The Wellington Rugby Football Union was established in 1879 and ranks alongside Canterbury as the oldest in the country. Wellington has earned a reputation as the ‘bridesmaids’ of New Zealand rugby. Since the inception of the National Provincial Championship in 1976 Wellington has won four titles but finished runner-up 11 times, including four in a row between 2006 and 2009. The tag has carried over to the Super Rugby competition, in which the Wellington-based Hurricanes have lost five semi-finals and one final since 1996. Long-suffering Wellington fans have also endured many years in Ranfurly Shield wilderness. Wellington has won the shield on 10 separate occasions but always struggled to hold onto it.
The Wellington Lions (as they have been marketed in the professional era) currently play in the ITM Cup, the country’s top-level professional provincial competition.
Wellington won the first-ever Ranfurly Shield challenge in August 1904, defeating Auckland 6–3 at Alexandra Park in Auckland. Among the heavyweights of New Zealand rugby involved in this match were Dave Gallaher and Billy Wallace. William Hardham, from the Petone club, was the only New Zealander to win a Victoria Cross in the South African War (and one of only two first-class rugby players to win the VC, the other being Bush’s Second World War hero Keith Elliott). One of Wellington club rugby’s senior competitions, the Hardham Cup, is named in his honour.
More than 150 players have graduated from the black of their province to the black of their country. Many Wellington players – especially backs – have been amongst the nation’s finest. An early example was the legendary Billy Wallace, who played for the Poneke club and Wellington before becoming one of the stars of the 1905 Originals. He was the first New Zealander to score 500 first-class points, and his 379 points for the All Blacks was not surpassed until the era of Don Clarke, half a century later.
Electrifying left-winger Ron Jarden was an automatic All Black selection between 1951 and 1956. Blessed with extraordinary pace, Jarden was a lethal attacker. On the 1951 tour of Australia he eclipsed Wallace’s individual point-scoring record with six tries and 10 conversions against Central Western Districts. In the All Black side that day was fellow Wellingtonian Graham Mexted, whose son Murray starred at no. 8 for Wellington and then New Zealand between 1975 and 1985. Jarden scored in all three of the 1955 tests against the touring Wallabies and had a successful series against the 1956 Springboks. He then retired, aged only 26, to concentrate on his career in business.
Mick Williment would have played more than nine tests for his country had he not had to compete in the first half of his career against the mighty Don Clarke. A ‘tall and elegant natural athlete’, Williment made his debut for Wellington in 1958 as an 18 year old and soon established himself as one of Wellington’s favourite players.
Outside back Tana Umaga was the first New Zealand Pacific Islander to captain the All Blacks in a test. The All Blacks won 18 of their 21 tests under his captaincy, which in percentage terms placed him ahead of such famous captains as Brian Lochore, Wilson Whineray, Graham Mourie and Sean Fitzpatrick. In 74 tests between 1997 and 2005 he scored 37 tries.
Prop forward Ken Gray would be an automatic selection in any ‘best-ever’ All Black XV. During the 1960s Gray was the cornerstone of one of the great All Black packs, alongside giants such as Meads, Tremain and Lochore. One of more than 30 boys from Wellington College to make the All Blacks, Gray never played for the College’s first XV. He made his first-class debut as a lock before switching to the front row in 1961. Gray captained Wellington to impressive victories over the 1965 Springboks and 1966 British Lions. His main regret was his inability to lead Wellington to the Ranfurly Shield. There were close challenges against Taranaki in 1964 (3–0) and 1965 (11–3). In the 1964 challenge Wellington’s Brian Coulter had the ball grabbed from him by Taranaki’s Neil Wolfe as he dived over the line for what would almost certainly have been the match-winning try. Wellington went even closer in 1967, drawing 12-all with Hawke’s Bay. Gray retired at the end of the 1969 season rather than make himself available for the 1970 tour of apartheid South Africa.
Five-test All Black Graham Williams played 174 times for Wellington between 1964 and 1976, a union record. Wellington fullback (1979–86) Allan Hewson not only scored a record 909 points for his union but cemented a special place in New Zealand rugby history with his last-gasp penalty kick against South Africa in the ‘flour bomb’ third test at Eden Park in 1981. The 25–22 victory gave the All Blacks a 2–1 series win. A picture of Hewson with his arms held high after the kick went over has become one of New Zealand rugby’s most recognisable images.
Between 1896 and 1999 Athletic Park, located on a windswept plateau in the southern suburb of Berhampore, was the home of Wellington rugby. On many occasions the capital’s notorious wind had the final say in the outcome of a match. Two of the most talked-about occasions involved touring French teams. The first of these matches, the so-called ‘cyclone test’ of August 1961, ended in a 5-3 victory for the All Blacks. With the wind behind him Don Clarke aimed his conversion of Kel Tremain’s try from near the sideline almost along the 25-yard line. The wind did the rest, hurling the ball between the posts.
In their next test against the All Blacks at Athletic Park, in 1968, the French once more encountered Wellington on a windy day. Local fans laughed when fullback Pierre Villepreux lined up a 65-m shot at goal. His was the last laugh, as the ball sailed between the posts.
From 1961 until its demolition in 2000, Athletic Park’s open-topped Millard Stand was one of the most prominent landmarks in the city. The seemingly death-defying walk to its upper tier was rewarded by an outstanding view but required fortitude in a gale. Described by French rugby writer Denis Lalanne as ‘a giddy stand’ after the 1961 test match, it was known to creak and sway in the wind or when the crowd was brought to its feet. The Millard Stand had a special place in Wellington and New Zealand rugby. Watching a game from its top deck became a rite of passage for many fans.
On 29 August 1981 the streets surrounding Athletic Park resembled a battlefield as police, protestors and rugby fans scuffled before, during and after the second test against the Springboks. To ensure no last-minute disruptions, the Springboks arrived at Athletic Park the day before the match and slept under the main grandstand. The chairman of the Wellington Rugby Football Union, Graham Atkin, borrowed 23 beds and mattresses from the warehouse of his employer, Feltex NZ, in nearby Newtown. Their plight obviously motivated the tourists, who squared the series with a convincing 24–12 victory.
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