- England Senior and England U20 players celebrate Ponsonby’s 140th birthday
- “It’s great to come here and see guys who live and breathe rugby” – Haskell
Stuart Lancaster’s England squad has come to New Zealand this summer with two stated objectives: to record a first ever series win against the All Blacks and depart the country with a better reputation than when they arrived.
The rugby will have to wait until the first Test on Saturday at Eden Park but the effort to be good ambassadors for England and English Rugby began in earnest yesterday with 16 players helping Ponsonby Rugby Club celebrate its 140th birthday.
Alongside the England Under 20 squad, who start their Junior World Championship title defence against Italy on Monday, the willing volunteers ran a series of drills in the Auckland sunshine with enthusiastic groups of 11-13 year-old kids.
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Scrum half Danny Care, who later presented a commemorative cake and card to the club with captain Chris Robshaw, also spent time one-on-one coaching with Kade, nine, after seeing a bit of himself in the youngster.
“The kids here are awesome, you can see they’re born with a rugby ball in their hands, they’ve got some great skills and what a day for it,” he said.
“Little Kade has been brilliant and he’s got a lot more energy than I have. I’ve been trying to teach him how to pass off his left hand; he’s the same as I me as I couldn’t pass off my left hand when I was younger, it was always my right hand.
“He’s been booting the balls around, he smacked me in the face with the ball a couple of times. The kids seem to be having a lot of fun and the lads are helping out where we can.”
Former All Black and Ponsonby Club President Bryan Williams is a genuine luminary in these parts. After winning 38-Test caps between 1970 and 1978, “Beegee” was President of the New Zealand Rugby Union during Rugby World Cup 2011.
He paid tribute to the England players for giving up their free time on Saturday to create lifelong memories for some junior members of his club, which has produced more than 50 All Blacks over the years.
Emphasising the club’s focus on community and family, Williams said: “It’s fantastic for our youngsters to rub shoulders with the international players and those memories live on forever. Many of the kids who took part in those drills today will never forget that, so well done to the England boys.
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“There’s 140 years of history and heritage and lots of families have passed through Ponsonby Rugby Club. We’ve had some good successes; we’ve managed to produce a number of All Blacks so we’re very proud and as you can see today there are lots of young players and their parents out here, so we’re very pleased.”
James Haskell was the most demonstrative coach on the day, taking his group through a series of passing drills and tips on how to execute overlaps. Despite a six-month stint in Otago playing for the Highlanders, the flanker was taken aback by the scale of the club and their passion for the sport.
“New Zealand has a unique approach to rugby, it’s obviously their national sport and we don’t have that luxury in the UK,” said the 50-cap man. “I think it’s great to come over here and see guys who actually live and breathe it. They’ve got 55 junior teams here, which is an extraordinary amount.”
The afternoon was a positive start for head coach Lancaster, who later accompanied the other 15 players in his 31-man initial tour party to a fundraising event for New Zealand’s rugby charity Cure Kids with High Commissioner Vicki Treadell.
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With two more community coaching events are planned in Dunedin and Hamilton, Lancaster said: “It’s been good to get our boys out of the hotel and come and see what a rugby club in New Zealand is really like.
“For our boys to volunteer for this and stick their names down is great – it wasn’t hard to get the volunteers to come out.
“We want to give something back. We want to show people from New Zealand that they have a perception of us that is perhaps wrong. We want to change that perception and show that we’re good ambassadors for our country.”
And a final, wise word from Williams, who one senses has seen and done most of what the game of rugby can offer, both on and off the field.
Hoping the England players also reaped some benefits from visiting Ponsonby Rugby Club, he added: “Particularly in the professional era, the young players need to get out and about in the community and rub shoulders with the people who really make things happen. It keeps their feet on the ground.
“The thing is, your career at the top is relatively fleeting and this is eventually where you end up, so I think they’d be wise to keep that in mind.”