The rise of the 'Festival' game

Sideline Sid
Sports correspondent & historian
www.sunlive.co.nz

It was said that last Saturdays All Black romp against Japan in Yokohama was like a “Festival” game, with plenty of running rugby and tossing the ball around with gay abandon from both sides.

Since the birth of professional rugby two decades ago, “Festival” rugby is little heard or played in the modern era.

In earlier times, a number of (social) clubs to promote the game were formed such as the Barbarians, Centurions and Harlequins.

The names of many of the clubs had direct links to similar organisations in England.

Membership was usually by invitation issued to former players, officials and administrators who had given good service to the game.

The general aim of the clubs were to foster and promote rugby in their areas by putting-on first class fixtures and assist in the coaching and promotion of age-group rugby.

In 1962, the Bay of Plenty Wasps came into existence and permission was sought (and granted) from the Wasps Rugby Club of England, for the use of their club jersey colours and insignias.

After plenty of discussion amongst the inaugural membership, it was decided to organise one major fixture each season to raise funds for the Bay of Plenty team travelling funds. So came into existence the annual Wasps “Festival” match, held in Rotorua each Easter.

The Wasps games were granted first class status by the New Zealand Rugby Union.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Wasps also ran secondary school first XV coaching clinics when the big guns of New Zealand rugby came to the Sulphur City.

On March 29 1964, the first of the Wasps first class encounters took place at the old Rugby Park in Rotorua, when the Wasps squared off against a Harlequins selection.

To say it was a who’s who of the greats of the game of the time, is an understatement.

The inaugural Wasps captain was Colin Meads, with other All Blacks such as Malcolm Dick, Adrian Clarke, Mac Herewini, Kevin Barry, BJ Lochore and Waka Nathan.

However, it was DB Clarke that the biggest cheers were reserved for, with the legendary fullback slotting three conversions and an equal number of penalty goals.

Locking the scrum with Pinetree, was New Zealand rugby cult hero in Peter Jones who had played a huge part in beating the 1956 Springboks at home.

Another 1956 All Black, to come out of retirement for the fixture, was Bay of Plenty’s own WN (Bill) Gray playing at centre for the Harlequins.

The Harlequins were led by HL “Snow” White who also dusted off his boots for the game.

In those days of no replacements during a game - the festival nature of the encounters saw players substituted, with well known Western Bay of Plenty rugby identity Max Heimann coming on at half-back for the second spell.

Ranfurly Shield Holders Marlborough, Auckland and Manawatu played the Harlequins, under the Wasps banner in the 1970’s, with a Wasps XV playing the Canterbury ‘Log of Wood’ holders in 1984.

The annual Easter weekend “festival” match was transferred to Taupo for the opening of Owen Delaney Park in 1985.

International visitors to play the Wasps were the Australian Barbarians in 1979 and Cardiff during 1988.

Professional Rugby and the prominence of the 7’s game saw a decline in the Wasps Easter attraction.

Today, the Wasps Club continues to foster Bay of Plenty age-group rugby, with their jersey given an airing each season, under the guise of a shadow Bay side in the buildup to the Steamers NPC campaign.

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