Above: The 1972 Wellington Axemen broke Petone's sole stranglehold on both the Swindale Shield and Jubilee Cup.
Down the years there have been some nail-biting Wellington club rugby title races, for both the championship Jubilee Cup (since 1929) and the first round Swindale Shield (since 1969).
The Swindale Shield has always been a straight round-robin competition, as was the Jubilee Cup prior to 1993 before the semi-finals and finals were introduced. Since then there can be one winner (with the exception of 2008 when the final was drawn and there was no provision for extra time), but the possibility of a shared Jubilee Cup was often on the cards.
1972 was a momentous year at home and abroad. Internationally, a terrorist attack killed 11 Israeli Athletes at the Munich Olympic Games and the Vietnam War was in full swing. At home Norman Kirk’s third Labour Government swept to Power and Keith Murdoch was later banished from the All Blacks tour, to start a life of self-exile in outback Australia.
It was also the only season before or since that both Swindale Shield and the Jubilee Cup competitions were shared.
There were three winners in 1972. Wellington and Petone shared the Swindale Shield, while Wellington and Athletic shared the Jubilee Cup.
Heading into the season, Petone were the hot favourites having won the past five Jubilee Cup titles. In fact, Petone had also won the first three editions of the Swindale Shield and the last club other than Petone to win anything was University back in 1966. What’s more, they would go on and win the next two Jubilee Cups and Swindale Shields, with the 1973 season probably their best.
With the majority of the Wellington representative team in their ranks, Petone had won the unofficial National Top Four tournament over Easter and there was little reason to doubt their favouritism at the start of the 1972 club season.
As usual, several clubs were out to stop them. The chasing pack was led by the Wellington Axemen, marshalled by talisman openside flanker Graham Williams. Athletic had a big forward pack and deadeye goal-kicking fullback Brian Cederwall. Marist St Pat’s, with leading fullback Joe Karam and four players including future All Blacks wing Grant Batty who were to play for the Junior All Blacks during the season, was a new club on the rise. University and Poneke would both push their claims at various times throughout the winter.
The first round Swindale Shield saw Petone and Wellington go head to head for 13 weeks, while Athletic’s supporters would just be relieved for their team scraping into the ‘top 6’ at the end of it.
This was also the first season that supporters could listen to the action on their radios, through 2zB’s all-new Sports Line Saturday afternoon show hosted by Lindsay Yeo.
The season started off in heavy rain, with Wellington beating University 6-4 and Petone coming from behind to beat Wellington College Old Boys 25-12.
In round two Wellington defeated Upper Hutt 8-3 and Petone accounted for Titahi Bay (later merged with Porirua to form Northern United) 37-0. Round three saw both win comfortably, Wellington overcoming MSP’s challenge 27-3 and Petone thrashing their recent nemesis Onslow 44-3. The stage was set for the big Wellington-Petone clash in week four on Anzac Day that was already being billed as a ‘virtual first round final’.
The outcome of this clash was a 13-13 draw, with Petone scoring seven points in as many minutes to lock it up at just prior to fulltime and then seeing first five-eighth John Dougan’s dropped goal sail wide at the death.
From then on, throughout May and June, Wellington and Petone remained unbeaten and remained neck-and-neck at the top of the table (no bonus points).
There were some touch and go matches for both teams. Poneke were expected to present a big challenge for Wellington, but Graham Williams scored a brace and the Axemen pulled clear to win 25-9. The Axemen were also pushed all the way by Athletic (a precursor to their Jubilee Cup clash) in winning 18-15. Petone were given a fright by Taita, holding on to win 7-3, while they defeated MSP 29-23 in a thriller.
In the last round, Wellington defeated Taita 14-6, as expected, to have one hand on the Shield. Axemen supporters then tuned their transistors to Sports Line to hear of Petone’s fate against University. They had good cause for optimism too, with Petone’s playing strength depleted with several leading players all in Auckland with the Wellington rep team for their provincial match the next day (which they were to lose 24-35).
Pushed all the way by the students, Petone coach Upston walked out of Athletic Park late in the match, as was his custom when the tension mounted. But Petone – thanks to two earlier dropped goals and a penalty to Richard Cleland – held on to win 9-7 and so the Swindale Shield was shared between the Villagers and the Axemen.
Meanwhile, Athletic's Swindale Shield campaign was anything but plain sailing. With just two rounds to play, they found themselves in a four-way tie for the sixth and last Jubilee Cup spot with WCOB, Upper Hutt and Onslow.
They beat Hutt Old Boys 19-6 in a must-win penultimate round encounter and then defeated Upper Hutt 14-6 in the last round to see them finish in a tie for sixth with Onslow but progress to the Jubilee Cup ahead of the Nairnville Park mudlarks on points differential.
Having just scraped in, Athletic then lit up the Jubilee Cup round on opening weekend by stunning Petone 20-19. Wellington overcame Poneke 14-10 after being behind at halftime.
The second set of Jubilee Cup matches saw Athletic losing 3-19 to MSP, Petone beating Poneke 26-11 and Wellington defeating University 20-9.
The following round Athletic caused their second boilover in three weeks, this time toppling the Axemen 10-4. Athletic were well served in this match by the two Brian’s, centre Dombroski and fullback Cederwall, while Wellington’s Williams was sidelined with a leg injury. Petone lowered MSP 23-7, leaving Wellington, Athletic, Petone and MSP in a four-way tie at the top of the Jubilee Cup standings with just two rounds to play.
Round four saw Athletic beat Poneke 23-13 and Petone beat University 28-14, while Wellington toppled MSP 23-10 in the match of the round, to now leave Wellington, Athletic and Petone in a three-way tie heading into the season finale.
In the first match, Athletic defeated University 19-7, to put one hand on the Jubilee Cup, a remarkable season comeback considering that at the end of May they were languishing having won just lost their fifth match in eight games, going down to University courtesy of a late Mark Sayers’ 75m intercept try.
The other hand on the Jubilee Cup was either going to be that of five-time defending champion Petone or first round joint Swindale Shield winner Wellington. The two teams met at Athletic Park on 5 August for a blockbuster showdown.
With a wealth of experience to call upon, Petone led 9-0 at halftime and started the second spell off in hot pursuit of more points. The Axemen weathered the early storm and earned themselves territory, winning a scrum penalty and fullback Doug Froggatt landing a penalty that got them back in the game. Climbing back into the contest, Wellington took a 12-9 lead. With time almost up, captain Williams made a try-saving tackle in the corner on Petone wing Geoff Skipper. This proved Petone’s last chance and the Axemen had broken Petone’s run of championship victories and together with Athletic annexed the 1972 Jubilee Cup.