Only one Premier club in the province can claim to be older than the Wellington Rugby Football Union itself; that is the Wellington Football Club, formed in 1871.
Wellington holds the distinction of being New Zealand’s oldest continuous club. The Nelson club was the first to be formed expressly for playing rugby but has had periods of recess since, while Wellington has fielded a team every year since that first winter. (Note: Christchurch FC is older than both, but played Australian Rules and soccer until the late 1870’s when Canterbury adopted rugby)
The club was founded by British Army Captain JRC Isherwood, a veteran of the Crimean War. Isherwood gave the club both the black and gold colours of his former regiment and its crest – a chained rampant lion holding an axe. The latter feature led to the clubs nickname which remains in use to this day – “The Axemen”.
The influence of the club and members from that time remains in evidence today. Black and gold are the provinces representative colours, while the Coat of Arms for Wellington City also features a chained rampant lion.
On the field those early days saw the club play matches against scratch sides British Army regiments stationed in the capital. Isherwood would later form the Athletic club, and together with three from the Wairarapa they in turn formed the WRFU in 1879.
The Axemen would win five senior championships (two shared) in the period up until World War I, and era where they were perennial contenders but often just pipped for the title by the likes of Athletic, Petone, Poneke, and Melrose. Its first Jubilee Cup would come in 1939, but the conflict following would cost the club a number of its best players. In fact a photo exists of the side walking off Athletic Park having defeated Marist in the last game of the season, soberingly annotated with the names of those who would lose their lives during the war.
Wellington would win further Jubilee Cups in 1947, 1972, 1978, and 1982 (the latter three all shared) before a purple patch of success, claiming three outright in 1983, 1985, and 1987 and runners-up in 1986 and 1988. 1985 was particularly successful with the first side winning the Swindale/Jubilee double, the second side their championship along with two other open-grade sides and three of four age grade sides (the other finished second).
However from that point the clubs fortunes fell, sliding from being regular Jubilee Cup contenders to relegation from the Premier ranks in 2003, and then down again to the Senior 2 grade. The resurgence in recent years has been driven by one of the clubs All Black representatives in Murray Mexted, and saw the club return to Premier ranks in 2014, and contest the Jubilee Cup in 2016 for the first time in 20 years.
A total of 19 players have represented New Zealand while affiliated to the Axemen. That includes two – Henry Roberts and Paddy Webb – from the first national side in 1884 with Webb scoring the very first points in All Black history, through to the current with Vaea Fifita. Notably through Mexted and Murray Pierce the club had a representative in every All Black Test side from 1979 until 1990. Others have represented national age-group sides along with NZ Maori and Manu Samoa, as well as a long and distinguished history of administrators with both the WRFU and Wellington rugby. The current club President is well-known commentator Keith Quinn.
One of the regions smaller clubs in terms of playing numbers the club fields its Premier, Premier Reserve, and Colts sides along with its Presidents grade team and Under 85kg team who are the current Wellington champions in their grade.
Wellington are based at Hataitai Park on the south side of the city, and their clubrooms boasts one of the most extensive collections of memorabilia you’ll find in the country.