The coach of the 1969 Horowhenua rugby side revealed some secrets behind one of the biggest upsets in the provinces 127-year history, at a reunion of the team at Levin Domain at the weekend.

It's half a century since Horowhenua beat Tonga 22-10. It remains one of the stand-out performances in the union's 127-year history.

Just 31 at the time, Lindsay Wheeler was a relatively young coach. He said it was a great thrill for the players, especially as they were given little hope of success.

Tonga were an international side that had just beaten New Zealand Māori twice, he said.


"I was down at the local pub and was being told that Tonga would beat us by 50 points," he said.

"But we were all quietly confident we could beat them."

Wheeler watched Tonga train at Horowhenua College during their stay in town. He noticed the tourists were fielding a new combination of inside backs for the match and believed it was an area they could be vulnerable.

So he selected a flyer at flanker, Mario Hori Te Pa, who at 1.67m and 80kg wasn't the biggest forward on the park.

"But he could tackle like a demon. I had discussed with captain Vance Whiley that at the first line-out we would just give the ball to them," he said.

The Horowhenua locks didn't even jump. Knowing that Tonga would have the ball, Wheeler gave Hori Te Pa instructions to "knock over the first five...five minutes early or five minutes late."

"In the end he timed it beautifully, and from then on Tonga were looking for him all day," he said.

The dangerous Tongan backs were unable to find rhythm as the Horowhenua team tackled hard and they held on for a famous win.


Wheeler said his side had a great team spirit and the core of the side remained unchanged from a tour of the South Island the previous year.

He said it was generous of the Horowhenua Rugby Union at the time to allow such a tour to go ahead, but it built a strong team spirit.

"That experience helped us a lot," he said.

Wheeler, who now lives in Wanganui, took over as coach of Horowhenua in 1968 and had the team for the next five seasons.