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My association with the Northcote Birkenhead Rugby Club doesn't span the 75 years covered by this book, but it was more than half a century ago, 56 years to be precise, that I committed myself to the club. I was a pretty raw 19-year-old, fresh out of the army and boarding opposite Alex McLeod's house in Northcote, when I pulled on the Northcote jersey for the first time. I'd played senior rugby while at college at Kawakawa, so I was whisked straight into the premier side.
Believe it or not, my first few outings were as a flanker. Somehow, I didn't make an impression there and pretty soon I was grinding it out in the front row. And that was where I played most of my rugby for the next 15 seasons or so, although I did represent Auckland on occasions at lock and even No 8.
Those early days at Northcote seem light years away now. Transport to and from the city was by ferry. As an Auckland squad member, I'd travel by bus, ferry and tram three times a week to get from Northcote to Eden Park, returning the same way after training and matches. After I'd bought my first car - a Vauxhall Velox - I used to pick up the players from the ferries, which ran to Northcote, Birkenhead and Bayswater, as well as Devonport, in those days.
We were a close-knit team at Northcote. Virtually every Saturday night there would be a party at someone's house. We'd take a couple of bottles of beer each, someone would play the piano or strum a guitar and we'd all sing along. Once every six weeks or so we'd vary the pattern and have a night out in the city. If you missed the last ferry, there was always the night launch that ran until two in the morning.
Being selected for the All Black tour of the UK, France and California in 1953 was a great thrill, and what an experience. The 36 matches were spread over almost five months; indeed, my son Graham who was born while I was away, was five and half months old when I first saw him!
We were the first All Black team to travel by plane. You can get from Auckland to London in about 26 hours now. It took us five days! The first leg, by flying boat from Auckland to Sydney, took almost seven hours. Then our Super Constellation stopped at Darwin, Djakarta, Singapore, Karachi, Rome and Zurich be fore landing in London.
It was the days of rank amateurism. Some of the guys received generous sums from their clubs, but Northcote was absolutely broke. However, the club held a fundraising night and slipped me £120, which, to me, was a king's ransom at the time. Many of the players were paid while they were away, but not me.
While I treasure my memories of that tour and the lasting friendships I made with people like Bob Scott, Kevin Skinner, Peter Eastgate and Alan Elsom - all of whom are still going strong - the highlight of my career would have to be Auckland's golden Ranfurly Shield era when Fred Allen was coach.
For some reason, Fred Allen used me as the fall guy. He'd pick on me in his team talks and after the games would congratulate most of the players but always miss me out. I finally confronted him. 'I do that to gee the others up,' was his answer.
The fact he selected me for every one of the 25 defences from 1960 to 1963 compensated, I guess, for being his fall guy! We were an amazingly together team and we're all still good mates. Although Northcote was consistently a cellar dweller in my playing days and had to battle through promotion-relegation most seasons, plenty of quality players passed through the club. And we were always tough to beat.
Guys like Ron Lidgard, Bernie Bowerman, Peter Bevin, Colin Currie, Laurie Woodgate and Cyril Rogers were all quality players and, of course, in more recent times the club has been fortunate to have had players like Terry Wright, Richard Kapa, Marc Ellis, Richard Turner, Stu Conn and Ron Williams.
Teams hated playing us away on outside grounds. Eden Park was a different story, however. Our guys seemed to become stage struck there. On one occasion, against Grafton on Eden Park No 3, Graham Stewart hared down the right-wing and put in a massive centring kick that went straight between the uprights. Incredibly, the referee awarded us three points for a dropped goal. Grafton's coach, Tom Pearce, went berserk and understand ably so. It cost his team the top spot in the competition as we hung on for a 6-3 win.
Somehow, I finished up not only captaining the side but taking the line kicks and goal kicks as well. One season I accumulated 93 points. I remember attempting one sideline conversion against Marist. As I walked back into the crowd, one spectator commented, 'No class, just bloody brute strength.' Maybe, but the kick wobbled its way over the crossbar for two valuable points!
For eight or nine seasons, I was, of necessity, Northcote's player-coach. No one else was available, it seemed, so I kept being reappointed. When Ray Wymer came across from Grafton, I made him the captain, which eased the burden a little.
Much of my coaching philosophy was based on the concepts of Evan York, the Auckland B selector, more than Fred Allen. Fred had the cream of Auckland rugby in his shield squad and could afford to be expansive. Northcote's reservoir of talent was a lot thinner.
The members at Northcote can celebrate their 75th jubilee proudly, for the club has become an integral part of Auckland and, more recently, North Harbour rugby. The club has always been blessed with dedicated members. I doubt any club has ever enjoyed a greater response to working bees through the years. And in saying that, I immediately think of individuals like Chum Arblaster and Harvey Wright.
It's been a privilege and a pleasure to be part of the Northcote Birkenhead Rugby Club. I wish them well in the future.