois MacDonald and assistant club captain George Hinaki. All are proud and loyal Rimutaka people.
“The interest is up and it has created a pre-season buzz,” adds Brattle.
That it certainly has.
Rimutaka’s profile has grown since cracking the big time in Wellington. Players – both existing and potential – now view it as a viable pathway to representative duties and are prepared to commit to the club. Off the field, commercial sponsors have also been keen to jump on board in what is shaping as a season to remember, while old supporters and foundation members have come out of the woodwork, hungry for a slice of the action.
Ascending to the premier division has been a long time coming for Rimutaka, which formed in 1982 after a group of players who were starved of game time broke away from near neighbours and rivals Upper Hutt to form their own rugby entity.
Although it has senior reserve and under 21 teams, ’Taka is known more as a junior rugby stronghold. That division has blossomed in the last four years – it has experienced the largest growth in Wellington. Fourteen teams comprising of rugrats wore the Rams’ emblem on their chest in 2011. All Blacks and Hurricanes wing Cory Jane played his junior stuff at the club before going on to bigger and better things.
With many of those kids coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, the club makes sure they are well looked after and are mentored by senior players. It really is one big family at Rimutaka.
But the hospitality doesn’t just extend to the kids. Everybody is welcome back to the ‘all-purpose’ clubhouse – which doubles as a training facility (the chairs and tables are moved to one side) along with the Mitre 10 Mega carpark when the council has closed the fields in winter!
The clubhouse is warmly referred to as ‘home’ by club members due to its old-fashioned hospitality and whānau values. So much so, in fact, that teams who are plying their trade on the other side of town have been known to rock up wanting a slap-up feed and a chance to mingle – even if they didn’t play a ’Taka side that Saturday!
“When this place is packed and there’s food on the table, you’d think you’re at your grandma’s,” says Ray MacDonald. “Teams know when they come out here they are going to get beaten up on the field, but treated like a king in here. We feed them, give them beers and send them on the bus happy.”
Happy is something Rimutaka hopes it will be feeling come the end of the season. Committed club members are part of the furniture here and along with a smart and forward-thinking committee, are making sure the off-field situation is taken care of in both the short- and long-term future.
Says Brattle: “A lot of the big clubs miss the forest through the trees. One thing this club focuses on are the trees and the small details around them.”
Even though some are predicting it is going to struggle in its debut season competing against the heavyweights of Wellington rugby, MacDonald is determined for ’Taka not to be a one-hit wonder. He is hopeful the Rams can slip through the back fence and raid the paddock when they play Poneke in the Swindale Shield season-opener in front of what is expected to a typically large and fiercely passionate home crowd at their Maoribank Park fortress (Rimutaka did not lose a game there in 2011).
“We’re not keen to make up the numbers,” says MacDonald. “The goal in three years is to be in the Jubilee Cup final.”
The 30th birthday bash will be held on Labour weekend so ex-club members can make the voyage home from overseas. It is shaping as one mighty knees-up.
Here’s hoping that the good ol’ members of Rimutaka, their bellies full of sweet-tasting cake, have positive memories to reflect upon while they soak up the action of the annual end-of-season ‘Ramsfurly Shield’ clash between the president and club captain’s XVs.
Regardless of results, something suggests they will have plenty to celebrate.
TEARS WERE seen rolling down the cheeks of supporters when Rimutaka finally qualified for the 2012 Swindale Shield competition last year.
A 50-metre try by Scott Donald was the match-winning score against the Hutt Old Boys-Marist senior reserve side and sent the vocal and staunchly loyal fans at the club’s Maoribank Park home ground into a frenzy.
“The place was going absolutely ape-shit,” says premier team manager Dustin Brattle. “I had three guys who had followed our season pretty strongly. One of them came up to me and was in tears at the end of it, saying he’d been waiting 29 years to witness this. It was unreal.”
Club members spoken to agree that moment was a symbolic one-fingered salute to all the doubters – of which there have been many during its lifetime – who felt Rimutaka would fall over when it first opened its doors 30 years ago, given it had no facilities or money.
’Taka has proved the haters wrong and, judging by recent achievements, looks set to be around for at least another three decades yet.
Says MacDonald: “We’ll get success on the field; it’s just a matter of time. It has taken 30 years, but now we can only go one way and that is up.”
HE IS RRFC – respect, responsibility, friendship and commitment – personified, is Ainsley Mei.
Mei, who is the son of former New Zealand Maori rep Jimmy Mei, has the orange and black of Rimutaka running through his veins and through thick and thin has been the one constant in its top side, chalking up 260 games in the process.
Be it training the house down or putting his hand in his pocket to help the club out of a financial jam, Mei is cut from an old school cloth and sets the benchmark at Rimutaka as far as club members go.
“The thing I like about the bro is his old school work ethic. He will still fight to get into the team… he’s the first guy to pay his fees, he’s the first guy at training, he does the extras. If you asked Ainsley to run into a brick wall and smash it down so we can all get through, he would do it,” says premier team coach Ray MacDonald.
Premier team manager Dustin Brattle agrees: “This place could be falling down around you and Ainsley will still have his boots on and be out there training. If everyone had his attitude we’d win everything.”
His loyalty has paid off and Mei, who played alongside his father and two brothers at the club a couple of years ago, cannot wait to hook into premier (Swindale) rugby for the first time after many years toiling away in the lower grades.
“I’m looking forward to it and cannot wait to see what all the hype is about.”
No doubt he’ll be leading the Rimutaka charge the only way he knows how: from the front.« 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.