Our Founding Father
Introducing Tom Johnson -
the man who started Golden Oldies
Least surprised that the Golden Oldies Rugby movement will celebrate its 23rd Festival in Denver, 2020 is the founder of the event Tom Johnson.
The former New Zealand Rugby Union councillor and Hawke’s Bay rugby representative knew he was onto something when experiencing what was known as ‘veterans rugby’ in the United States and doing some coaching on a tour to Canada. Johnson knew that the significant social changes occurring during the mid-1970s were impacting on rugby in New Zealand.
SOCIETY IS CHANGING
“The social-liberal movements of the ‘70s, the rampant rise of feminism, Springbok tour opposition were all drivers of change, much of which the NZRFU had little understanding of. Rugby was being played less in the schools, partly due to changing attitudes, but also because of an increasing ratio of female teachers to their male counterparts,” Johnson said.
The priority of the NZRFU was to look after the recruitment and coaching of young players but Johnson was concerned about the drop-out rate of players over 25. Changed business and work commitments meant these players could be lost to the game for good.
Johnson took up the case of the recreational player and creating places in clubs for them. Around New Zealand there had always been Barbarian-type clubs who played some social rugby at times. Teams with names like the Trojans, Evergreens, Centurions and the like were targeted during the tour of New Zealand by the 1977 British and Irish Lions. Having drummed up some sponsorship he used the vinyl recording link to invite players between 33 1/3 and 78 to partake in some Golden Oldies rugby.
At several venues of Lions games, 20-minute curtain-raisers were played between past representative players.
“The games were short enough to be not too demanding on the players and long enough to provide some interest and nostalgia for the public. What it also confirmed for me was that all the participants enjoyed taking part,” Johnson said.
He struck a problem in Auckland were some prominent former All Blacks turned down having a curtain-raiser before the final Test. But undeterred Johnson organised a game between the New Zealand Barbarians and a group of past international players from Britain who were touring with the visiting Lions at Onewa Domain on Auckland’s North Shore.
5000 watch the first match!
“Five thousand people turned out to watch the match. I knew I was on the right track with my thinking when I saw that. Whilst the Brits had, at that stage, some comparatively younger internationals like Andy Ripley and Nigel Starmer-Smith playing, what was quite remarkable for me was that John Tanner, an All Black in 1950 against the Lions, and one would think well into his 50s played, displaying a level of fitness that was remarkable in itself and many of the skills of yore.”
Later that year Johnson visited Canada at the invitation of the president of the Canadian Rugby Union, Bob Elder. Back in 1974 when the Asian and Pacific Rugby Congress was held in Sydney, Johnson had met Dr Dale Toohey, an Australian academic living in California and working at Cal State University at Long Beach, and Elder. Toohey had talked about playing veterans rugby in California and in discussion with Elder the trio had talked about a type of veterans rugby.
FACT FINDING IN NORTH AMERICA
On his 1977 trip Johnson examined veterans rugby in Canada and the United States.
“I had considered all the aspects. How do we attract people to play? The rugby had to be fun but rugby was fun anyway. What did I want out of life, apart from a good job, a happy family and security?
“The answer, at least partly, was that I wanted to travel and have something that appealed for my wife in travel and entertainment. By putting all these factors into the mixing bowl, the concept of Golden Oldies emerged.
“What I also realised was that it would be difficult to establish and would need to be treated as a marketing exercise if it was to be successful. Bob Elder and I sat around his kitchen table one summer afternoon and tried to map out a structure for Golden Oldies that would suit both the objectives I had for New Zealand, and be attractive to other countries,” Johnson said.
On the same trip Johnson stayed with Toohey who had an understanding of what Johnson was trying to do and encouraged Johnson to bring a team from New Zealand to California.
“As attractive as that was to me, I realised if we were to get things off the ground, the first festival had to be in New Zealand. Dale then offered to bring a team down, and that was crucial to getting started,” he said.
NEW ZEALAND HOSTS THE FIRST FESTIVAL
Enervated by that prospect, Johnson set about making his dream a reality. To him it made marketing logic to have an airline involved that could benefit from the international travel that would be generated.
“I approached Allan Dumbleton, who headed the appropriate department in Air New Zealand in those days, and God bless him, he bought the concept, realising as we discussed it, that if it worked for rugby then the model could be used for other sports like cricket, hockey and netball. Air New Zealand underwrote the first festival,” he said.
Having decided to host the inaugural Golden Oldies rugby tournament in Auckland in 1979 it was necessary to put in place a group of volunteers to help organise the event. Onto the scene came Brian Craies, Tank Herring, Malcolm Dick, Pat Sheehan, Murray Reid and others. The Auckland University grounds at Merton Road became HQ and the University hostel was the accommodation base for the 17 teams who took part, one of them Dale Toohey’s Californian team and the rest from around New Zealand.
“The weather couldn’t have been worse. It rained persistently through every day of the tournament. In one way that was a blessing in disguise as matches tended to be played with the same intensity of former days of glory and most of the participants were former representative players from the various provinces of New Zealand. The horrendously wet fields meant fewer injuries.
“After the games we went into the University clubrooms and socially it was brilliant with everyone mixing in and we had a lot of fun,” Johnson said. Another important step, which helped the longevity of the Golden Oldies idea, was dropping the age limit from 40 to 35. It allowed many more people to be involved.
THE ADMINISTRATORS STAY AWAY
The NZRFU had stayed away from the concept, which Johnson was delighted about.
“Most of the guys on the NZ union pooh-poohed the whole thing. I was happy that they did because I could just get on with what I was wanting to do. I kept it at arm’s length because the last thing I wanted was Ces Blazey to appoint somebody to chair it and oversee it,” he said.
But he did invite future chairman Russ Thomas and Auckland councillor Ron Don to the post-Festival dinner held at Bob Sell’s entertainment centre.
“It was a magnificent affair with McPhail and Gadsby [a New Zealand comedy duo] performing with former Wallaby Sir Nicholas Shehadie and the Dean of St Paul’s, Martin Sullivan were the guest speakers. The function was an eye-opener to Ron Don and Russ Thomas and they witnessed first hand the remarkable atmosphere of Golden Oldies rugby.
“At the dinner it had been pre-arranged that Dr Dale Toohey would announce the second tournament would be held at Long Beach, California two years later, in 1981.
“In spite of the success, the tournament did cost Air New Zealand with some financial over-runs, but they quickly realised the potential of the concept.”
And the rest they say is history!