Rugby teams from Whanganui have had success at the lower levels of New Zealand rugby, winning third division titles in 1989, 1996 and 2003, and the Meads Cup (equivalent to the old second division championship) in 2008 and 2009. A 15-all draw against the powerful Taranaki side of 1964 remains the closest the men from the River City have ever come to winning the Ranfurly Shield.
The Wanganui Rugby Football Union was established in 1888 and in its debut season drew 1–1 with the touring British team. The boys in blue and black went one better in 1913 with an 11–6 victory over Australia and in 1966 combined with neighbours King Country to topple the British Lions 12–6 at Whanganui. Wanganui currently competes in the Heartland Championship, a competition for New Zealand’s amateur and semi-professional provincial unions. Wanganui is part of the Hurricanes Super Rugby franchise.
In 1897 John Blair became the first of 17 Whanganui players to pull on an All Blacks jersey. Until the emergence of Bill Osborne in 1975, Ernest (‘Moke’) Belliss was without doubt Whanganui’s greatest contribution to New Zealand rugby. Belliss made his representative debut for Wanganui in 1914 before enlisting to serve during the First World War. He first came to national attention as a member of the New Zealand Army team which won the King’s Cup tournament in Britain and then toured South Africa. Belliss played in the three home tests against the 1921 Springboks and captained the All Blacks in Australia the following year. A ‘devastating loose forward with explosive power’, Belliss has been compared to later players such as Waka Nathan and Wayne (‘Buck’) Shelford. Commentator Winston McCarthy remembered him as ‘hard, tough, fast, a good handler and a ferocious tackler’ – the embodiment of New Zealand’s rugby ideals. His opponents feared him and he was ‘a grand team man’; players of his era ranked him with the world’s best. His son Jack captained Wanganui until the early 1950s and his grandson Peter was a flanker or lock for the side in the 1970s before turning his attention to bowls, a sport in which he won two world titles.
Born and bred in Whanganui, midfield back Bill Osborne graduated from the Wanganui High School first XV straight into the Kaierau senior side (the same club as Whanganui’s first All Black, John Blair). In 1973 he made his debut for Whanganui four days after his 18th birthday. Selection for the New Zealand Colts followed in 1974 and he made the All Blacks for the waterlogged test against Scotland at Eden Park in 1975. He played in 14 of the 24 matches on the 1976 tour of South Africa (including two tests as a replacement). In 1978 Osborne lost his spot for the home series against Australia to Bay of Plenty’s Mark Taylor. He won his place back for the end-of-year tour of the British Isles and played in all four internationals as the All Blacks completed their first-ever Grand Slam against the home unions. Osborne and Bruce Robertson of Counties formed one of the great midfield combinations of any All Black era.
In all Osborne played 48 times for New Zealand, including 16 tests. Having ‘retired’ in 1981, he made a comeback the following season, playing in two of the three tests against Australia before once more announcing his retirement. Again he had a change of heart and – by now representing Waikato – he was selected for the All Black side to tour South Africa in 1985. This tour was cancelled as a result of court action taken against the New Zealand Rugby Union. A replacement tour of Argentina was arranged but Osborne withdrew from the side. In 1986 he joined all but two of the 1985 selections on the unsanctioned Cavaliers tour of South Africa.
While they might not have reached the heights of Belliss and Osborne, Trevor Olney and Bob Barrell are typical of the unsung heroes of many of New Zealand’s provincial unions. Between 1973 and 1990 Olney played a record 146 times for Wanganui. These were amateur days in which a player had to fit training and matches around a full-time job, so his commitment over 18 seasons was truly remarkable. Barrell scored a record 980 points for the union between 1963 and 1977.
In consecutive seasons in the early 1960s Wanganui came agonisingly close to ending its Ranfurly Shield duck. In 1963 Taranaki ended Wellington’s week-long tenure with a comfortable 17–3 win at Athletic Park before beginning a sequence of 16 shield defences that stretched through to the last game of 1965. This was Taranaki’s greatest tenure, but it was almost over before it began.
Taranaki’s first challenge came from unfancied Wanganui, who had lost to Auckland 41–18 earlier in the season. Colin Pierce had kicked Wanganui to a 12–11 lead and with time almost up Taranaki captain Ross Brown missed the chance to win the match with a late drop-kick. Whanganui fans inched closer to the touchline, ready to run on to the field to celebrate a famous victory. Pierce had forced Brown’s kick for a restart from the 25. Perhaps caught up in the emotion of the moment, rather than use up some precious time he rushed to the 25 and aimed a drop-kick towards the touchline.
What happened next is still debated. The ball disappeared into the crowd of Whanganui fans on the touchline. But had it gone out on the full? Referee John Pring eventually ruled that it had and awarded Taranaki a scrum on Wanganui’s 25-yard line. When Kerry Hurley scored in the corner despite the intended move going wrong, Taranaki had won 14–12.
Further heartbreak followed the next year when Colin Pierce missed the conversion from the sideline of his own last-minute try. A 15-all draw left Wanganui empty-handed once again.
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