New Zealand has more than 500 rugby clubs which makes selecting a 'First XV of classics', an endeavour sure to stir spirited discussion. Our selection criteria was based on All Blacks produced, championships won, history,
uniqueness and rivalry.
We have tried to avoid, where possible, Marist clubs, High School Old Boys' and Varsity clubs because they represent massive institutions (the Catholic church; traditional single-sex state education networks; universities) rather than community.
Christchurch HSOB warrant a place on the list due to their unique reputation of being a first five factory and there's a certain varsity club that also makes an appearance through sheer weight of All Blacks and its indelible part of that particular province's rugby history.
The list is subjective and those clubs who feel aggrieved by their omission should write in for a potential redux in 2021.
Our First XV of classic Kiwi clubs will be rolled out three a week over five weeks.
Yesterday: Southern Rugby and Football Club
Today: Nelson Rugby Football Club
By Liam Napier
David Havili grew up down the coast in neighbouring Motueka but he knew the proud history of the Nelson Rugby Club long before donning the famed blue jersey alongside his father and brother.
Nelson's status within New Zealand rugby is forever entrenched as hosts of the first match, and the oldest club in the country.
Two years after the club was first formed Charles Monro, the son of Sir David Monro, speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives, returned to Nelson after attending school in England where he was first exposed to rugby.
Under Munro's tuition, New Zealand's first interclub fixture was contested between the Nelson rugby club and the local college at the Botanical Reserve on Saturday, May 14, 1870. The Nelson club won two goals to nil.
"Going to Nelson College they speak highly of it and there's a lot of photos and history behind it," Havili, the Crusaders fullback and three test All Black, says. "It's all round the school and in Nelson as well. It's great to be able to claim that and be the oldest club in New Zealand."
Frequent protestations to the oldest club mantle have arisen from Wellington and Greytown, largely because during the respective World Wars the absence of more than 50 serving playing members forced the Nelson club to merge with College Old Boys to form Whakatu during those times of global unrest.
As the club prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary by welcoming Sir Graham Henry in September, president Shane Graham swiftly dismisses any lingering challenges to the authenticity of the club's status.
"It's well established and the rest of it is all fake news," Graham says. "It wouldn't be a fantastic story if there wasn't that dialogue around.
"We're survivors; we've been around a long time. We're often the benchmark other clubs in the region mark themselves against. We're looking forward to the next 150 years."
Graham has been involved with the club for 38 years. He is proud of the premier's record of claiming one title every three years, and its strong community connections that extend to providing food storage and meeting facilities during the Covid-19 pandemic and establishing programmes such as Wingman to tackle mental health.
"A few years ago we had a number of suicides and that was the catalyst for us to say 'hey we've got to do something somehow'. That's something we're pretty proud of – a way of helping your mates out. Guys are the worst at asking for support. These guys are really under pressure now with work and jobs so it's even more important.
"If we learn anything through these uncertain times it's when things are at their worst we are at our best. Rugby is the cause and it helps bring us all together."
Graham bemoans the erosion of the grassroots game, with teams in the region dropping from the heyday of 26 to six this year.
"I find it fascinating during Covid that New Zealand Rugby is extolling the virtues of community and grassroots when, really, they didn't want anything to do with us before.
"The trend for club rugby has been poor and that affects sponsorship; your ability to attract top players because even if they are good players they develop and go into academies and you lose them forever.
"We always say you start in your club, go to school for a few years and finish with the club. Now those clubs might not be there. That's the reality of it all. It's budget to budget."
The Nelson club has been integral in helping Mitre 10 Cup champions Tasman establish their presence alongside the traditional powerhouses of the New Zealand provincial game.
In recent times the likes of Havili, Ethan Blackadder, Leicester Fainga'anuku, Quinten Strange, Wyatt Crockett, who now coaches his son's junior team, the Marshall brothers, Shane Christie and Liam Squire all emerged through the club's ranks.
The club's last life member, Vale John Goodman, became Tasman's founding president and his son Andrew, who returned from Ireland and Japan to play his 100th club match for Nelson, is now Scott Robertson's assistant at the Crusaders and the provincial head coach after being first shoulder tapped by Leon 'Rangi' MacDonald.
As far back as he can remember Andrew Goodman recalls attending Trafalgar Park where he devoured pots of hot chips smothered in sauce and a bottle of fizz after watching his father coach the senior team which included New Zealand Maori lock/loose forward Murray West.
John Goodman's highly successful reign featured an unbeaten Nelson Bays season in 1981 - a feat not matched until his son repeated the dose after moving home from university in 2008.
These inter-generational connections - and the welcoming spirit encapsulated by the motto 'you don't play for Nelson you belong' - forms the club's ethos.
"There was some pretty good banter around the family dining room table and clubrooms," Andrew Goodman, whose son Max is almost three and gearing up for ripper rugby, says.
"Dad was saying his team was a lot better than ours and that maybe two of our players would have made his XV."
Havili's connections to the club are similarly deep-rooted. His father Bill played over 300 games in the blue jersey – starting on the wing before gradually moving to the midfield and into the loose forwards.
A picture of the three of them - Havili playing second five-eighth; his father, 40 odd at the time, starting at blindside flanker and younger brother Willie who came off the bench to slot in at No 10 - sits proudly on the family home wall.
"It was an awesome experience getting to play with him," Havili says of his dad. "It was pretty cool to have two generations on the field at the same time."
Straight out of Nelson College the club helped provide Havili – and many others like him from the region – direction. He played 36 games alongside club stalwarts Robbie Malneek, Loui Harvey and others before progressing to the New Zealand under-20s and into the Tasman side, where he won a championship in his maiden provincial season in 2014.
"It was a club where you could really be yourself. I loved my experience and still do. Every time I come home you see familiar faces when you walk in. You're handed a beer straight away and everyone says 'where have you been'? I go back there all the time and keep in touch with everyone."
From enjoying $5 feeds at the local pub to debuting for the All Blacks in Buenos Aires in 2017, Havili's full circle journey now allows him to donate jerseys that will be auctioned off to raise funds for the junior teams at the 150th celebrations next month. It's an occasion he wouldn't miss for anything.
"It will be a great night to celebrate the past and present, not just the players but everyone who has contributed."