Wartime rugby conflict on Watts Peninsula: The Air Force Rugby Football Club

25/04/2019

Article by Gordon Noble-Campbell. A book looking at the Ghost Clubs of Wellington is coming out soon.

The 1941 season for the Wellington Rugby Union was full of uncertainty. Not only were the local competitions likely to be centred on players less than 21 years of age owing to the demands of the War, the finances of the Union were in a parlous state, with expenditure 50 per cent higher than income received.

There was also a concern that with so many of the regular players for the Union’s Senior Clubs in the armed services, the viability of Clubs and the integrity of the Union’s competitions could be compromised.

Matters came to a head in September the prior year, when the Miramar Districts Rugby Football Club (formed in 1930), which had won the Senior Second Division competition, believed it was entitled to play a promotion/relegation match against Oriental (the bottom side in the Senior First Division), but was refused by the Union.

The Club wrote to the Union asking that the matter be reconsidered, submitting that “while the senior competitions are being held the usual rules should be carried out … the team which finished lowest in the first division has not been any worse off than this Club.” Specifically Miramar requested “that the challenge be reconsidered and the decision revoked, as the shepherding of any team is not in the best interests of the rugby game”, also citing that “there is no rule that we know of that gives the Management Committee the right either to revoke or suspend rules without calling a special meeting of delegates.” The appeal was referred by the Wellington Union to the New Zealand Rugby Union for consideration in October 1940, but was rejected by that body on the basis that any decision on Wellington competition rules was solely within the Wellington Union’s jurisdiction.

It must have therefore been doubly galling for Frank Histed, the President of the Miramar Club, to have the Club’s appeal refused and then to learn in March 1941 that the Management Committee of the Union had agreed (without consultation of the Union’s delegates), to the admission of Air Force teams (primarily from the nearby Rongotai base in the former Centennial Exhibition Buildings), directly to the Senior Championship competition.

For the official record, the Air Force Rugby Football Club, (the only armed service to do so in World War Two), was formerly affiliated to the Union in 1941, (playing in dark-blue, with narrow bands of maroon and light-blue).

It was subsequently decided that the 1941 rugby football season would be opened by the playing of a match between teams representing the Army and the Air Force. The event, specially arranged for patriotic purposes, took place at Athletic Park, with great expectation placed on the Air Force team given that it was mooted to comprise representative players from Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury.

The reality was somewhat different and unexpected. The Match Report published in the local newspapers screamed “RUGBY DEBACLE”, reporting that over 4,000 spectators were present when Sister Molly Mahoney (the Fighting Services Queen, in whose aid the match was conducted) “kicked off”. The Army Rugby fifteen (from Trentham), roundly defeated the Air Force representatives by 50 points to 3, nine tries to nil. “Despite the keenness of the Air Force players, at the most they were little stronger than an average club side; they could not cope with the Army men.”

From that inauspicious start, things did not improve for the fledgling Air Force Club, with the Senior Second Division side withdrawing from the competition in its first month, while the Senior First Division team failed to win a match in the 1941 season, finishing the Senior Championship in last place.

However, one highlight to emerge from the 1941 season for the Air Force Club, was the selection of Frederick Lancelot Pearson (a pre-War Athletic Club member), to represent Wellington in inter-provincial matches against Manawatu and Canterbury, reported as being “possibly the best inside-back in Wellington”. The Club also fielded a Junior First division team which enjoyed a measure of success.

The following year, 1942, Air Force headquarters advised that there would be 25 players available for a Senior A team, as well as 29 junior players.

Including the other services, some of whom (such as the Trentham Army) played under the banner of local Clubs, eight teams from the armed services entered the various 1942 Wellington Rugby Union competitions.

Mid-season, it was decided to divide the Senior Championship into two divisions, competing for the Jubilee and Hardham Cups respectively. Based on its prior season’s results, the Air Force Club fell into the Second Division (Hardham Cup) group with seven other teams, three from the armed services.

To the surprise of many, in a complete reversal of the 1941 season, the Club went through the competition undefeated and won the Cup, (which was first instituted for competition between the bottom-six Senior Championship teams in 1939).

At the conclusion of the season, the Air Force played Petone (who were the winners of the Jubilee Cup). Petone won a closely contested match by 12 points in 8, played in bad weather at Athletic Park. The Air Force Club was on the ascent.

Another highlight for the Club in 1942 was the selection of Stephen Wood Clarke, who represented the Wellington province at Full-Back, in the match against the New Zealand Tank Brigade, which was won by Wellington, 16-15.

Three Air Force teams entered competitions in 1943, with both senior sides playing in the Hardham Cup competition, however perhaps owing to the talents of the Club being spread over two teams, Air Force were unable to defend their title.

1944 followed a similar pattern of results for the Club’s two senior sides, however the final of the Junior Championship was played between the Air Force and Onslow and won by the Air Force, the second title won by the Club in two years. Also of note for the Club in 1944, on Kings Birthday, Raynor Thomas Neal from the Club was selected in a Combined Services team, which was beaten by Wellington by 15 to 21.

The end of the War in 1945, effectively fore-shadowed the end of the Air Force Club, however a team was entered into the Junior Championship that year, with the team becoming Runners-Up to Seatoun Club in the Griffiths Memorial Cup “for good conduct and neatness of appearance on the field of play for teams in competitions of the Wellington Rugby Union”.

In October 1945, Fred Pearson (now based in Waikato) was named Captain of the North Island Services XV and then selected in the Combined Services side which played the All Blacks, on the Right Wing. In 1946, the Club no longer fielded any team in the Wellington competition.

By way of post-script to this story, in 1958, Squadron Leader Frederick Lancelot Pearson was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire for his work with the Royal New Zealand Air Force Reserve.

As for the Miramar Club, with whom this chapter started, it continued until 1950 when it merged with the Seatoun and Rongotai College Old Boys Clubs to become Eastern Suburbs. In a rather ironic twist of fate, in 1968 the former Miramar Club finally achieved its goal of reaching the Senior Championship, when all the former Watts Peninsula Clubs merged to form Oriental-Rongotai Rugby Football Club.

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