Club

Manukau Rugby Club

Thu 7 Oct 2010

BUILDING FROM THE BASE UP

LET'S BE clear on one thing – Manukau Rugby Club is very much part of Auckland.

It should not be, as it often seems to be, confused with the Counties Manukau union to the south.

In one sense, the Manukau club is a misnomer, as it is situated in the heart of Mangere. But it has been on the scene since the 1880s in one form or another until officially established in its current guise in 1925. The club still keeps the Rovers moniker, a throwback perhaps to its league days.

Since 1972 the club has been proudly based at Williams Park. You’ll see it heading south to the airport on the right side of the motorway; three fields and the clubhouse overlooking the well-drained No 1 ground.

Two of the Thomas family are holding court as we sup beers upstairs in the spacious clubhouse. President Gregory Thomas is the head honcho and one with a clear view of Manukau’s rich past and hopes for the future. But the ‘main man’ is his father, club legend Barry ‘Bear’ Thomas, former All Black, capped 86 times for Auckland, Gallaher Shield winner with Manukau, the list goes on.

One gets an evocative view of Manukau’s long history with a visit to ‘The Dungeon’, deep within the bowels of the clubrooms. There you will find the memorabilia, the photos and something of the spirit of Manukau rugby embedded into the four walls, or at least hanging off them.

“If you look in ‘The Dungeon’, you will see what I feel,” says Barry Thomas.

“You talk to a lot of other rugby people and they know about ‘The Dungeon’. It was a huge success.”

They used to hold the after-matches there with free food and booze laid on. That small room could tell a story or three. Now it is used sparingly, mostly by the old boys. But there is still a bar and it would not take much for it to come alive.

But the future is now. And Gregory Thomas and his committee are working hard to translate healthy junior numbers into healthy and successful senior teams.

“There’s a huge talent pool here. It’s a challenge for us as a club to be a real legitimate option. We live in a Polynesian-dominated community so why can’t we be the first option for people in our sport?”

Manukau would love to get its hands on second-year New Zealand Secondary Schools prop Ofa Tuugafasi, who plays for Mangere College’s First XV, which is not even in the 1A grade.

The club has proven it can be a viable pathway to rep honours. Frank Bunce may not be an All Black out of Manukau, but he is a Manukau man through and through. Promising New Zealand Under 20 and Auckland lock Liaki Moli plays his club rugby out of here.

“He went to St Paul’s College, but in the last two years he’s shown himself to be a loyal club man. At the (recent) prizegiving, he presented a jersey from the Junior World Championship and was very complimentary about the club and how it had supported him. That was heartening to hear,” says Thomas jnr.

The club is proactive in getting out there and spreading the word through a fulltime rugby development officer who works the schools in the catchment area, including Onehunga, where the club used to be based. Families are a byword for Manukau, hence the good numbers and atmosphere on Saturdays. Hence the some 400 juniors who call Manukau home. Touch is offered during summer.

“They are growing. The frustration is that once they get older into teenage years, they drift off from the game. There are a huge number of those registered to the Auckland union that come from the so-called Mangere area. The challenge is to capture them into the Manukau club,” says Thomas.

Those juniors would do well to take time to soak up the impressive honours board or check out the marvellous montage from the 1968 Gallaher Shield decider, when Manukau beat Ponsonby 20-16 and wrote its name into Auckland premier rugby lore. Those same youngsters should pause when they pass the photo of CJ ‘Mick’ Williams, after whom the park is named. For without him, there would likely be no Manukau Rugby Club in 2010. His drive and passion for the place saw it through the turbulent early years from 1925. It earned him an OBE, the presidency of the union and the everlasting gratitude of all those passionate about rugby in the area. Fate dealt him a cruel blow when he died only months before the 1968 Gallaher Shield triumph.

Many others have helped forge the Manukau legacy, and while it has been many years since the premiers were an Auckland rugby powerhouse, men like Gregory Thomas and his 1980s teammate Jonathan Tukerangi are working hard to advance the cause.

Gregory, whose four brothers played at the club, including his twin Michael, knows that results can be swiftly turned around. He discovered this first hand when the 1980 Manukau Under 21s won the championship, the season after finishing dead last with no wins. That side formed the basis of a very good premier side through the 1980s.

He says the people have kept him involved so strongly in the club he loves.
“The people that I’m involved with here are friends for life.”

GREATEST MOMENT

There is little hesitation in Barry Thomas’ voice when he nominates the greatest moment in a club he has known for well over 50 years.

1968 was the breakthrough year under the coaching of Alby Pryor and with fine players such as Mac Herewini, Roger Whatman, Steve Compton, Teroi Tataurangi (father of golfer Phil), and Ron Webb.

“We went and saw Alby and talked him into coming across. He came and said ‘I’ll get you the Gallaher Shield in three years.’ He was wrong. It took four. But he attracted some very good players to the club,” says Thomas senior.

Manukau had gone close in 1928 and 1941, but before a crowd of 18,000 (!) at Eden Park, the victory over Ponies sparked celebrations that felt like they lasted a week. The reception he and Pryor (the last ones back to the clubrooms) received is still vivid to this Manukau warrior.

In just its second season at Williams Park (opened in 1972 to great fanfare), Manukau again won the Gallaher, this time under the coaching of Wally Rawiri and player-coach Mac Herewini. The good people of Manukau rugby are still waiting for their third.

CLUB LEGEND
BARRY THOMAS

What a way to sign off on your playing days.

Barry ‘The Bear’ Thomas’ last game for Manukau in 1968 saw it topple the mighty Ponies and earn a first Gallaher Shield. There is a wonderful montage of that day at the club (left), and Thomas in one photo is flanked by one of his young boys, Kevin.

‘Bear’ was everything to Manukau, not just through the golden era of the 1950s and ’60s, but also ever since in a variety of roles. He was even senior coach, for just one season, in 1970. But he pulled the pin after coming so close to another Shield.

Thomas jokes that he “excommunicated” a couple of his boys who left Manukau for other clubs. In that sense, the Thomas family is to Manukau what the Williams clan is to Ponsonby.

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