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A century to celebrate

Another chapter in the history of Ruatoria's Whakarua Park will be written today.

With this weekend’s centenary celebrations for Ngati Porou East Coast Rugby Union in mind, reporter Jack Malcolm looked at the past, present and future of the union’s fabled home ground, Whakarua Park in Ruatoria.

Another chapter in the history of Ruatoria's Whakarua Park will be written today when it plays host to Ngati Porou East Coast's centenary celebrations.

The park has served as a home ground for NPEC since it split from the Poverty Bay Rugby Football Union in 1922.

The 6.35ha Whakarua Park was established through court order by Judge Harold Carr in Ruatoria on October 26, 1928, under the Native Purposes Act.

Sir Apirana Ngata led construction of Uepohatu Marae at the park with the support of Arthur William Kirk, Hone Rire, Hori Kaiwai, Pine Tamahori and Wi Tawaho. Uepōhatu was built as a memorial to the two world wars, to honour soldiers from the East Coast who had given their lives.

Governor-General Sir Bernard Freyberg formally opened Uepōhatu on September 13, 1947. Other events during the two-day hui that marked the completion of the hall included a reunion of ex-servicemen, an investiture ceremony, a haka competition, a concert, and rugby matches.

The building's conventional exterior belies its rich carved, tukutuku-panelled interior. The carvings are by master craftsmen Pine Taiapa and Rua Kaika. The commemorative tablets and tukutuku panels include one honouring Te Moana-nui-a-kiwa Ngārimu, the first Māori soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross, until Willie Apiata in 2007.

This weekend the hall will be rededicated to those who lost their lives fighting for their country, said Whakarua Park Trust chairman David Goldsmith.

“It's timely to remind ourselves of the sacrifice those people made for us all those years ago.”

He said the condition of the hall had started to deteriorate and the trust had made a significant effort to restore the building to its former glory.

“Those people up there were looking down on us thinking ‘come on, did we go overseas for nothing?'.”

The rededication will be performed by the head of the Maori Anglican Church and Primate and Archbishop of New Zealand, the Most Reverend Donald Tamihere.

The bill for the repairs and renovation totalled over $1m and the trust had to fundraise to cover the costs.

One of the biggest jobs of the project was restoring the tukutuku panels, with local men and women having to learn the ancient art form, said Goldsmith.

The process requires “the patience of Job”.

Goldsmith said all the parking areas and access have been resealed and a fence has been installed around the perimeter of the park to match the work that's been done to the interior. The park now “looks a picture”.

While the trust has “completely” renovated the building from the ground up, their plans for the park are just getting started, he said.

Looking forward to 'future memories'

As one of the four areas designated by the Sports Hub Plan, Ruatoria park is slated to be the sporting hub for the East Coast.

Goldsmith said the trust has plans to upgrade the grandstand, build a youth facility, improve irrigation and lighting and build an indoor sporting facility.

The indoor facility would be a “significant development for the East Coast” and will have four courts, he said.

“As a youngster. . . we grew up across from the park and when we were growing up every Saturday, there wasn't a spare blade of grass.

“I remember fondly that place full of people. . . we want to have it set up and people just come and everything's there.”

Goldsmith, who has sat on the trust's board for the past 50 years, said things were now in place for the facility to become a reality and he is excited to see future memories made on the park.

Whakarua Park has a rich history and many stories, from the 2012 Meads Cup final resurgence, where NPEC came back from a 22-point deficit in the last 20 minutes to win the game, to their first home win, 3-0 against Taranaki in 1929.

While the 1929 game was “not exciting and somewhat slow” according to The New Zealand Herald reporter at the scene, it was the start of a proud history for Ngati Porou East Coast.

One of the biggest games played on Whakarua Park was the 2001 semi-final against Nelson Bays. The record crowd of 6000 sang the famous 28th Maori Battalion Marching Song, and Mano Flutey scored all of his team's points, with seven penalties, to win the game 21-12 and send his team to the final against Hawke's Bay.

Overflow: Spectators were known to scale the roof of Whakarua Park's grandstand to watch the game when space ran out. Here top Ngati Porou East Coast points scorer Eli Manuel (414 points, 1985-1998) kicks off in their 1986 encounter against the New Zealand Maori, where they lost 54-9.
VICTORY: Hikurangi supporters perform a haka for their side in 2011, Whakarua Park grandstand and Uepōhatu in the background, after they won the local club competition over Uawa. Picture by Paul Rickard
HIGH HOPES: A cheeky East Coast supporter changed the scoreboard to read 80-17 in the 2003 clash against Manawatu. The game finished 8-17. Picture by Paul Rickard
ADORNED: The conventional exterior of the Uepōhatu Memorial Hall belies the interior with its beautiful carvings and tukutuku panels recognising and remembering, among others, Rutu Manutawhiorangi and Te Moananui-a-Kiwa Ngarimu, the only Maori to be awarded the Victoria Cross until Willie Apiata, who received his in 2007.Picture supplied