The 1920s - A Golden Decade

The 1920s opened with a number of clubs trying to establish a dominant position. In Senior play, that remained open for a few years yet but it was the clubs with a school tie that did best straight after the War, not those that drew on a district. During the War, when the game was limited to players under 20, a school association was quite likely to be at least as strong a bond as neighbourhood. That was even more likely in those neighbourhoods where the young men possibly viewed the army as a chance to get better paid, better fed, the chance to see the world and grab a bit of adventure while they were at it. It took a while before the realities of war sank in, and then the soldiers were there to do a job none of them particularly liked, even if they did it well. Working class lads were still in high demand, and still went in their hundreds. They learned a lot while they were away, and much of it had to do with operating in a disciplined environment.

When the Ponsonby rugby players got home, they found another sort of disciplined set-up waiting for them. George Nicholson's Finishing School for Footballers was in full swing, and it touched a chord with the players. Nicholson proved himself to be a sensational rugby coach and he was at the absolute peak of his powers around this time. He'd been part of the committee of five that drew up the Auckland Rules, but of the five he understood what was on offer better than any other. Perhaps that was because he'd played in some of New Zealand's best teams to that time - at club level with City and Ponsonby, in the Auckland team that went six years unbeaten, and in the 1903 and 1905-06 All Blacks.

Whatever the reason was, he knew how the game worked and, better than that, could teach it.He set Ponsonby up as the first club which had an organised training method - we can call it 'The Ponsonby Way' for want of anything better. He taught every team in the club the basics of the system. Each one could have a few coded moves of its own, but the core drills were common from the Seniors to the lowest Junior team, and players could move up and down without having to change anything except the speed they operated. It worked. Soon his teams were winning, and then they were winning it all.

Each Ponsonby team had its run of successes. First Junior won the title six years in a row, 1916-21. Third Grade won in 1916 and 1920, then 1925-26-28-29. Third Intermediate won the grade in its first year, 1924, and again in 1925-27-28-29. Fourth Grade won from 1922 through to 1926, and then again in 1928. Fifth Grade won six in a row, from 1919 to 1924. You know where this has to end up - with a dominant Senior team. And it did; Ponsonby won the new Gallaher Shield, named for the club's most famous player, in six years out of seven beetween 1924 and 1930, only losing in 1928 to University in a playoff. Just for good measure, the Silver Football was returned after its annual trip to the engravers every year, extending the unfinished sequence to 14 straight by 1929.

No club had ever got within a bull's roar of that sort of success. In the Auckland Union Jubilee book (1933), it listed all the grade championships won by the various clubs in the Union's first 50 years. Ponsonby won 36 titles between 1916 to 1929 (the odd one was Sixth Grade in 1928); the next best by any club over the full 50-year period was 20, by Grafton.

Even more importantly, the players Nicholson taught were adept students. Many became coaches after their playing days were done, most notably Rube McWilliams and Charlie Cammick, but the influence reached right down the club. The torch was passed from generation to generation and to the day he died in 1968 'Long Nick' would have seen the coaching methods he put in place still being taught at the club. A lot of that philosophy holds good today.

What sort of a legacy was that for one man to provide?