Above: Wellington prop Tevita Falekakala charging the Northern United defence in their recent round-robin match, with teammates, flanker Terry Soli and hooker Tala Kitekei'aho (on right), in support. Wellington play Upper Hutt at Maidstone Park in one Hardham Cup semi-final on Saturday, while Norths play the Wests Roosters at Porirua Park in the other.?
For the first time since 2002 the Wellington Club will play in the Swindale Shield next year.
It completes a remarkable ascent for a club that was on its knees only a few years ago.? Languishing in Senior 2, the capital’s oldest and the country’s second oldest club after Nelson FC appeared to be on the brink of extinction.
It was a far cry from the glory days of the seventies and the eighties which saw Wellington share or win six Jubilee Cups between 1972 and 1987!
An array of colourful and successful players appeared for Wellington in this era. One was halfback Dave “Charlie” Henderson.
Henderson, an All Black trialist, played 103 first-class games. He played 92 games for Wellingtonand 8 games for Wellington B. Henderson was the regular halfback for the Axemen from 1969-1979.
For the last 30 years Henderson has been based in Auckland where he has enjoyed a successful career in advertising.
He wrote the New Zealand Beef and Lamb TV commercial starring Olympic champions the Evers-Swindell twins and has made commercials with various luminaries like legendary kiwi poet Sam Hunt, for Vogels bread and others featuring All Blacks, Bull Allen and Jonah Lomu and his old Wellington provincial team mates Murray Mexted, Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser, who boldly appeared on national TV in nothing but good old Jockey underwear. Henderson laughs, “Our job is to sell everything from tampons to tractor tyres. The boys looked very sharp in their undies!”
Henderson is delighted bythe Wellington Club’s resurgence. Like many former players he feared that the club might have to merge to survive or, even worse, it would fold.
Henderson’s decision to play for the Axemen was sealed in the third form at Wellington College in 1960. Henderson recalls:
“On my very first day of school I sat next to a bloke called Keith Quinn,originally from Bennydale in the King Country. We have been best mates ever since. Even then Keith was a Wellington Club stalwart; he refused to play for the school and played for the Axemen instead.? I did play for the school, but was only ever going to one clubafter leaving school.”
Henderson made his senior debutfor the axemen in 1968 and then became a permanent fixture for the next decade.
The quality of coaching Wellington had in those days was a big part of their success. In Henderson’s time Wellington shared the Jubilee Cup twice with Athletic (Now merged with Onslow and Karori to become Wests) in 1972 and again with Marist St Pats in 1978.
Henderson recalls two influential coaches. Brian Moon, now retired in the Bay of Plenty, was “a great coach and a lovely bloke” but Jack Oldershaw was something special.
“Jack was a tough little man. He looked like halfback, but in fact played his own rugby in the front row, where he was known for his exceptional strength and uncompromising play. And he was a beauty of a coach. He knew when to keep his distance from the players, but at the same time he built a fantastic team spirit. After training, Jack would join a small group of us to play games of force-back in the club’s sawdust gym. They were viciously competitive but great fun.”
Wellington had great material to work with in those days. All Blacks Graham Williams,who played a record 174 games for Wellington,and Murray Mexted, who arrived in 1975,were members of a tough and durable loose-forward trio alongside provincial stalwarts like Noel Hawkins, Ted Lines and, later, Paul Williams.
In the backline Henderson was well supported by fellow Lions, Warrick Procter (Winger)andJimmy Morgan (Centre). Henderson reflects;“We had a very well-balanced team, but the forwards were the strength. GC Williams was the toughest player I have ever seen. He was totally fearless, laying his body on the line in every game and wearing the scars to prove it today.”
Wellington was one of the best clubs in the country in this era.
Henderson remembers perhaps the club’s most famous win in 1979.
“We won the National club Champion of Champions tournament, beating Ponsonby in the final at Auckland’s Waitemata Park. The Ponsonby scrum was locked by All Blacks Andy Haden and Pole Whiting. We had the celebration of all celebrations after that win.”
Humour was a part of the Wellington bond too. Henderson recalls a story that became legend at the Axemen.
“We used to play a regular pre-season game against the Massey University club from Palmerston North, who at the time were formidable; they had about half of the Manawatu team in their side and were a great bunch of guys. We had a new prop playing one year, originally from Ponsonby in Auckland,by the name of Peter Rasmussen. “Ras” was a tough cookie and ruthlessly eliminated no fewer than three of their forwards by nefarious means during the game and somehow got away with it. Anyhow, on his way back to Auckland after the game,Ras pulled over at a pub in Paraparaumu for a quick refresher.? Inside the pub were the Massey players, on their way home and licking their wounds after an unusually hard day at the office.The looks on their faces made it clear, they weren’t overjoyed to see Ras, so he discreetly withdrew and looked elsewhere for a beer.”
Henderson, a close friend of Murray Mexted, remembers meeting Murray at Henderson’s brother’s restaurant, Tony’s Lord Nelson, in Auckland one day,to dwell on the good old days and, with his brother,help Murray come up with some of the many words which would baffle and amuse New Zealander’s during Mexted’s excellent Sky commentaries. It was this brotherhood, Henderson says, that made Wellington. “Zinzanalious" forwards helped too!
Henderson compliments Mexted for saving their old club. Henderson remembers the words of the late Bill Brien.
“Bill Brien was known as the Godfather when he was at the club; he was a real stalwart, an absolute character and a club and Wellington legend. On his deathbed Brien issued Mexted with an edict, ‘Murray! It’s up to you to get the Wellington Club back into premier rugby. Only you can do it!’ Murray replied with a smile, ‘Gee, no pressure Bill’.