O'Connor: first lady of rugby

LEADING THE WAY: Waikiwi Rugby Club life member Noeline O’Connor. "If you don’t volunteer for something, you can sit there and vegetate."
LEADING THE WAY: Waikiwi Rugby Club life member Noeline O’Connor. "If you don’t volunteer for something, you can sit there and vegetate."

Noeline O'Connor stepped into foreign territory when she joined the Waikiwi Rugby Club. Logan Savory outlines her 38-year journey with the club and explains why she is this week's Legend of Sport.

Long-serving Waikiwi Rugby Club administrator Noeline O'Connor was reluctant to be honoured as a Legend of Sport and let The Southland Times tell her impressive story.

Only after others at the club pitched it as a good promotion for her beloved Waikiwi club were we able to persuade O'Connor, 73, to go through with the interview.

She is a person who likes to go about her work behind the scenes, with little fanfare.

But her dedication and pioneering venture into rugby administration is legendary - and an adventure well worth telling.

In 1974, O'Connor stepped into the male-dominated club rugby territory as secretary/treasurer of Waikiwi.

It was 91 years after New Zealand had let women vote but even in 1974 rugby clubs were off limits to females. It was a bold move to have a female in such an important role at Waikiwi.

Even though O'Connor kept the finances in check and spent so many volunteer hours at the club, she was not allowed to set foot in the clubrooms on game day during her early days with Waikiwi.

"The only time I ever went into the club was for meetings. And if we did a supper, then you stayed in the kitchen and the guys put it out, " she told The Southland Times.

"Because I couldn't go into the clubrooms in the weekends, the guys would put the money in the deep freeze and I would go in on Monday and pick it up and take it to the bank.

"I can remember sending a letter to the North Island for something and getting a typed letter back with a piece on the bottom saying, 'a woman in rugby' with great exclamation marks."

"They seem to think I was the first women ever to be appointed to a rugby club, " she said.

The dedicated club person can take great heart in knowing she provided the torch for more women to follow in club rugby circles.

"Waikiwi were one of the first ones to let women in. I'm talking not only myself [as secretary/ treasurer] but just letting women into the clubrooms. I feel I have been part of the change. Waikiwi started it and it took a long time, but the other clubs have since followed, " she said.

In 1995 she was awarded a life membership of the Waikiwi Rugby Club, proving her hard work had not gone unnoticed.

Today, she is still heavily involved, balancing the club's books and running the canteen at home games.

In between times she has also stepped in helping coach and organise junior teams at the club, and has helped with fundraising.

Each Easter for 26 years she was running the bar at the Riverton races as a fundraiser, and made and sold lamingtons and cheese rolls.

"If I had a cent for every cheese roll and lamington I've made, I'd be a very rich lady, " she joked.

In her 38 years with the club she has seen many highs and many lows and is pleased Waikiwi has been able to hold together during the tough times.

"I'm proud of the club, " she said. "There's been lots of talk about us amalgamating and all this sort of thing, or closing down, but we haven't needed to. We struggle with two teams - there used to be five or six teams there at one stage . . . We've kept going and, as I say, we're a good family club."

The hours O'Connor has devoted to Waikiwi since she took on that secretary/treasurer role in 1974 is impressive, but instead of feeling she is owed something, O'Connor is just thankful to have the club.

"I feel lucky that they've allowed me to be part of it: it's become a big part of my life. I'm on my own now and they're my friends. If I need to know anything I can ask them. Do I need a plumber? Do I need a builder? Those sort of things. They're a good lot out there."

Waikiwi Rugby Club president Paul McEntyre said O'Connor had played a huge role in keeping the club running.

"She's kept us on the straight and narrow financially, put it that way, " he said.

Her volunteer time does not end with Waikiwi. She also has a passion for badminton and has helped that sport as an administrator with Badminton Southland.

She also helped with the books and fundraising at the All Saints club where she received a life membership in 1997.

'If you don't volunteer for something, you can just sit there and vegetate. I always think if you haven't volunteered, and especially worked with young people, I think you've missed out on something."

The Southland Times