Campbell Burnes looks back at the delayed centennial celebrations for Northland and discovers the future looks bright in this proactive union.
Photos: Courtesy of Northland Rugby Union
There’s a lot happening in Northland rugby at the moment.
The Taniwha and Kauri are gearing up for their provincial campaigns, the union staff and high performance unit are about to move into a state of the art facility, there is a Women’s Rugby World Cup coming to town next year and the future looks promising on and off the field, notwithstanding these straitened times for most provincial unions after the Covid-19 hit from 2020.
Who better to shout the news from the rafters than Northland chief executive Cameron Bell? He oversees a steady steam of information out of the north, including his regular State of the Union missive, which puts some larger unions to shame.
The first point of business is last month’s centennial celebrations, delayed by a year due to the pandemic. It was a time of stories and memories, and honouring the legacy of the far-flung Northland rugby community. Yet while it was a time to look back with pride, the union is not about to wallow in nostalgia and stay rooted to the past. Bell and his team are not just sitting on their hands waiting for the Silver Lake money, should it come to pass, to just drop into their laps. They are being proactive, no longer content just to helplessly watch their brightest young talent being picked off by other unions while they plead poverty.
The centennial dinner drew a sellout crowd, while NZR boss Mark Robinson, who has solid Northland connections through his wife, dropped in to hear how things are going. He was told in no uncertain terms that Whangarei wants to host an All Blacks Test sooner, rather than later. If Nelson can do it, why not Semenoff Stadium?
The revamped turf is apparently one of the best in the land, and the three centennial games on June 5 hardly shifted a sod. Whangarei District Council has worked closely with the NRU to deliver this quality.
Sid Going and all the old timers were there. Portia Woodman, whom Bell reckons is the best rugby player in the world, dropped by to celebrate with her famous Northland rugby whanau, Ian Jones ran a panel discussion and inaugurated a cup in his name for games between Northland and North Harbour.
An historical display was well received, as were the flags denoting all 24 of the union centurions from Ted Thompson in 1967 to Ross Wright in 2020. A hard copy book is in the offing, mostly penned by the union’s historian Murray Dunn. Many of the great days were recalled at the dinner.
“Rod Jones, the former Northland centre, is a season member. He was just loving what we’re doing,” says Bell.
“He told me that ‘Bunny’ Tremain was half a metre short in that 1969 Shield defence (in Napier, which the Magpies won 10-8). He’d never seen Joe Morgan remonstrate more vociferously with the ref. It was like the Bob Deans try in 1905. Our game is a game of memories.
“Last season was a good one (making the Championship final), and we’re probably 12 months ahead of my planning, so that’s credit to the rep coaches George (Konia) and Cheryl (Smith). But Rod talked with huge passion about the backline when they won the Ranfurly Shield off Auckland in 1971. Those gene pools are still in our community and I think we’re going to see an exciting Northland backline this year. We want our Northland kids to come home and be part of that legacy.”
Northland fans need no reminding that the year was 1979 the last time the Shield was in the north. Only Manawatu of the top tier unions have known a longer drought. A Championship win, in lieu of a Shield challenge, which may not come, would suffice to add the icing on this birthday cake.
While Bell would love nothing more than to see a fellow Kerikeri man in Tom Robinson become the next All Black from the Cambridge blues, Rene Ranger is highly motivated to become the 25th centurion and have his own flag raised. The 34-year-old centre sits on 98 games.
Bell was keen to push the new facility at Pohe Island, which he believes will be the envy of most other PUs when fully operational next month.
“You can Semenoff Stadium from our new home. It’s probably 800m away,”
The $7m facility, developed in conjunction with the council, will have three playing fields, unisex changing rooms, and four buildings including an office and a gym. The Vikings and Old Boys-Marist clubs, plus the refs association, will be housed in the clubrooms.
Bell feels this will be a game-changer. Northland cannot throw moon money at players to come north, but he wants to see those with roots in the region come back to a union on the rise and that has some of the best beaches, fishing and diving in the country.
“It’s hard to comprehend how good this facility is and will be,” says Bell, who estimates there are some 100 Northland boys dotted around First XVs at other unions.
“We haven’t done the right job in articulating the ‘why’ for Northland.”
Northland is a big union geographically, with some 44 clubs and six sub-unions. Getting them on the same page will take time, but Bell wants to see it happen. Tasman and Bay of Plenty could be the poster-boys for unifying previously disparate provinces. If the Mako can transcend the Nelson Bays-Marlborough divide to rise to the top of New Zealand provincial rugby and the Steamers can unite the west, east and central Bay of Plenty, then Northland and its sub-unions can all be in the same waka.
“There are still pockets where we have work to do. I met the stalwarts from Mangonui and they have felt for years that with the geographic isolation, their players cannot make the Northland team from the area. We have to be realistic, but I’m determined that we will get there,” says Bell.
It helped when Northland took its first ever NPC match outside of Whangarei last year, to Kaikohe’s Lindvart Park. The Taniwha tipped up Premiership outfit Waikato with the sun on their back, capturing the essence of Northland rugby.
The union posted a small surplus at its February AGM, but Bell is proud of the fact that staff and players were back-paid in full last year after taking a 20 percent pay cut.
“Your biggest asset is your people,” he declares.
“The team at NRU team bust their chops on the smell of an oily rag and deliver high calibre events.”
There will be more of those high calibre events in the coming years. And as the northernmost union plots the next 100 years, can you imagine if the All Blacks came to town and upwards of 25,000 packed Semenoff Stadium?
Then those waves of nostalgia for the great 1970s era would really take off again.
Key days in Northland rugby:
1920: Formation of North Auckland union
First match, 11-0 win v South Island Country
1920-21: Charlie Fletcher is first All Black
1922: First inter-union match, 6-8 loss v Auckland
1923: First inter-union win, 20-8 v King Country
1950: First Ranfurly Shield win, 20-9 v South Canterbury
1960: Beats Auckland 17-11 for second Shield win
1971: Beats Auckland 17-12 for third Shield win
1977: Wins NPC second division (North) title
1978: Beats Manawatu 12-10 for fourth Shield win
1988: Beats Wales 27-9
1994: Name changed to Northland
1997: Wins NPC second division title
2011: Two RWC matches held in Whangarei
2021: Delayed centenary celebrations
2022: Women’s Rugby World Cup matches to be held in Whangarei