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Ponsonby Rugby Club: Much more than 45 All Blacks

5:49 AM BST

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — Rugby clubs the world over each have their own unique story to tell. One of the great traditions of the game, no matter where you travel, is that there is likely a club nearby ready to throw open its doors to visitors. The cost of entry is that you’re merely prepared to preach the gospel.

And a truer word could not be spoken about New Zealand, where clubs up and down the country have welcomed touring British & Irish Lions fans young and old by the car, bus and campervan load.

But in this small corner of the world, there is one club that stands out from the pack; the club is richer in All Blacks history than any other but it still feels a deep-rooted responsibility to the community and the need to keep alive its traditions, memories and tales – some taller than others.

Ponsonby District Rugby Football Club, with 45 All Blacks, has produced more New Zealand Test players than any other club, though, as club historian Paul Neazor tells ESPN, that is currently a point of conjecture.

“Rieko Ioane, he was our 45th All Black, he broke the tie with Otago University,” Neazor says. “Although both clubs reckon they’ve got the most, of course; nobody’s ever going to hand that crown over willingly.

“But Rieko is a guy who played here as a little bloke: there’s photos of him at eight, nine, 10; he scored tries the same way then that as he does now. When you see him go over the line, more or less in the clear, dive over and put the ball down with his right hand, Rieko was doing that here when he was little fella many years ago.”

The Ioanes connection with Ponsonby has already made global headlines this tour after Lions supporter Alex Edwards arrived to set up camp for the night only to find the lights off and the car park empty. Luckily, club manager Sandra, the Ioane boys’ mother, was on hand to offer Edwards the use of the family couch for the night and in that moment one of the great tour yarns was born.

Sandra is working away in the office when ESPN visits on the Wednesday before the deciding third Test, and there’s plenty to do given the club will host another tribe of Lions supporters on Friday night. Some were here before the first Test drinking well into the night, while others will be sampling the Ponsonby hospitality for the first time. While the drinks will no doubt be flowing, they’ll need to bring their brains, too, with a rugby quiz, which Neazor has organised, on the agenda to test even the most knowledgeable.

Rieko Ioane MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP/Getty Images

After saying hello to Sandra, the tour takes a jump across the corridor to the Committee Room where all the big decisions are made. It also carries some of the club’s most precious memorabilia, not least of which are the war medals of Dave Gallaher — Ponsonby’s first All Black.

The Gallaher Memorial Shield has long been Auckland’s major club trophy, and the esteem in which it is held at Ponsonby is such that it has its own special cabinet at the front of the club’s main room.

“The youngest player in the title-winning team puts it in and then locks the cabinet,” Neazor tells ESPN. “It stays like that until Grand Final day the following year, when we take it out before hopefully putting it back in a few hours later.”

Ponsonby have won 45 Auckland titles in total, with 33 in the Gallaher Shield era (1922-present). There has been a mini title drought by club standards since 2011, but a golden run of 10 titles in 11 years between 2001 and 2011 very much reflects the Gallagher Shield placement process described by Neazor.

Other club greats include George Nicholson aka “Mr Ponsonby”, Bob Scott and Johnny Simpson among others, but it is Bryan “BG” Williams who portrays what Neazor says Ponsonby Rugby Club is really all about.

“Bryan Williams would be the club’s greatest player,” Neazor tells ESPN. “We’ve had some very good ones but Bryan’s success as a player and a coach at international level was massive and probably well-known; what wouldn’t be well known is the 50-plus years he’s given this club in just about every capacity you can think of, much of it unpaid.

“He’s done an enormous amount of work to help through bad times and the club did have some. He’s always been there through the good times. He’s almost a permanent fixture on the sideline and, as an example of his devotion to the club, when he was an international coach one year, the Under-21 B Team needed a coach to help them through some troubled times; they had Bryan Williams, the coach of Manu Samoa, on the sideline for the Ponsonby Under-21 Bs.”

The club’s main room is adorned with rugby memorabilia from across the globe, including a 1905 All Blacks jersey — the first such team to play under that name and now known as “The Originals”.

1905 All Blacks jersey Ponsonby Rugby Club

There are pictures of many of the club’s New Zealand internationals, both men’s and women’s, age grade national representatives and NZ Maori representatives, though Neazer admits a few holes need to be filled.

Holes in terms of photographs required, yes. But space on the walls to hang them, or room in the glass cabinets for trophies, representative caps, medals and jerseys? Not so much. There are more than 850 individual items on show, which Neazor hopes soon to set about digitising.

Arguably most special is Ponsonby’s treatment of those who’ve travelled through its doors. Rugby clubs are always happy to host their own, whether on site or by way of billeting, and with that tokens are usually exchanged as a way of showing gratitude; quite often by way of playing strips. At Ponsonby, these line the ceiling row after row.

On a local level, Ponsonby Rugby Club has been part of the local community for more than 140 years.

“Right from the early days, which was 1874, this club has been a flagship, almost, for the Ponsonby district which for most of its life was a working-class neighbourhood,” Neazor says.

Ponsonby Rugby kids Getty Images

“People lived fairly close to the bone in a lot of cases, especially during the depression for example, but the rugby club meant a lot and it’s always had a big following. It’s very strong and family-oriented, you’ll see family threads running through the club for 50, 60, 70 years and more and that’s really what is has been to the district.

“It’s a community centre and a place that inspires a sense of community.”

Ponsonby’s rich history is detailed in Neazor’s book “Ponsonby Rugby Club, Passion and Pride”. It is full of many great tales and tells the story of some of the club’s most iconic names. Some might be more familiar than others while the younger generation will naturally drift more towards the likes of Carlos Spencer, Patrick Tuipoluto, Portia Woodman and, of course, Rieko and Akira Ioane — whom Neazor said could be found running around with the Under-20s teams at training after completing their Blues commitments at various stages over the past couple of years.

Come Friday night, the club will again throw open its doors to the travelling Lions legion for a night of fun, a few drinks and plenty of third Test talk. We have got a decider, after all.

For those not fortunate enough to be in Auckland this week, however, Ponsonby Rugby Club, after 143 years, won’t be going anywhere soon. It should be on the list of every rugby pilgrim.

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/19835165/forty-five-all-blacks-ponsonby-rugby-club-belongs-community
Ponsonby Rugby Club: Much more than 45 All Blacks
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