Thursday, December 23, 2010

ENCOUNTER: Passing it on

Lauren Mentjox | 29th August 2009


WHO: David Wong
WHAT: First Chinese-New Zealander to play rugby league for Auckland
WHERE: Ponsonby United Rugby League Club, Victoria Park
WHY: Grass roots run deep in rugby league

David Wong says he is 67 but it's hard to believe. Dressed in a bright blue tracksuit and
running shoes, he appears - and probably is - fitter than people half his age.

There's a spring in his step as he walks, and he talks a mile-a-minute. Get him started on rugby league and his eyes sparkle.

For more than half a century David has held active roles in the game as player, coach, supporter, father and grandfather. He doesn't intend to give up anytime soon.

"It's a passion that exceeds everything else,'' he says. "I lived for it. And I still do. I love the camaraderie.''

DAVID'S PARENTS did not want him to play rugby league.
They thought it was too brutal and rough for a Chinese kid, he says, laughing as he recalls having to wash his own gear because his mother refused to do it unless he switched to soccer.

His parents were more into school than sport. If it bothers him that they never watched him play, he doesn't let on. "It was just the way things were.''

There was no way David would have given up the game once he started, anyway. It was 1952. The Wong family had emigrated from China in the 1930s (he thinks) and were living in Westmere. The 10-year-old David became mates with Roger Bailey, who went on to play for the Kiwis from 1961-70.

The pair started playing league for Ponsonby and progressed to the senior grades. The club won the Fox Memorial Shield, the region's premier competition, in 1967, the year David represented Auckland.

"I'm the first full-blooded Chinese boy to play for Auckland and I'm proud of that,'' says David, who believes that would not have been possible without the Bailey family's support.

"They took me to all the games and they made sure I got there. If it wasn't for Roger's mum I wouldn't have been playing. She was my biggest influence.''

David played for Northcote for a few years, then Bay-Roskill as a player-coach before returning to Ponsonby.

By then, he had married Beverley, had four daughters, worked at the freezing works, the Dairy Board, bought a takeaway shop on Hobson St and set up a lawnmowing business.
He was also into motorsport. Somehow he managed to come back and play league at masters' level - and was still playing in his early 60s.

THESE DAYS David's boots are planted firmly on the sidelines at Ponsonby United's home grounds at Victoria Park - watching the seniors play and cooking their end-of-match
barbecue or running masters' modules.

He is also helping organise the International Masters competition in Auckland in October, and he's on committees for the Ponsonby and Bay-Roskill clubs.

"I do it all because I just love the game. It's really important to keep in touch with what is going on at grass roots.

"We lost a lot of players so we have to try to get the culture back and encourage them to stay here to play here.''

That is something David is instilling in his grandson and namesake, David Nathan-Wong, who plays for Ponsonby under-9s. David ferries him and his sister, Tyla - who's in the New Zealand under-15 rugby union team - from their home in Blockhouse Bay to all their games. He's their biggest fan.

That's not where the Wong family's sporty genes end.

David's eldest and youngest daughters, Sheree and Deanne, represented New Zealand in touch while the middle two, Korina and Michele were provincial touch representatives.

David's daughters all tried league after growing up on the sidelines watching him play, but they "got bashed around a bit'' because of their small size so they switched to touch.

"But that's okay because touch came out of rugby league,'' he says with that ever-present sparkle in his eyes. "They've all done really well.''

Not a bad legacy for a skinny Chinese boy from Westmere.

Fox Memorial Shield games are broadcast on Maori Television every weekend. The final will screen on September 6 at 2pm. The Sharman Cup play-offs screen on September 12 at 2pm. Details:

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