Remembering the 1980s golden age of Wairarapa Bush rugby

By David Famularo, October 2016

With Wairarapa Bush Rugby Union celebrating its 130th anniversary this year and 35 years since its representative side achieved First Division status, three of its captains from that golden era look back on golden moment in the region’s rugby history

Wairarapa Bush had had its moments of glory in the distant past.

I remember as a kid discovering in a book somewhere that in the early 1920s the Wairarapa team featuring prominently in New Zealand rugby history.

In fact, its brightest moments had been between 1927 and 1930 when it held the Ranfurly Shield on two separate occasions, was one of the strongest unions in the country, and produced no less than nine All Blacks.

It had another moment of brief glory in 1950 when it took the Ranfurly Shield from Canterbury 3-0,  only to lose it to South Canterbury in its  first defence 14-17.

As one of the smallest unions in New Zealand, Bush mostly had success in the Bebbington Shield, a competition contested by the Bush, Rangitikei, Southern Hawkes Bay and Orewa Downs regions, producing one All Black in Athol Mahoney.

The two unions combined in 1971 and usually gave most teams they competed against a run for their money.

In 1976 a National Provincial Championship was established with a First and Second Division, the lowest placed team in the First Division playing against the highest placed Second Division team in a promotion/relegation match. The Second Division was in turn separated into North and South Island competitions with the winner from each island playing each other to determine who would play against the lowest placed First Division team.

Wairarapa Bush was put in the Second Division and from then on till 1979, it was on the losing side more often than not – it won only one match in 1979.

Things took a turn for the better in 1980 when former All Black captain Brian Lochore became selector/coach, the team achieving six wins, six losses and a draw for third place.

Still, at the beginning of 1981, few would have expected the side to be in the First Division by the end of the year.

But the foundation was there. Lochore had all the leading players of the previous season still available, with 19 of 25 players still in the team, and he had been instilling in his players a belief in their own capabilities.

He emphasised attacking rugby with Wairarapa Bush scoring 39 tries scored in 14 matches, with seven straight wins.

But the best was to come at the end with three finals in seven days.

In his autobiography, Lochore described that programme as “crazy, especially for a union our size and our playing resources, but we had no alternative but to tackle it head on.

“The pressure on the players was enormous and, quite frankly, I couldn’t see them getting through it. The mental exhaustion alone would surely be too much for them to handle”.

The team got over the first hurdle, a  the North Island Second Division final  against Taranaki at Memorial Park in Masterton before a capacity crowd, winning 15-6.

They then beat South Island Second Division champions South Canterbury comfortably 16-0 while not playing at their very best, finally meeting Southland for the promotion/relegation match at Rugby Park, Invercargill.

The Southland game didn’t go entirely as planned, Wairarapa Times Age sports reporter Gary Caffell commented in a recent article.

“Wairarapa-Bush had the wind at their backs in the first half and Lochore stressed to them the importance of using it, even suggesting that anything less than a 12-point lead would not be good enough if victory was to be attained,” Caffell said.

“Imagine then how Lochore felt when halftime arrived and Wairarapa-Bush was trailing 6-9. Physically strong but mentally tired his players were struggling to get themselves out of second gear and promotion to First Division was slipping away.”

“It was terribly, terribly hard,” Lochore was later quoted as saying. “We had come a long way in a short time and a lot of it was due to the spirit existing within the squad. We had spent two years building confidence and self-belief amongst the players and now I had to go down there and read the riot act. I knew full well shock tactics were required but the thought of doing it didn’t exactly thrill me.”

A half time bollocking from Lochore had its intended effect with a try to number eight Carl Baker with about 20 minutes to go, the team holding on for a 10-9 victory.

Captain and hooker Gary McGlashan was a veteran by this stage. He had played his first game for Wairarapa, a year before the two unions amalgamated, in 1970 ( he went on to captain the team in the First Division in 1982, by then in his late thirties).

Also playing in the Southland game was halfback Graeme “Bunter” Anderson who had joined the team in 1979 . Bunter would go on to  captain the side in 1983, 1984 and occasionally in 1985.

Both Gary remembers the Taranaki and Southland matches as particularly gruelling.

“Taranaki came down here and thought they were going to romp home,” Gary recalls. “That was a great game with the crowd right behind the team.”

“We had to slog it all out that day. Carl scored a good try and we had to hold them out after that .

“They had us on the ropes a few times but our camaradiere held together. There was no way they were going to score, so we dug in and held them out.”

Bill Rowlands celebrates as Wairarapa Bush scores against Canterbury in1983 a match they lost 7-36 at Masterton - Photo: Wairarapa Archive
Bill Rowlands celebrates as Wairarapa Bush scores against Canterbury in1983 a match they lost 7-36 at Masterton – Photo: Wairarapa Archive

After making it into the First Division, remaining there was always going to be the next challenge.

“It was a fairly hard row to hoe the next year,” Gary recalls. “It was a different level for us. When you get up against teams like Auckland and Canterbury it is a different kettle of fish. We had a relatively small pack but we managed to battle on and stay there.”

By 1983 and 1984 when Lane Penn had taking over coaching duties from Lochore “it was more about survival”, Graeme recalls. “It always came down to a couple of games we had to win to keep in the First Division.”

However, one of the games he remembers with particular pleasure was their 19-9 victory over Hawkes Bay in 1984.

“It was right on the weekend of their centenary. I think the idea behind that was that they thought we would be easy beats. There were a lot of long faces in Hawkes Bay after that game. We took a lot of pleasure in that match.”

Both men had a high regard for both Lochore and Penn.

“They had different styles – one was a forward and other a back,” Gary says. “But it was basically the same simple style of rugby.

Graeme concurs. “It was a simple game plan, executed well.”

Lochore had a great knowledge of the game and was a great motivator, Gary says.

“He was a top class motivator and the sort of person that would draw the  most out of any player.”

Likewise, Lane was a also a good motivator, Graeme recalls. “He wanted the game played in the way that he wanted. Brian was always going to be a hard act to follow – all credit to him  for stepping up to the mark. He did a really well and managed to find a few All Blacks.”

Both former captains believe one of the most outstanding features of Wairarapa Bush teams of that era was the spirit.

“Camaraderie was one of our greatest assets,” Gary says. “It was a really close knit team and everyone got on well. We got on the paddock and everyone would work for their mates.”

“There was phenomenal team spirit,” Graeme recollects. “Everyone got on really well. In those days you would tour for ten days over two weekends so we got to know each other really well.

“It cost a lot of guys money to play as they had to take a week off work but if you spoke to anyone they would say they wouldn’t have swapped it for anything. It was a pretty special time.”

After making it to the First Division in 1981, Wairarapa Bush mostly hung around the bottom half of the competition, always battling to stay in the competition.

Brent Anderson hands off to Glen Fraser against Hawkes Bay in1985 which was won 53-5 Photo: Wairarapa Archive
Brent Anderson hands off to Glen Fraser against Hawkes Bay in1985, a game won by Wairarapa Bush 53-5 Photo: Wairarapa Archive

But then in 1985, something no one expected happened and they became one of the most formidable teams in the competition, finishing in fourth place. Potentially they could have reached even higher.

Loose forward Paul Hawkins played in the team from 1979 to 1986, and captained Wairarapa Bush for most of its matches in 1984 and 1985.

He believes the groundwork was laid in 1984 which was not Wairarapa Bush’s best year by any means.

“1984 was a bad year. We didn’t know till the last couple of games if we were going to manage to stay in First Division,” Paul recalls.

But the landscape of Wairarapa Bush rugby had been changing since 1981.

Club rugby was getting stronger as rep players brought their experience back to the clubs which in turn were producing a higher standard of players to choose from, Paul points out.

“I think club rugby was so good that it followed through to the representative side. We had been in the First Division for a while by that stage and it had  improved the overall standard of club rugby without a doubt.

“I think (one of the reasons for the team’s success) was that there was just a good core of players. We had 20 or more players to call on when there were injuries, and a lot of our players had been in the team for a while.”

Something that was a bit out of the ordinary was having the captain of the day in the selection meeting, Paul says. “That worked for us. It gave us more of an idea of what they wanted and how to get it.”

There was also a change in mind-set of the players, Paul says.

“Before the season started we would normally worry about if we were going to be relegated or not. At the beginning [of 1985] we stopped worrying and started just playing rugby.

“We realised in 1984 that we could achieve more but everyone had to buy into that. When everyone turned up and gave their all, we did exceptionally well.  But it would only work if everyone bought into it. If a couple of guys were not 100 percent it wouldn’t work.”

Paul believes the team had the potential to do even better than fourth place.

“We beat some good teams. We had wins over three of the top four teams. The only top team we didn’t beat was Auckland and that was only by about 10 points. So there was no reason we couldn’t have beaten anyone in the competition.”

One of the victories Paul relishes the most from that year was beating Wellington. “That was at Athletic Park – we had never done that before. We won a lot of away games that year.”

It wasn’t just the team that had a good year. Paul suspects Lane Penn was improving as a coach as well. “He must have, he was an All Black coach about a year later.”

Paul respects Lane for what he achieved with the team.

“He came after Brian Lochore. Everyone loved Brian. Lane was a very good coach but you had someone else telling you what to do which must have been hard for him.

“It wouldn’t have been easy for him to fill Brian’s shoes but he did a tremendous job in his own way.”

Wairarapa Bush played in the First Division for two more years, being relegated at the end of 1987 – although it should be pointed out that they still won five matches and drew one.

So after such a successful 1985 season,  why did the team begin to fade?

“I just think the other teams were more wary of us when we turned up the next year and a bit more focused.

“We were the so-called easy beats most years and all of a sudden we were turning up and beating them. When we played Counties we were down around 13 points after the first ten minutes but we still ended up winning.

“The next year they remembered what we had done to them in 1985 and were more focused.”

Top photo: Andy Earl against Taranaki ,1981 Photo: Wairarapa Archive

Interviews by David Famularo. Additional sources: Wairarapa Bush Centennial 1886-1985; NZ Rugby Almanack Franchise; Wairarapa Times Age; Wairarapa Archive