18 Jun 2019

Play on: Harbour Rugby refuses to leave Ravensdown-owned grounds

6:03 am on 18 June 2019

Dunedin fertiliser company Ravensdown wants Harbour Rugby Club to look for another place to play. But the club says rugby has been at Moller Park for 130 years and is refusing to budge. Max Towle enters the scrum.

David Dick at Harbour Rugby Club's Port Chalmers clubrooms.

David Dick at Harbour Rugby Club's Port Chalmers clubrooms. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

Saturday is "rugby day" for David Dick. The Dunedin retiree is up early to catch a ride down the hill from his Port Chalmers home to Watson Park, where he battles a "real lean-in" wind to fit the goalposts with pads, plant flags in the corners, and surround the field with ropes and poles.

Dunedin's top two premier teams - Green Island and home side Harbour Rugby Club - are due to face off and Dick, who's been involved with Harbour since 1950, when he first kitted up as a 5-year-old, is excited. "I don't want to put the mockers on the boys, but they're top of the ladder and going real well this year."

Further along the winding water, back towards The Octagon, a couple of junior games are wrapping up at Harbour's second ground, Moller Park. Certificates and orange quarters are handed out, before muddy knees scrape against the seats of parents' cars. "Player of the day" is a young girl sporting a scrum cap and a beaming smile.

Rugby has been played at Moller Park for more than 130 years, yet its future - and the future of Harbour - is in doubt. The land is owned by neighbours Ravensdown, a multi-million dollar fertiliser company that has implied it wants to expand, and has told Harbour to start looking for another ground.

Dick says the club won't be forced off the park without a fight. "Rugby's losing people all the time, so you've got to protect what's yours."

'We've been there for more than 130 years'

Rugby is not just in David Dick's blood, it's in Dunedin's grass and mud and the water that moves from the Otago Heads, past Larnach Castle, to Andersons Bay. Harbour Rugby Club was formed when two of Dunedin's oldest clubs, Ravensbourne and Port Chalmers, merged in 1992; both were more than 100 years old. The former was based at Moller Park, the latter at Watson Park. Games are now spread across the two pitches, with the premiers training at Moller.

Moller Park, with Ravensdown's sheds in the background.

Moller Park, with Ravensdown's sheds in the background. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

Dick was always a Port Chalmers lad. He started as a schoolboy, captained the premier team, became a coach, a committee member, and now, finally, is a volunteer and fan. When the clubs merged, there were seven full teams, including a women's XV; now there are three. "It's like that across the whole region," says Dick. "More of the boys are playing soccer and other sports."

Inside the clubrooms, out of the gales, he points to the club's honours board. "We've had a lot of good players down the years. There's Jeff Wilson there, the Brown boys, Waisake Naholo." Harbour may only have one title to its name, but "there aren't many years we've missed out on the semi-finals".

He says passion isn't unique to Harbour. "You head into town and you get a bit of stick from the other clubs. They say things like, 'You're buying players,' and all that, but we don't do that." He says those who volunteer to run the club do so out of passion. "There are a lot of people like me - the community is a big family."

The honours board at Harbour Rugby Club.

The honours board at Harbour Rugby Club. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

Ravensdown bought Moller Park from Port Otago about 20 years ago. Ravensdown works manager Tony Gray says Harbour has used the land on a gentleman's handshake. "We've been happy to have Harbour there. It's been a great asset for them, we've sponsored them in the past, and we're proud of that."

Ravensdown may be under no obligation to continue the arrangement, but Harbour finds that hard to accept. When asked if he can appreciate the situation from the company's perspective, club president Lance Spence, the founder of playcentre Chipmunks, demurs, and says Harbour owes Ravensdown very little. He believes the fact the club has had "unbroken use" of the ground for so long gives them some legal standing.

Wellington lawyer Peter Barrett, who is advising the club, calls the dispute unusual. He says Harbour may be able to argue "adverse possession," whereby a person or group can claim land despite not owning it, but most applications usually relate to abandoned land. Another option is reviewing whether the city council should have changed the classification of the land in the 1960s from recreational to industrial.

In April, a meeting between Gray and Spence ended in a tense standoff when Gray mentioned that the company might have an expiring lease at another location in the city, and a different space would be needed for its sheds. He offered Harbour a licence to occupy that allowed Ravensdown to terminate with a year's notice. Spence wouldn't sign, and told him the club wouldn't leave.

Speaking to RNZ, Gray is diplomatic. He says, "hand on my heart," the company has no specific plans to expand into Moller Park, but adds the company is indicating that "things are changing [and] we want to give plenty of notice so people can make alternative arrangements". He says it's possible in a year or two the park may no longer exist. "There are all sorts of pressures we face … there is pressure on us in terms of our offsite storage."

Spence says it's not easy to find new grounds. He says the park is vital to the survival of the club due to its location - it's a short walk from the stadium and players often jog to training from the city. Besides rugby, the park is important to Dunedin, he says. "It's one of the only green spaces along the waterfront."

Locals walk their dogs there, and various other groups, like the local volunteer fire brigade who run drills in the park, and a local athletics club that uses the clubrooms' gym, gather there.

Spence says Ravensdown's attitude is that it owns the land and can do what it wants. "But we've been there for more than 130 years and we're not going to be bullied. This is also a community issue, not just a club issue."

Port Chalmers playing in the 1900s.

Port Chalmers playing in the 1900s. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

A new fight

As Saturday junior rugby draws to a close at Moller Park, there are no signs of life next door at Ravensdown. The car park is virtually empty, and no smoke billows from its chimney. Yet the company says people attending games at the park are at risk from trucks driving past.

"My concern is that on Saturday mornings, parents are watching little Johnny on the field while his little sister Joanie happens to run out in front of a large-wheeled vehicle leaving our premises," says Gray.

The company has asked the club to respond to its safety concerns, with Gray suggesting, "The removal of school children would go some way to mitigating that risk." He says Ravensdown first raised safety concerns a couple of years ago - concerns echoed by the company's community liaison group - but is now putting real pressure on Harbour to respond.

When asked how many trucks might pass by on an average Saturday morning, Gray thinks for a moment, before saying, "Four or five would be my guess." He says over autumn and winter, nothing is typically dispatched over the weekends, while in spring and summer, operational hours can be extended. He says in the last financial year, the company had 8700 trucks, as well as large cranes and diggers, coming in and out.

Lance Spence says it's baloney, and a ploy to force the club out. "In more than a decade, there's never been an accident, and I don't think I've ever seen a truck roll past on a Saturday morning."

He adds it would be difficult for kids to even reach the road, as that side of the park is steeply banked, aside from a winding driveway.

Ravensdown's offices in Dunedin's harbour.

Ravensdown's offices in Dunedin's harbour. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

WorkSafe says Ravensdown has recently been in touch: "From what we can establish, the decision to [prevent] the Harbour Rugby Club's junior rugby teams' home games at Moller Park was made by property owner Ravensdown … this is their way of mitigating that risk [and] that is their call. We understand that the park is adjacent to Ravensdown's plant and that there is significant heavy vehicle traffic to and from that plant."

'It's all about money'

It was a minor miracle that junior rugby took place at Moller Park the weekend before last. Spence says the Dunedin City Council weighed in, echoing Ravensdown's safety concerns and instructed the Otago Rugby Union to prevent games being scheduled there. But the club went ahead and scheduled the games anyway.

Moller Park is one of more than 100 reserves and parks in Dunedin that the council maintain - mowing the lawns, marking the fields, and maintaining the changing rooms and toilets.

Yet in February, the council told Harbour it would stop taking responsibility for the park imminently. In a letter, a Parks and Recreation advisor wrote, "Council's decision to cease its involvement at Moller Park was largely due to the fact the land is privately owned and a tenable lease arrangement could not be found. But equally, council had health and safety concerns for other users of the park from the industrial traffic." The council added it had concerns with cracks in the park's light poles.

A Harbour junior rugby team celebrates at Moller Park.

A Harbour junior rugby team celebrates at Moller Park. Photo: Rachel Holland

The council has since backtracked and agreed to maintain the park until the end of the season. The council would not respond to RNZ's questions, but in a brief statement said it was working on finding an "alternate arrangement" for Harbour next season.

Spence says the council is bowing to Ravensdown's pressure. "I don't think they want a bar of it - I think they've put us in the too hard basket."

Tony Gray rejects any accusation of backroom meetings with the council, though he says "they seem sympathetic towards us, and they understand that there's an obligation for us … to find practical solutions for everyone."

The council is working on a multi-million dollar plan to redevelop Dunedin's waterfront, partly funded by Shane Jones' $3 billion Provincial Growth Fund. As the city thinks differently about its harbour, Spence says Moller Park is seen as surplus to requirements. "There's going to be a lot more product coming out, including from Ravensdown … it's all about money."

He says any issues regarding health and safety can be managed without the park being abandoned. He says Ravensdown, which announced an annual profit of $63 million last year, is a powerful player in the city. "They're a profitable company with shareholders - they've told us during this process that they have a responsibility to look after them - but what about their responsibility to the community?"

'There'll probably be big, ugly buildings here'

Peta Hill looks out across the harbour and sighs. "If we don't put up a fight, there'll probably be big, ugly buildings here in a couple of years," she says. A primary school teacher by day, Hill has volunteered for Harbour for more than 12 years - since her oldest son started playing for the club. Now the chairperson of junior rugby, she helps register and schedule games for more than 80 children. "We're basically a band of volunteers who make sure there are places for our kids to play rugby."

She agrees that losing Moller Park could spell doom for the club. "We would be left with only one small park, and an alternative could be too far away for some of our community. Every big club in town has at least two fields."

Peta Hill, Harbour Rugby Club's junior rugby chairperson.

Peta Hill, Harbour Rugby Club's junior rugby chairperson. Photo: RNZ / Max Towle

She likens the dispute to a schoolyard stoush: "Everything has come to the fore in the past few months. As long as I've been involved, there's never been any issues, but now Ravensdown doesn't want anyone using the field - this is an organisation that is basically trying to bully us off the field so they can use it themselves."

Tony Gray rejects accusations the company is bullying the club, and says he hasn't thought about what will happen if the club refuses to budge. He hopes a drawn out legal path can be avoided. "The door's still open [to talk], at least from this end. We're trying to be inclusive and we do recognise the value of the park and the wider community, [but] the world's a changing place and I can't foresee in what shape or form we might need the park in the future."

Back on the harbour, Dick heads out into the driving wind to walk home for a quick rest before what will eventually be a thrilling 24-18 win to Harbour. "It's his birthday today," someone inside the clubroom mentions. "I'd better go offer him a lift up the hill." But on his walk home, Dick diverts across the park to meet a couple of friends assessing the state of the pitch. When his ride finally catches up, he tells them, "I think I'm going to stick around a little while longer."