Player numbers might not be what they once were – but walk into a country rugby clubroom on game day and you soon realise how significant these four walls are for a community.

In the kitchen, a big pot is simmering on the stove and the sound of clanging plates and cutlery fills the air. Proud club stalwarts can’t influence what happens out on the field, but sure as heck can lay a spread befitting a great host.

On the sideline congregates a mix of generations, some watching the action, others engrossed in conversation. When the final whistle sounds and the muddied players line-up to shake hands, kids join the queue waiting to say “g’day” to their dad or uncle. It’s a scene played out all over the country on a Saturday, and not just in rugby.

With the day-to-day pressures of modern consumerist living, and the fractured nature of 21st century families, sports clubs have an increasingly important role ensuring communities stay strong.

There is no “one size fits all” for sports clubs. In Wairarapa, a range of different models operate, from the hockey headquarters at Clareville, to the multi-club Greytown Community Sport and Leisure Society (GCSLS). Whatever the clubs’ shape or form, the end goal is the same – to future proof their sport.

We all know the importance of sport and exercise to our physical health. From a young age, we have this drilled into us ad nauseam. What we don’t hear much about are the other aspects of our lives that sport positively impacts on. Much of that starts with belonging to something and, in the case of sport, it’s a club.

Flying under the radar in Wairarapa are some of the minority sports. Featherston Athletics, for example, has for many years been at the very fabric of the South Wairarapa town. Ron Hughes was the driving force of the club for five decades. Since his passing last year, that baton has been handed to Trish North, now club president.

With the support of local schools, the club works with a group of about 70 primary school-aged kids split into under-seven and over-seven year olds. For the littlies, the focus is on running, jumping and throwing; the fundamental movements they can use with any sport. With these skills ingrained, the older kids apply them to the track and field.

In addition, the club runs kids’ triathlons which are open to the wider South Wairarapa community.

Trish says the events have been a catalyst for bringing the community together. What makes it so successful, she says, is that the triathlons require parental input.

“It’s quite a neat family event. We hold it in the evenings, at six o’clock, which means a lot of dads and mums who are working can come off the train, join in, and be really hands-on.”

Also going great guns in Featherston are the gymnastics and karate clubs, and moves are underway to revive the local wrestling club.

Further up the road, the GCSLS executive officer Paora Ammunson says sports clubs are pivotal for a young person’s development.

“It is where kids see adults and families doing stuff together. Their values get transmitted in a club sense, and also in an informal societal family sense,” Paora says.

By default, he says, sports clubs have replaced churches and other kinds of institutions where people can meet other folk and mix and learn from one another.

In addition, the social networks and sense of belonging from being a member of a sports club cannot be overstated.

All Black Sir John Kirwan believes sports clubs could be key to keeping depression at bay for many rural Kiwis.

According to Sir John, who has long been raising awareness of mental stress and depression, sports clubs are “fundamental to wellness” in rural New Zealand.

A handbrake to many clubs running smoothly is the burden of administrative duties which can be cost prohibitive and time consuming. The GCSLS model is the result of the Sportville Study, conducted in 2000 by the then Hillary Commission. The study identified key issues affecting the growth of sport and leisure clubs. In particular, falling numbers of participants and volunteers at all levels, a lack of planning, and financial concerns. GCSLS was formed in 2003 and today has 16 member clubs with over 1,100 active members. It employs a full time executive officer who is responsible for the administration, co-ordination and communication functions of its member clubs.

The same issues that the Sportville Study identified are threatening to seal the fate of a number of clubs in Carterton. Borrowing from precedents set in Greytown and further north in Clareville, namely the hockey headquarters at Clareville Showgrounds, efforts are well underway to find a solution.

Under the name of Carterton Sport and Recreation Group, the vision is to establish a sports hub that can accommodate all of the codes. An ongoing investigation has narrowed the possible sites down to either Howard Booth Park or Carrington Park. A formalised presentation was scheduled to be heard by Carterton District Council in April so the group could then consult with the public, says group chair Steve Hurley.

“What we are proposing is different to Greytown, as we want to go one step further and build a hub that houses everybody,” Steve says.

Irrespective of the final site, he adds, it is vital for Carterton that the project goes ahead.

“If we stay as individual clubs, all tied to doing our own thing, it is only a matter of time that a lot of them fall by the wayside,” Steve says.

“Today, sports’ responsibility is not just to provide a place for kids and adults to be active, but also to help set the standard and provide a moral platform.”

Discussions are also underway in Featherston to establish something similar at Card Reserve, a move that has the likes of Trish North of the athletics club very excited.

WE LOVE OUR SPORT

Wairarapa likes to think of itself as a sporty province, and for good reason. The region consistently comes first for youth sport participation in New Zealand.

According to Sport Wellington and Wairarapa regional development manager, Dayle Clarkson, 70 per cent of secondaryschool students in Wairarapa play some form of sport. The next best ranked province is Otago, followed by Taranaki.

While there is no data available for the overall level of participation across the whole population, Dayle says there will be a significant drop-off outside of school. This is particularly so in a region like Wairarapa where there is an ageing population.

Even so, Dayle says the region’s high participation in sport is something Sport Wellington is very proud of. It also highlights the need for clubs and sports bodies to remain relevant in their communities to attract and retain new members when they leave college.

HOWZAT FOR BASEBALL!

New Zealand’s favourite summer game shouldn’t feel under threat – but there is a new competition in town.

Baseball, loved by Americans the world over, is barely on the radar in cricket-playing nations. Greytown-based Shane Fawdray says his efforts to form a club in South Wairarapa aren’t going to knock cricket off its perch, but a bit of “good ol’ US of A” might not be a bad thing if it means getting kids off the couch and away from their gadgets.

Since pitching the idea of a baseball club in Wairarapa late last year, the number of kids showing interest has grown to nearly 30.

In March, the Wairarapa Spitfires Baseball Club was officially formed, having adopted its constitution and elected a management committee. Shane says baseball is gaining a presence in other parts of New Zealand, so it is great that Wairarapa is now also on the map.

With its beautiful line of oak-trees and picket-fenced club house, Soldier’s Memorial Park in Greytown could not be more quintessentially cricket. Softball is also well established locally, with primary and intermediate schools playing regularly in competition.

Shane says he has no intention of bowling over cricket or hitting softball out of the park, but instead wants to provide another option for kids to play and enjoy.

“There are aspects of baseball that are really appealing, particularly to young people,” he says.

“Besides, there is no reason why kids can’t play both, or all three.”

Batter up!

Story by Walt Dickson.
Photo by Rebecca Kempton.