Wellington’s Mr Rugby League
CAREY CLEMENTS talks to rugby league aficionado and Whitby resident Bernie Wood about writing books, trotting and the West Coast.
It has been nearly 50 years since you left the West Coast. What does that area mean to you?
Heritage and a love of rugby league from tough guys who had great skills. It’s the only province where the game is the major winter sport.
How did you get started in rugby league?
An aunt who was a Marist rugby league fanatic encouraged me to play for the club when I was nine.
What are your early memories as a West Coast schoolboys player?
I was picked in the West Coast schoolboys team for the 1953 national tournament in Auckland. It was only the second time I had been out of Greymouth. I played on the famous Carlaw Park for the only time. The following year in Dunedin I was picked as a Schoolboy Kiwi, my highest playing honour.
When did you get involved in rugby league administration?
I had been treasurer of the Marist club in Greymouth before I came up to Wellington through a job transfer with State Insurance. I had got so much enjoyment out of rugby league as a player that it seemed a natural progression to be elected on to the Wellington board in 1968. We had a very good chairman in Ken English.
What was the standard of rugby league like in Wellington in the 1960s and 1970s?
We had massive strength in our clubs, particularly Upper Hutt, Petone, Randwick, Eastern Suburbs and Marist. Strangely, the strong club scene never really transferred to the rep side.
However, in the first national club competition final, in 1982, Petone and Randwick played what I have called the greatest game ever played in this country. Both teams qualified after beating strong Auckland sides, which meant the final was transferred from Carlaw Park to Wellington. Petone got a try in the last minute and became the inaugural holders of the Wrangler Cup.
You edited the between 1977 and 2002. What got you started?
Bruce Montgomerie and later Bill O’Callaghan had put out New Zealand Rugby League annuals from 1962. In 1977 I was report- ing league for the Sunday Times and The Dominion as well as covering the game for 2ZB. I realised the annuals had very poor records that couldn’t be relied on. So when it came to putting out the annual in 1977, I made sure that we got some basic things right, such as putting out a correct list of all the Kiwis and the years they played for New Zealand. I was fortunate to have alongside me John Coffey from the Christchurch Press, who, like me, was a league fanatic and caring historian of the game.
What sort of issues did you have along the way putting together that first annual? It took us six months to put it together with assistance from Wellington coach Ossie Butt, a printer by trade. Over the years the annuals got better and better. We also became more effective in getting our correspondents to meet their deadlines, so we got the annuals out about a month before Christmas and they became great presents. Didn’t you miss one year? Yes. In 1981 I was putting together another book, Flying Sulkies, a history of the Inter Dominion trotting, another love of mine.
What were some of the great horses you saw?
If I had to single out some, Johnny Ray, Johnny Globe and Highland Fling were special during a fabulous era of trotting. No Cardigan Bay? No, he became really special once he left our shores for the United States.
What are your memories from the time you were elected on to the New Zealand Rugby League board, in 1992?
It was good to be part of league at the time. The Australian competition was becoming very big here. I was part of a coup that got rid of New Zealand Rugby League president George Rainey. George had been in the game for many years and although his heart was in it, he was very dictatorial. He was also not in favour of having a New Zealand-based team in the Winfield Cup. I stood as deputy chairman and replaced another long-standing official, Allen Gore.
How badly did the Super League war in 1997-98 damage rugby league?
It nearly killed off the game entirely. Fortunately, it survived and is now better than ever. However, since the Anderson Report a few years ago clubs and districts no longer have any say at national level. Appointments are made by outside organisations and the ruling national body is made by a group of unknowns who know little about the game, but a lot about business.
You’ve written the centenary histories of the Kiwis, and of Auckland, Wellington and New Zealand Maori rugby league and the Petone Rugby League Club. Which has given you the greatest satisfaction?
The Kiwis history with John Coffey was a massive project, more than five years in the preparation. Along the way it was good to finally set the record straight on a number of things. For instance, we had to destroy some myths within some families who believed a family member had represented New Zealand.