Call to arms

Call to arms

WENDY WHITECHURCH is not willing to stand idly by and watch as her beloved London New Zealand Rugby Club goes to the wall.

Established in 1926, London New Zealand hit hard times in the northern season just completed. It fielded just one side in the London third division – compare that to five teams during its halcyon days of the 1970s – as numbers have dwindled.

Whitechurch, originally from Waikato, has been involved boots ’n’ all, barring the playing side of things, at London New Zealand since 1972, serving over 30 years as the club secretary. She has seen the glory days and the tough times. The 2011-12 season fell very much into the latter category.

“I think it would be a great shame [if the club went under]. The Middlesex County would be very sad if we vanished off the face of the earth. But it isn’t all down to me,” says Whitechurch.

In recent years the likes of Campbell ‘Kitten’ Rowe and Calum MacLean have done sterling work in trying to keep the club afloat. More help is needed as the club faces unique pressures.

“We can’t tell the guys what to do on their OE, but if the boys come over, it gives them something to do on weekends and they meet other Kiwis whom they otherwise wouldn’t meet. It’s another way of keeping guys interested in rugby,” says Whitechurch.

Some rugby-playing New Zealanders head to England with no intention of lacing a boot again. Some have been rep players and have finished their footy and others are young and free. Some just want to travel or have pushy girlfriends who haven’t come north to stand on the sidelines during winter cheering their men.

But the club, though not able to offer salubrious facilities, can offer different attractions.

They get tickets to internationals at Twickenham, they play beach rugby in Italy every July, they put on hangis and hakas for special occasions. Every Anzac Day sees a big turnout of Kiwis for a match and celebrations surrounding this event. London New Zealand plays in a black or dark blue strip with the silver fern. It is another way to identify with their homeland, though the club is quick to stress it is open to all nationalities. However, on any given Saturday, there would normally be at least 10 Kiwis in the starting line-up.

This used to make London New Zealand unique in London rugby circles, but the change in the leagues rules means that clubs can field as many overseas players as they like. London New Zealand on occasion plays against sides with up to 13 New Zealanders in their ranks!
It’s a situation that does Whitechurch’s head in, and she is taking her case to the Middlesex county authorities.

“It just amazes me. When we were down at Wimbledon, we had tons of players, but usually we ran two sides. Now…

“A lot of people have said to me, ‘I haven’t come over here to play for a Kiwi side’, so that’s one that I’ve got used to!”

But those who do play tend to really enjoy the experience, even if the rugby is perhaps well down on the standard they are used to.

“They do love it. We do things together. We go to internationals, we sometimes get asked to do a haka by some TV programme, and we have our own haka, written by one of our Maori boys.”

London New Zealand’s playing base is at Twyford Avenue Sports Ground, in Acton, west London. It is the home of Wasps FC, that is, Wasps Amateurs, who hire the ground and the bar out.

The club was sad to see the demise of the infamous Redback Tavern, a former sponsor, and second home to many an Antipodean partygoer in Acton.

As recently as two years ago, London NZ touted itself as officially the only rugby club in the world outside of New Zealand to have Speight’s on tap! That must have been a strong attraction to many young men seeking a new rugby frontier.

“Socially it’s great, and not only do they meet Kiwis, but they help each other find jobs. Quite often I get an email from some company wanting to know if any of the guys are interested, because they know they are on short-term stays,” says Whitechurch.

A potted history of the club reveals some remarkable details.

Founded in 1926, soon after the 1924-25 ‘Invincibles’ had cut a swathe through Britain, London New Zealand’s first chairman was Colonel Bernard Freyberg, but the club was not always active due to the great depression and the war. By 1962 it was up and running again and has brought up 50 years unbroken.

From 1966 to 1981 London New Zealand was based at Aorangi Park in Wimbledon. The club thrived there on 12 acres of prime land, holding its own with some of the top clubs in the land before the leagues system was instituted in 1988. All Blacks, past and future, turned out in the colours, Doug Rollerson, Terry Morrison and Paul Sapsford among them. Earle Kirton, despite his Harlequins links, was vice-president at one stage, as was Chris Laidlaw.

Through that period, London NZ received good support from the High Commissioner and New Zealand House.

“We had our cocktail party there to start the season. It didn’t cost us a penny. The High Commissioner would give us seven bottles of spirits at a pound a bottle,” recalls Whitechurch.

Now there is little to no interest from New Zealand officialdom in the UK, nor from the NZRU here.

The club’s top side had some impressive ad hoc fixtures, especially in the 1970s, playing French champion Beziers, Taranaki, Wellington, and undertaking memorable trips to the USA (x2), Wales, West Germany and France. Amsterdam was a popular destination, though no longer.

“You can’t take a bunch of Kiwis to Amsterdam and expect them to play seriously,” quips Whitechurch.

The Wimbledon grounds were claimed back by the tennis club, and on the very site that London New Zealand played for 15 years is the annual major tennis tournament that is Wimbledon.

Since 1981, the club has moved around like rugby nomads in the west end, playing and training at various grounds at Osterley, Greenford and now Acton. The current location is handy to the tube station, unlike Twickers itself, it must be said.

The only exiles club now in the top division is London Irish, but in recent years London Welsh and London Scottish have been there. London New Zealand could have been there in the 1970s, had the leagues system been in place then.

The club has benefitted from the likes of former New Zealand Colt Mark Weedon running sessions. Nick Evans is a mate of one of the current players and has pledged to come down and take a training. So there are solid rugby contacts. It’s just a matter of getting more players to commit to registration from the thousands of New Zealand males who base themselves in London. Not easy when many are itinerant, on short-term visas or, in the recent example, came home for the Rugby World Cup and never returned to London.

London New Zealand also flies the flag at special events. In 2007 the club played in Passchendaele to mark the 90th anniversary of ‘Originals’ captain Dave Gallaher’s death.

“The guys had a fantastic time there. There are certain things we have done to promote New Zealand rugby. London New Zealand represents New Zealand in that way,” adds Whitechurch.

So the challenge is for the club to bump up its registered players to the 50-60 required to field two teams. They need that many to cover for those who take the odd weekend off to travel or support the All Blacks. There is also the difficulty of finding coaches who are prepared to do it for nothing, as the club cannot afford to pay anyone. Former Taranaki wing Chris Woods coached the side in 2010-11.

Whitechurch remains determined that 2012-13 will see a brighter day for this unique rugby club.

*For further information, check out Volunteers are most welcome, as well as players of any nationality.

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