094. Poneke People: Grant Griffith

regular feature about people who have been involved in the Poneke Football Club here in Wellington. It could be about any rugby club up and down New Zealand, or around the world.  In fact it could be about any sort of sporting or social or service or professional voluntary group, because it’s really about people who help create communities by getting in and giving it a go.

What else were you going to do with your one short life?

  • Player, Coach, Administrator, Good Bloke
  • Life Member, Poneke Football Club
  • Vice-President, Wellington Rugby Football Union

You have to lean in to hear Griff talk.

Humble is the word. Despite a life time of achievement and giving back, he’s not about to thump his chest or push his finger in your chest.

But lean in and you’ll hear some gems.

Strathmore 1958. Source: National Library

Strathmore 1958. Source: National Library

About how his Dad flew Hurricanes in the war. About growing up in Strathmore in the 50s and 60s: doing the jobs in the morning, and then scarpering down the hill in the afternoon to join up with all the other kids at the school playground. “Somebody would be inventing a game. You learned the pitfalls.”

About being sports mad, and good at it: playing rep soccer mid-week and rep rugby on the weekend. Sleeping outside Athletic Park with his brother so they’d get a good spot to watch the All Blacks play France in 1961. (A howling southerly, a try apiece, and Don Clarke the difference with his conversion of Tremain’s try, kicking ‘almost parallel to the goal line for the wind to catch the ball and miraculously carry it over the bar’.)

Playing with Grant Nisbett at Rongotai College, and then joining Poneke together in 1969. (Griff reckons Nisbo was a pretty good Number 8, and then prop, which is maybe why he turned out to be a pretty good commentator. He knows the game from the inside.)

The club rooms packed with families on a Saturday night. Winning a thousand bucks for the club on the 2ZB sports quiz. Scoring an 80 metre try against Counties.

Even in his 60s Griff is trim and fit, and you can sense the determination that made him a stalwart of the Wellington team in the 1970s and early 1980s. He started at first-five before drifting out to the centres.

Never out of a rep team between 1969 and 1984. And that’s with the injuries: a couple of broken arms (and a plate still in there), cheek bone, broken legs, shoulder blade. Recovery was training down on the beach. “I just wanted to play.”

Graeme Mourie and Grant Griffith run out for the Poneke centenary match 1983

Grant Griffith and Graeme Mourie run out for the centenary match 1983

His club nickname was ‘The Snaffler’, but his Wellington team mates called him ‘Ngauranga George’. “It’s a long story,” he says, suggesting that John Dougan might have had something to do with it.

He went from playing for Poneke in 1986 to coaching them in 1987, winning the Premiers first time. “I was pretty wise to the excuses players had for missing a practice. Maihi was a surfer, so I knew when the surf was up in Lyall Bay.” He was fit enough to go on the training runs, of course, “and I thrashed most of them.”

The Poneke players who went on to higher honours: Richard Watt, Junior Tonu’u, Scott Keith, Philip Rayasi and “the freakish” Richard Blackmore.

“I wanted to play a certain style,” he says, and they did: 100 tries in each of two seasons.

Helping coach the Wellington Colts in the 90s: Ross Filipo, Neemia Tialata, and others who went on to the pros. “There was a little skinny guy called Conrad Smith. He turned out alright.”

Assisting Andy Leslie to coach Wellington A, and running the Bs and Colts teams.

He told his teams to be confident, not to be scared to have a go. “If something was on, they’d go for it.” And always knowing that the coach has to accept that things can go wrong when you have a go.

His wealth of experience and wisdom is still there for those who would ask. “I still want to coach for some reason,” he says sheepishly, almost surprising himself. “I see lots of faults. How a lot of small things become a big thing. Players are trying to do the big things before they’ve learned the little things. I don’t like how it has become so structured with all the phase play. I like to see some individual flair.”

Then there’s the names that trip out because they are only yesterday: Ian Stephens, Dave Henderson, Grant Batty, Colin Meads, Stu Wilson and Bernie Fraser, Murray Mexted, Graeme Mourie.

Lean in. Lean in, listen and learn.

About Ned Davy

By hokey, the big fella’s tipped into his 50s. A rangy loose forward in his prime, good with the ball in hand, but rarely up with the play any more.
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