Beegee's beloved Ponsonby winning the fight to stay relevant on sports landscape
A quarter of a century ago the mighty Ponsonby Rugby Club was on the verge of closing its doors permanently, such was the extent of its decline, debt and general deterioration.
But a dedicated core of well-connected diehards saved the day when they raised the $250,000 needed to stave off their debtors, and Auckland's inner-city footy institution lived to fight another day.
Thank goodness. It turned out the tragics who raised the cash necessary to keep the club afloat were visionaries. Before long the suburb of Ponsonby was undergoing a rejuvenation, and even a regeneration. Property values began to rise (and still are), the area became gentrified and soon enough a developer had written a large cheque to buy the clubhouse and land it was on.
Suddenly the famous Ponsonby club – New Zealand's most prolific provider of All Blacks and Auckland's most successful club – was a genuine going concern again, searching for a new home (they eventually settled on their current Western Springs base in 1997) and rebuilding the lifeblood of the organisation to the point where from 2001-11 they won the Gallaher Shield (symbol of Auckland supremacy) 10 times in 11 seasons.
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Now, in 2017, they are continuing to fight the good fight at a time when clubs throughout the land are struggling to maintain their footprint. In the season just completed Ponsonby sent out 59 teams -- nine senior and 50 junior -- in Auckland's competitions, down on last year's 65 after some rationalisation in the grades.
Ponies legend and former All Black great Bryan Williams was one of those concerned club members who sprung into action. Sitting here now, more than 25 years since those dark days, he reflects with pride on what he, fellow All Black Olo Brown, life member Merv Scott, business partner Kevin McDonald, and one or two others helped achieve.
"We were close to closing the door," recalls Williams, who started at Ponsonby in 1960 as a 10-year-old and remains a regular fixture at Western Springs. "We had Blake Street, but it had become run down, values were dropping, and our debt was rising. Then a few of us raised close to $250,000 to repay the debt.
"Round the same time Ponsonby started to rejuvenate and when the developers started to come in and renovate houses, the cafes and restaurants opened, values started to rise and our debt decreased. Eventually we had some equity, and when a developer wanted to buy the club, it was a no-brainer."
Rugby's numbers at the grass-roots level are declining nationally and clubs are feeling the brunt of this. But Williams is proud of the fight his beloved Ponsonby is putting up on the crowded sporting scene, where more and more pursuits jostle for the precious leisure time of the average New Zealander.
He feels it's important that club rugby, and rugby clubs, retain their status. "It's part of the fabric of New Zealand life. There are still players coming out of club rugby into the higher levels ... So it still offers a pathway, even if the pathway is a bit longer these days.
"Where do your players come from? From the junior ranks, from the mothers and fathers who bring their kids along. This is where they form their love for the game of rugby."
The All Black great (38 tests and 75 games) recalls a different era when he came through as a young man proving his ability on the club fields.
"It was the hub of social life. The after-match functions used to be absolutely packed. People didn't leave at 7 o'clock and go off and do something else, because there wasn't that much else to do."
Now growing social options, drink driving laws and the urban sprawl have combined to create a different rugby club.
"It's not as prominent in the lives of people as it used to be," adds Williams. "Our club has bucked the trend to some degree, mainly because lots of young upwardly mobile middle-class families have moved into the area and we now have a huge junior club. We might had five or six schoolboy teams back when I started playing. Last season we had 53."
Ponsonby has also learned to stay adaptable. In the early '70s there was a drastic shortage of junior players -- so they set up a satellite club in Kelston. "That was a saving grace. Back in the '60s and '70s it was regarded as a Polynesian rugby club, but then so many Polynesian people sold up and moved out. But they still want their kids to play for Ponsonby, so they send them back.",
Williams is asked about the importance of clubs fighting the dying of the light. "You don't need to consider it a fight," he replies. "It's challenging but it's also rewarding. It's about leadership, man management and getting like-minded people involved."
In many ways Williams, pillar of his community, might be the club's finest example of the role it serves.
"It's helped mould me into the person I am," he reflects. "You learn so many good values ... the interaction, the influences, the sportsmanship, the teamwork, the hard work, the discipline. So many of those things help you later in life."
An institution very much worth fighting for.