Rich first four decades for Avalon rugby

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This weekend marks four decades of Avalon rugby, when Avalon celebrates its Old Timers Day with a farewell to their current clubrooms on 6th April, before moving on to the newly minted Fraser Park Sportsville clubrooms.

Since the Premier side ran out for its first ever match in Avalon club colours in March 1980, a 0-7 defeat to Poneke, there have been many ups and downs for Avalon. Through it all, a strong band of players, supporters and administrators have stayed loyal and many stories will be told.

From the highs of winning the Swindale Shield three times, to the heartbreak of almost winning the Jubilee Cup but falling short more than once, to the lows of relegation, Avalon has plenty to reflect on over 40 years.

Avalon was formed in 1979 as a merger between neighbouring clubs Naenae Old Boys and Taita. How and why did this happen?

“Naenae and Taita were playing each other in the last game of the season in the 1979 Hardham Cup and the result was an uninspiring 0-0 draw and from it Taita got relegated to the second division,” says Avalon Life Member and former Naenae club member Gary Gosper.

“The two clubs had talked of a merger several times previously, but no one had taken it seriously. At the after match that day, Taita Chairman Bill Tregaskis came out and suggested it again, “ continued Gosper.

“Following Bill’s words, I soon returned to the Naenae clubrooms, and later when other guys came back, they were saying that Taita wants to amalgamate. From there it gained momentum and both committees met several times. It went to a vote to both clubs and it was passed.”

Gosper says it wasn’t unanimous, but the consensus was that unless this didn’t happen there would be two struggling clubs continuing to represent the same broad area of the Hutt Valley and fighting for the same pool of players and resources. “Many of the guys came from Taita and Naenae Colleges and we all knew each other anyway, so it was a natural thing to merge once the decision was made.”

The new Avalon Rugby Football Club was formed from the two, using Taita’s home ground at Fraser Park (Naenae were previously at Naenae Park), adopting elements of the Cambridge blue, black and gold colours of Naenae and the maroon and white of Taita.

The merger paid off in just the second year in 1981, while Petone were beating MSP in the famous water polo Jubilee Cup final, fledgling Avalon defeated Titahi Bay 16-0 to claim the Hardham Cup for the first time. They also won the Hardham Cup in 1984 and 1988.

It would be several seasons before the club grew to be a force in the Jubilee Cup, as Petone, Marist St Pats and the Wellington Axemen were to dominate the top end throughout much of the 1980s.

There were a few famous wins along the way though, such as beating MSP on Anzac Day in one of the early years. “We knocked them over that day and that was one of the turning points and we started taking ourselves seriously after that.”

Of note, the same thing happened in the 2005 Jubilee Cup round when Avalon found themselves 3-19 down to MSP, but instead of folding, launched a classic comeback and wing Noel Woods scored with time almost up to beat them 28-26. Then just last year, Avalon scored a famous 27-17 win over MSP.

By the end of the 1980s, it wasn’t just Petone up there amongst the Hutt Valley clubs. Hutt Old Boys Marist, Upper Hutt and of course Avalon all rose to prominence, challenging the town clubs for supremacy. The Swindale Shield would be shared around the Hutt Valley for five consecutive seasons between 1989-1993.

There were several big battles between the clubs, such as a 15-15 draw between Avalon and Upper Hutt, at a packed Maidstone Park in 1990 at the business end of the Swindale Shield (won by Upper Hutt).

Avalon themselves won the Swindale in 1991, 1993 and 2001. They could have and perhaps should have won the Jubilee Cup in 1991, 1993, 1995, 2003 and 2004.

In 1995, they lost 17-19 to MSP in the semi-final, in 2003 they lost again to MSP in the semi-final 17-27 after leading, and in 2004 they missed out to Poneke 7-16 at home at Fraser Park.

Perhaps the closest they have come to winning the Jubilee Cup was in 1990, in the decider against Petone. The final was locked up at 3-3 midway through the second half, before Petone snatched the decider with late tries to hooker Tim Mannix and halfback Tui Bradbrook.

Avalon also won the Swindale Shield again in 2001. Neck and neck with MSP, this triumph was made harder than it could have been in the latter rounds of the competition, by losing to Johnsonville 20-21 after a late 45-metre Corey Burt penalty sailed through the uprights for the Hawks. MSP then lost to Petone by a point in the last round, handing Avalon the title.

That 2001 side featured one of the club’s most famous players, Scott Waldrom, who is still playing this season along with his younger brother Thomas who followed him into the team a couple of years later. Waldrom was a tearaway openside flanker who won the Billy Wallace Best & Fairest competition in 2000 and 2001. Waldrom wasn’t the first player from the area to win the Best & Fairest competition since its inception in 1966. Naenae Old Boys wing Paul Tainui became the first outside back to win in 1971, and the first from a Hardham Cup team. Brothers Paul and Hone Tainui were leading Naenae players throughout the 1970s.

There have been plenty of other players to have played for Avalon down the years. Lock Chris Tregaskis played over 150 games and was the club’s first All Black. Lock/flanker Jason Goble is the club’s most capped player with over 275 Premier appearances.

Craig Laursen was Avalon’s dead-eye goal-kicker in the early 1990s. In 1993, Laursen passed 250 points for the season, surpassing Petone’s Allan Hewson’s then record of 238. Other goal-kickers followed in Laursen’s boots, such as Mano Flutey, Darren Kapene and Cameron Cross. Other noted players included props Huia Gordan and Errol Weston and hookers Tala Leiasamaivao and Mo Scwalger, while sevens international Dallas Seymour also played for the club.

Then, as now, there was a strong family connection with the club. The Premier team has always had several sets of brothers playing together.

The club’s bond extends to other teams who have had success through the years. The women’s side has been traditionally strong and won titles as well. The club has two current international players, Asafo Aumua and Kat Whata-Simpkins who is Wellington’s only contracted Black Ferns Sevens player.