Eagles Set To Soar After Wainoni Homecoming
The 2018 season shapes as one of the most significant in the Aranui Eagles’ history following the upgrade of Wainoni Park and the recent handback of the ground to the club.
As part of the Rugby League World Cup legacy project, Wainoni Park was extensively refurbished and now boasts pristine playing surfaces that rank among the best in Canterbury.
But as outstanding as the new fields and facilities are, the prospect of getting back to where they belong is the most important aspect of the Eagles’ looming return.
“It means the world to us, it’s our spiritual home,” Aranui Eagles President Sol Smith says.
“It’s what we call ‘The Eagles’ Landing’.
“That’s about all you can say – it’s that important to us to be back home, that’s where our roots are.”
The Eagles played out of QEII Park in 2017, and while it may only be a few kilometres up the road, Smith – a former Eastern Surburbs and Aranui player – believes coming back to Wainoni Park will prove a massive boost for the club’s fans.
“We’re into pre-season training at the moment, so it’s probably not until we get our first home game (in 2018) that we’re really going to notice the difference from the supporters’ perspective,” he says.
“At one point a few years ago Aranui had the highest attendances to premier games, so we’re looking to get that number back up again and we hope our supporters can come back and support us on our home turf.”
Wainoni Park enjoyed a wonderful – and very public – reopening in late-October courtesy of a rousing welcome for the Scotland Rugby League team, who used it as their training base ahead of their RLWC pool match against New Zealand.
Following a bagpipe band entrance, a karakia from Reverend Canon Wharekawa Kaa and an address from Aranui Community Trust Board member and city councillor Glenn Livingston, the Aranui Eagles performed a stirring haka for the Bravehearts. Then the huge turnout received their first look at the revamped fields.
“The community, respectfully, didn’t look into what was behind the cordoned-off field (during the refurbishment). So everything around the opening, the welcome, the haka – it was a welcome for Scotland, but it was also a welcome for the Eagles,” Smith explains.
“It just took it to a different level. It’s really hard being away from home and having that disconnect, so for the supporters it’s been an amazing thing to see – being back at home, but also how great the field looks and how awesome the turf is.”
It’s an extraordinary and much-deserved turnaround for the Eagles, who did it tougher than most clubs in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes.
“After the quakes, we were pretty much reduced to half a field for three years. To go from that to finally getting both fields back, and now to this has been nothing short of a miracle.
“It reflects our resilient community, just holding on for good things to come. What’s happened has been an awesome blessing to have an internationally recognised field.
“From what I understand, being involved with the Rugby League World Cup (as an ambassador), the teams that trained there said they hadn’t had those same sort of conditions in the other places they’d been.”
While eternally grateful to the RLWC and the council for working together to bring the dream to reality, Smith acknowledges the important groundwork that has been laid by other prominent league stalwarts.
“Justin Wallace had a part to play when (Walco Events) brought the Penrith Panthers to Christchurch to play, he had those discussions with council around if we had those NRL teams come, they need places to train.
“I believe that’s where those conversations came about, and then with the Rugby League World Cup coming along we’ve fast-tracked fields that these teams could train on.”
With attracting player numbers a constant challenge for all clubs, Smith is confident the Eagles’ return to Wainoni Park will help with retention of current players and recruitment of new ones, but that factor is far from the main motivation.
“Hopefully (it will help), but for us as a club it’s not about flashy things.
“From our perspective it’s the safety aspect as well, we can provide a quality field to train and play on, which is a lot more inviting than what we had previously.
“No doubt about it, the hope is that it attracts players, but the most important thing is that the players that are there now are rewarded for their commitment to the club.”
Smith also stresses the new-look Wainoni Park is a gift for the entire Aranui community, not just the Eagles. Haeata Community Campus are expected to get plenty of use out of the facilities.
“Many of our juniors, and some of our young premiers who stepped up this year, attend Haeata. We’ve had these discussions, we’re happy to have them use our facilities.
“The park itself is open to the Aranui community, so we hope that it’s more than just the Eagles that use it.
“Haeata is a big part of who we are after Aranui High School’s closing, so no doubt about it, we hope that Haeata use Wainoni Park.”
The Eagles finished seventh on the Massetti Cup ladder in 2017, winning just three of their 14 games after a respectable fifth-place finish the previous season. But the club’s Wainoni Park homecoming puts the Aranui premiers in good stead for a top-four tilt next year.
Again, however, Smith emphasises the importance of the Eagles’ club and community first, results second ethos.
“Regardless of where Aranui is on the competition ladder, you only have to look across Canterbury Rugby League to the other teams to see the number of Aranui born-and-bred players that are plying their trade with other clubs,” Smith says.
“The important thing for us and Aranui is that we’re playing at home. Our kids can walk to the park – they don’t have to wait for someone to pick them up or their parents to drop them off, it makes things a lot easier.
“I guess it comes back to the spiritual home stuff. Wainoni Park, or as locals know it, Hampshire Park, that’s our base and we’re just looking forward to getting back out on there and playing, and hoping that everyone that comes to the park can enjoy themselves.”
Smith played for Eastern Suburbs until they folded, before spending a stint with Celebration. But, along with several other players, he returned to see out his playing days with the Aranui Eagles, who formed in 2006.
It’s just another aspect of what the Wainoni Park redevelopment means to the Eagles’ faithful.
“For a number of us it’s a real homecoming.
“That local connection brings people back, and we’re happy to hear that there’s a number of ex-Aranui players coming back, and members wanting to get involved again.
“That’s not all about the park, but it has been a calling home for a lot of people.”