Gathering our history

I’m Paul Neazor, the Ponsonby Rugby Club historian. I’ve written about scores of club members and their contributions but this is only being written at Peter Thorp’s insistence – and his threat to write it himself - so I’ve given in and will do as he asked.

I’m originally from Wellington, moving to Auckland when I was 23. When I shifted there was only the one club I wanted to play for, despite the fact Ponsonby as a suburb was, at the time, about as far removed from middle-class white suburban Wellington as it was possible to be. My home club, Onslow, had not long been lost in an amalgamation that produced Western Suburbs, an outfit I felt no ties to, and Ponsonby was everything I felt a local footy club should be.

I got the gig as club historian basically because, in the mid-1990s, I asked to do it. It’s like so many things as sports clubs – if someone is willing to take it on and makes a reasonable fist of it, they keep the job as long as they want. My first task was to compile the book launched to coincide with the 125th Jubilee, Passion and Pride. At the time I only had a small reputation in the sports writing world, so the club took a punt. I hope the investment has been repaid, at least in part.

Research was different in the mid-1990s. There was no internet. If you wanted a look into old papers, a trip to Auckland Central Library was necessary. There I sat down with rolls of microfilm, putting each one through the scanner and finding the relevant passages. It was a long, slow process, but over a couple of years I found most of the key bits.

What I already knew, but soon became more aware of, was that the club had a special history, both in terms of its record and also of its people. Aside from the well-known names, there were others that kept cropping up over prolonged periods, and I wanted to know more about them. I didn’t have the time while doing the book, but filed it under ‘Things to do at some stage in the future’.

Something else I noticed, though, was that the Honours Board had errors on it. Given how it was put together, in the mid-1960s so it would be ready for the Centenary, that wasn’t surprising. There was little in the way of reliable information at the time; Men in Black wouldn’t be published for more than a decade, and Arthur Swan, while a diligent historian, was fairly dry. In addition the club lost almost all its records in the hall fires of the 1920s; the oldest surviving minute books start with the rebuilding after the second fire. So those players of 90 and 80 and 70 years ago were near-forgotten men from another world. George Nicholson, whose memory was tapped into on many occasions, was by then very old and that memory sometimes failed him.

Thirty years on, and with a lot of work having been done in the interim by some notable historians, I had a great deal of more reliable material to hand than Jack Bourke and Co did. The errors concerning All Blacks were put right immediately because at the time there was a debate raging over which club had the most and various methods of counting were applied by a variety of people, generally giving highly inflated totals. We got there in the end, coming to an agreement with Otago University – for a long time the record-holder – that both clubs were counting in the same way, and that we agreed with their count and they agreed with ours.

About the time of that 125th Jubilee I really got involved with TV sports, working with Sky on rugby and cricket coverage among other things. I also got more involved in research and writing, particularly on rugby, and penned a few books as well as many articles. One thing that did happen, though, was that I was almost always out of Auckland on weekends (and a lot of weekdays) and my association with the club became limited by necessity. If I was lucky I got to see Ponies play once or twice a season. Time was something I didn’t really have when I was doing long weeks in winter or spending (on several occasions) months at a time on the road, so my list of things to do in future regarding the club remained as long as it ever was.

I left the TV world in mid-2016. It allowed me to get back to club sport, and renew acquaintance with the people at Ponies. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it all until I came back. Time to attack that list – after doing the updated Passion and Pride Continues, which covers 1999 to 2017 and includes that scarcely credible run of 10 Gallaher Shield wins in 11 years.

About the same time Bryan Williams (still not yet Sir Bryan) was making a concerted effort to detail, catalogue and make a digital record of all the club’s memorabilia, and he asked me to get involved. I was more than happy to do so, and this really kindled the desire to make the club website not just the best in Auckland, but better than anything available in New Zealand – or outside, for that matter. We had the history, but needed to gather it all in one place.

Things had changed in the 20 years since I did my original research. As electronic media advanced the website Papers Past developed, which has as its records of dozens of newspapers from throughout New Zealand scans of each page of each edition, dating back to the first and at present ending between 1945 and 1950. It is an invaluable tool, one I use often.

A search engine makes life simple, too. Type in ‘Ponsonby football’ or, later, ‘Ponsonby rugby’, hit ‘Find’ and a few hundred results appear for each year. I read every one that came up, discarded those that didn’t apply to us and kept those that did. If something was missing, like a match report (normally because one of the key words in the search wasn’t found), I could now see that and I had a guide to go to a paper, search the date and locate the piece I wanted. In this way I built a collection of some 8000 links which is now available on our ‘History’ tab. They may mention the club in passing – if it was team lists we’re talking about, possibly not at all since Ponsonby was notorious for not filing on time – but all were part of the fabric of early Auckland rugby, and Ponsonby was at the heart of so much of it that I’ve kept all these items, for continuity and for interest. I doubt there’s a fuller record of early Auckland rugby available anywhere these days.

As a result of all this new technology I’ve been able to dig into the past from the comfort of my own office, and I began building this record about three years ago. All sorts of things fell out of this with the biggest being that half a dozen old Life Members were missing from the Honours Board. How it happened was understandable but it needed putting right and, once raised at the AGM, the records were changed and those old stalwarts given their due acknowledgement.

I was able to construct a fairly full record of games, results, scorers and appearances. So far 639 Senior players have been identified up to the start of World War II and a surprisingly large number, about two-thirds, have first names or, failing that, initials known. I know there are more but running them to earth is increasingly difficult; the World War I and World War II years are particularly hard. Apart from a few wartime matches, results and scores are known for every Senior match the club has played, and in almost all cases scorers are known as well. The appearance record has a few more holes in it, but one advantage of researching Ponsonby is that the club was talked about more than most, and players got more press mentions. It was an invaluable help.

As well as that, the earliest club officials are now known – the Honours Board records start at 1887 instead of 1874 – and I was able, over time, to build a complete list of the club’s first-class players. Here I have to pay tribute to Clive Akers’ remarkable New Zealand Rugby Register, an extraordinary work that lists every first-class player to appear in New Zealand since 1875 and the matches they played. If there was any doubt about Ponsonby players, a quick check in there sorted it out.

Thus our Honours section is, I think, at least as good as any other sporting website in New Zealand. There are 20 sub-headings, ranging from All Blacks and Black Ferns to Auckland B reps in first-class matches and loan players for both men and women, to short pieces on all the Senior championships Ponsonby has won and profiles of all our Life Members. There are links to other sites and profiles of all our internationals, whether New Zealand or Pasifika, available. A couple of former All Blacks who had played a handful of matches for the club, previously unrecorded, came to light, and a small number of first-class players who had been missed off the lists were picked up.

Half a dozen pre-WWII match centurions whose game totals were not known can now be put on the board; more will follow from 1946-99. If leading players don’t have a profile anywhere else on the website, I’ve done an interest piece in the decade they were most involved. I’ve profiled significant figures in club history whose deeds don’t fit into any particular place, but whose contribution was too great to ignore. Stories developed over time, and I’ve been able to pick up a few threads and add a little more to the fabric of our history.

It was a good way to spend my April-May 2020 lockdown, as putting something like this together requires uninterrupted time. Since I’ve exhausted Papers Past for now, the hard work really begins. It means digging in the library, finding whatever treasures might be hidden away at the Auckland Union, keeping eyes and ears open for any little snippets and recording it all. Then there are the photos … thousands and thousands of them. And the digital record of the memorabilia. And scans of Annual Reports and other documents. The list goes on and on and on. By the time we’ve finished, the Ponsonby Rugby Club e-museum will be able to stand with any sporting counterpart in the world. It is a huge job, but immensely satisfying, and once completed the record will be available for ever.

Ponsonby District Rugby Club deserves no less.