In good times and bad the Ponsonby Rugby Club has always had a huge amount of pride in themselves, their players and their results. That pride has been instilled into every one of the thousands of members the club has had in 125 years.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that visitors to the old Blake Street clubrooms would look at the training shed and shake their heads in disbelief? Where, they asked, were the facilities? Where were the large grandstands around the well-appointed match ground? Do you seriously mean to tell us that the famous Ponsonby has only this shed with its sawdust floor and that small training field?
True enough, the club didn't have its own park. The reason for that lies a hundred years in the past, but basically a match ground was never needed. For most of its history, people have made cracks about Eden Park being the club's home patch, so often did they play there. Of course, that only happened because the team was strong enough to demand showpiece matches.
Trying to pick the strongest team ever fielded by the club, or trying to pick the finest player the club ever had, is an interesting but impossible task. How can anyone pick the finest from a field of 30 or more in each case with absolute certainty? Different times, different conditions, but one can be sure the outstanding performers and teams would have been just as good in any era.
How could the best side be picked, for example, when the candidates include teams from every era? Would it be the teams from the 1880s, who won championships with ridiculous ease and plenty of matches by default? The team of the 1980s, already mentioned, with their record winning streak and margins of 70-plus? The teams of the mid-1920s, unbeaten for three years? The 1948 side, containing five members of the legendary Kiwi army team, who racked up 505 points in an era of low-scoring, tight matches? Or the 1909 side, which contained eight men who had, or would, wear the All Black jersey and another six who were good enough for Auckland?
If anyone is brave enough to pick their outstanding team, what of the great players? Way back in the early days there was Bob Whiteside, considered the finest back in the colony, but one who reckoned his worth could be measured in pounds, shillings and pence and so never wore a New Zealand jersey. Andy Haden, a spiritual descendant of Whiteside, was one, nearly a century later, who had as much input behind the scenes as on the paddock.
In the last ten years there have been the league exiles; Matthew Ridge, Craig Innes, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Apollo Perelini, Shem Tatupu - all talented players who felt they needed to secure their future in the last days of 'amateur' rugby; and Joe Stanley, Olo Brown, Carlos Spencer and others who have remained with the 15-man game.
Anyone who is prepared to pick the best of that lot is braver than me.
This book aims to record the history of the club which has every claim to the title of 'New Zealand's most famous rugby club', despite the protests from Otago University types. Such a story cannot ignore social conditions of the day, because these had an influence on what was happening on the paddock.
If the early chapters seem to be a history of Auckland club rugby rather than focusing on the deeds of one club, it's because the two are bound so tightly together. So many of the developments in Auckland rugby as a whole had been moulded by events at Ponsonby that one cannot separate them. In other cases the conditions which existed at the time had a profound impact on Ponsonby, so an understanding of the wider picture is important. Since conditions were so far removed from those of today, the whole story has to be told.
There will also be instances where this history differs from accepted records, and again no apology is offered. If this is the case, and one will search these pages in vain for some of the names on the Honours Board at the club, it is only after checking as many sources as possible. Other alterations have been made to the accepted records after thorough checking, while a few players are recognised, if belatedly. The destruction of the oldest records (during the 1920s fires) meant much of the initial work on the Board was done from memory, not always the best guide.
Cases of what policemen would call circumstantial evidence will be stated as such. In particular the comings and goings during the establishment of rugby league in this country went unrecorded, since rugby players were at pains to keep them hushed up. However, if five or six references, innocent in themselves but compelling when added together, indicate a certain course of action, these pointers will be used to support any argument put forward.
The Ponsonby district is a small part of inner-city Auckland, and an area which has undergone considerable change down the years. For much of the lifetime of the club it was a working-class neighbourhood, and most residents lived pretty close to the bone. Money was not something to be chucked around, and yet the footballers were the aristocrats of Auckland rugby. They may have lived hard, they certainly played hard, but there was always something else to the club.
Now the area has become one of the well-to-do parts of town, and many of the hard-core, hard-case club men who played for their local club, and were the backbone of it, live in other parts of Auckland. It makes no real difference; good players are still attracted by the club's traditions and Ponsonby is still a power in Auckland, New Zealand and Polynesian rugby.
In good times and bad the Ponsonby Rugby Club has always had a huge amount of pride in themselves, their players and their results. That pride has been instilled into every one of the thousands of members the club has had in 125 years - once a Ponsonby member, always a Ponsonby member - and each and every one has made their own contribution to the club. In the end, that's what club rugby in New Zealand is all about.