The Poverty Bay Rugby Football Union was formed in 1890. Like its neighbours East Coast and Bay of Plenty, Poverty Bay has made a significant contribution to Maori rugby.
Poverty Bay has enjoyed some success in the lower levels of New Zealand’s provincial rugby championships, winning third division titles in 1987 and 2004. Following a revamp of New Zealand’s domestic competition in 2005 Poverty Bay was placed in the Heartland Championship, a competition for amateur and semi-professional provincial unions. Poverty Bay won the Lochore Cup, one of two trophies awarded in the Heartland Championship, in three successive years from 2006. Along with Wellington, Taranaki, Wairarapa Bush, Wanganui, East Coast, Hawke’s Bay, Manawatu and Horowhenua-Kapiti, Poverty Bay is part of the Hurricanes Super 14 franchise.
Poverty Bay has challenged – unsuccessfully – 16 times for the Ranfurly Shield. In recent times there have been a couple of 100-plus hidings at the hands of Auckland. Yet it was against Auckland in 1980 that Poverty Bay came closest to shield glory. Led by veteran front-rowers Wilton McFarlane and Robbie Newlands (Poverty Bay’s record-holder for most appearances), the Bay forwards took it to their big city opponents. A John Whittle penalty saw the Bay close to 12–15 with 20 minutes left. Poverty Bay fans and players alike wondered whether an upset of Marlborough proportions (in 1973 Marlborough caused one of the great Ranfurly Shield shocks by defeating Canterbury) was about to occur. It was not to be. A try to Tim Twigden following some impressive play by Auckland and New Zealand great Bryan Williams earned Auckland a 19–12 victory. Given the difficulty small unions such as Poverty Bay have in retaining their players in the professional era, this will probably remain Poverty Bay’s closest brush with the Log of Wood.
Six Poverty Bay players have pulled on the black jersey of New Zealand while playing for the Bay. Richard (‘Tiny’) White was one of the greatest All Black forwards of the 1950s and one of New Zealand’s greatest-ever locks. He was a standout in the 1956 series against the Springboks, scoring tries in the first and third tests. It is a measure of how much test schedules have changed in recent times that over eight seasons White played in only 23 tests despite being one of the first names pencilled in on the team sheet. This was still enough for him to set a record for the most test caps at that point. A modern-day All Black could expect to eclipse this record in two seasons.
One of the All Black stars for a decade from 1967 was flanker Ian Kirkpatrick. Born in Gisborne, he made his debut for Poverty Bay as a 20 year old in 1966 and later that year played for a combined Poverty Bay–East Coast side against the touring British Lions. Kirkpatrick then moved to Canterbury, from where he was first selected for the All Blacks in 1967. He made his mark on the international game in the first test against Australia in 1968. Kirkpatrick was a reserve for this match, the International Rugby Board having recently changed the rules to allow injured players to be replaced. Brian Lochore broke a thumb and Kirkpatrick came off the bench to score three tries. Kirkpatrick played 113 times for New Zealand including 39 tests, in which he was captain nine times.
In 1999 Ron Tamatea and his son Kahu created history when they became the first father–son combination to play together in an NPC game when Poverty Bay took on East Coast in Gisborne. In 2010 Ron, at the tender age of 49 was still playing club rugby for Young Maori Party along with three of his sons.
Lawrie Knight certainly had All Black pedigree when he made his All Black debut in 1974. His father, Laurie Knight, and uncle, Arthur ‘Bubs’ Knight, were stalwarts for Auckland and represented New Zealand in the 1920s. The younger Knight was a versatile forward, equally adept at lock, blindside flanker and no. 8. After playing for Auckland’s Ranfurly Shield-winning side in 1974 Knight moved to Gisborne to further his medical career. It was as a Poverty Bay rep that ‘Spock’ Knight made most of his 35 appearances for the All Blacks. In those days teams did not travel with full-time doctors as they do today, and Knight was often called upon as the team’s unofficial medical man. His greatest moment for the men in black came in the fourth test against the Lions in 1977. The All Blacks clinched the series 3–1 with a nail-biting 10–9 victory at Eden Park. The win came after Knight chased a kick ahead by Bill Osborne to recover a spilled pass and score his only try in six tests.
Brian Fitzpatrick, a product of Gisborne Boys' High School, played 22 times for his country but is perhaps best remembered as the father of New Zealand’s most capped player and captain, Sean Fitzpatrick. John Collins, from the Gisborne Marist club, was a talented second five-eighth who played for both the All Blacks and New Zealand Maori in the mid-1960s. The last of Poverty Bay’s All Blacks was Mike Parkinson, yet another product of Gisborne Boys’ High. A powerfully built midfield back, Parkinson was noted for his aggressive defence and played 20 games for his country in 1972–73.
As is typical of New Zealand’s smaller rural provinces, many talented players have left the region in search of work, and in the professional era to find opportunities to make a living from the sport. Notable recent examples include the brothers Rico and Hosea Gear, who continued Gisborne Boys' High School’s tradition of producing All Blacks in the 2000s.
Robbie Newlands clocked up a record 131 games for Poverty Bay between 1972 and 1985. Scott Leighton with 587 points is the Bay's record points scorer.
While rugby in Poverty Bay has generally slipped below the national radar, all eyes were firmly on Gisborne’s Rugby Park in the winter of 1981. Poverty Bay were the Springboks’ opponents in the opening game of their highly controversial tour. Tour supporters and anti-tour protestors confronted each other face to face for the first time. On the field the visitors won 24–6, but as was to be the case for the entire tour the real action was taking place on the streets surrounding the venue.
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