Soccer challenges rugby dominance

LAIRD HARPER
Last updated 05:00 08/03/2014

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Rugby is New Zealand's obsession but in small town Taranaki soccer is taking over.

Last month the South Taranaki District Council threw its weight behind an Eltham Community Board decision to boot the town's rugby club off Taumata Park, the pitch it had packed down on for generations.

The council was backing a flourishing soccer club that needed space and needed it now and, though councillors may not have realised, their's was a decision that unleashed a storm.

It turned code against code and mate against mate and the Eltham Football Club, which just needed a bigger pitch and wanted to grow their sport, found themselves caught in the middle of a fight between a rugby club that could not believe its dominance was waning, and a council moving to accommodate the new reality.

Eltham Football Club president Brendan Coles says Taumata Park simply offered a better environment for youngsters to develop their skills and they saw the potential to create a community facility.

"Our club has outgrown Taylor Park and continues to grow with several more players joining the club this season," he says. "Forty to 50 games a season on the one pitch is no longer suitable."

Mr Coles says their growth was down to years spent fostering strong junior teams and they were now seeing those same young players filtering into their men's premier side.

The decision to give them the park seemed cut and dried. Until last week it appeared the Eltham Rugby Club was on the ropes.

Declining player numbers had already forced them to join forces with Kaponga a number of years ago to field a team and the combined side which itself is struggling to be competitive, occupying one of the last two places on the competition ladder during the past three seasons.

Losing their Eltham home ground could have been the final nail in the club's coffin. Instead it has ignited a flame that may yet be stoked into a fire that brings new life to the club.

As soon as the news broke of their impending eviction people were signing up to play again says Eltham Rugby Club's spokesman Rawiri Mako.

For the first time in about five years junior rugby will return to the town and it is even hoped Eltham could field a team in every junior grade.

"It's been a call to arms," Mr Mako says.

"When you are pushed into a corner you can either come out fighting or give up. We have taken the first option."

The club is still extending the olive branch but will not hesitate to take what is theirs.

All the infrastructure inside - grandstand and flood lights are theirs, Mako says, and they haven't ruled out taking it all with them when they leave.

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"They have given it to soccer to use without any consultation about that," he says.

"It might have been the shot in the arm we needed, but I still believe the whole process has been flawed."

The debate over which code gets which ground has stirred up passions in the small town, and twice the council chamber filled with players, coaches and officials pleading their case.

Soldiers Park, a ground with insufficient changing areas, toilets and lights, just simply isn't up to scratch, Mr Mako says, and in the same breath acknowledges he can understand why the Eltham Football Club wants the pitch.

He knows the flourishing football side needs to break free from its tiny, often water-logged and potentially hazardous turf but can't understand why the club he loves has to be removed entirely just weeks before the new rugby season starts. "It would have been more palatable if council had given us some real options, instead of thinking about us after the fact," Mr Mako says.

But the club had ample opportunity to kick their ideas around and didn't says Eltham-based South Taranaki District councillor Gordon Lawson.

Mr Lawson says they initially approached the football club after hearing about their dire need to move. The board then held a number of meetings with both clubs, including an informal survey with all Eltham sports field user groups.

A number of ideas are batted around, Mr Lawson says, including both clubs sharing Taumata and Saunders parks. However issues around playing pitch size and who would use what and when became too difficult to overcome.

But the decision to turf rugby out was not made lightly and came after considerable consultation with both clubs over 12 months, if not more, he says. For one reason or another the rugby club was not fully engaged in discussions until it was before council proper.

And anyway, Mr Lawson says, the reality was no club owned any field in Eltham.

"What we were trying to do is get the best utilisation of facilities in Eltham and that work to the advantages of everyone," he says.

With just a handful of rugby games played on Taumata Park each year compared to around 50 that will be played with the round ball, the maths and logic of the decision was inescapable.

Regardless, Taranaki Rugby Football Union operations manager Derek Dingle has criticised the all in or all out proposal as "ludicrous" and more should have been done to help both clubs.

Mr Dingle compares it to moving someone out of their family home and into a one bedroom apartment a few weeks before they hosted Christmas dinner.

"For us it's about what has been fair and what has been reasonable," he says.

Although moving down the road would appear a simple solution for rugby, preliminary costings obtained by the club put the price of building new changing rooms, as well as a storeroom and field lighting, at $375,000.

The council is working with both clubs during the transition says community services group manager Fiona Greenhill.

"The clubs have indicated a desire to work with each other, both for the coming season and over the longer term," she says.

"Councillors appreciated the historic connections Eltham Rugby Club have with Taumata Park but they had to decide on the most efficient use of council facilities and do what was best for the wider Eltham sports community.

"Eltham soccer, who play about 40-50 games a season, needed more fields. While the fields at Taumata Park were underutilised."

- Taranaki Daily News

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