NEW England rugby celebrated its proud history in fitting style on the weekend.
This year marks 120 years since the New England zone was affiliated and hundreds of former players laced up the boots again to commemorate the milestone.
They came from near and far – Northern Ireland, New Zealand, Perth, Queensland – to enjoy a few drinks, a few laughs and relive rugby days gone by.
More than 20 different clubs were involved in the rugby festivities, some of them like Wright College, Armidale City, Uralla, United Colleges and Teachers College no longer in existence.
For them, it was the chance to pull on the old jersey once again.
Among those taking the field and watching on were several Wallabies who played part of their careers in Armidale, from the likes of Peter Phipps (1955), Hugh Rose (1967), Peter Horton (1974) and Greg Cornelsen (1974) to more recently Damien Smith, James Holbeck, Richard Tombs and Sam Payne.
Among the frivolity though there was some sombreness following the sudden passing of John Hipwell late last month.
The former Wallabies captain had a strong link to New England rugby, coaching at The Armidale School and playing for Armidale City, and is revered as one of the best players to play in Armidale.
He was intending to come up for the weekend and was remembered with a minute’s silence and never far from anyone’s thoughts, especially those who played alongside him.
Cornelsen was one of those.
“The saddest thing is John Hipwell’s not here,” he said.
He remembered a brilliant rugby player, echoing comments from another Wallaby great Mark Loane when the 1978 Wallabies got together a couple of months ago.
“He was the greatest rugby player of our generation,” Cornelsen said.
Famed for his four tries against the All Blacks in 1978, Cornelsen spent over a decade in Armidale and holds fond memories of his time there, which started at The Armidale School.
“I played with Earle Page from 1971 to 1974,” he said.
“We won four premierships in a row.
“They were special years. Some of the best moments I’ve had in rugby.”
He then played a handful of seasons with Armidale City, over two stints.
The period from 1975 to 1977 was particularly successful, winning the title all three years.
At that time they boasted three Wallabies in their ranks – Cornelsen, Horton and Glenn Eishenhauer.
Cornelsen had a great couple of days catching up with old friends, some of whom he hadn’t seen for 30 years.
It was a similar story whoever you spoke to.
Tombs played with The Armidale School side and was also involved in the 1893 reenactment game between Armidale and Districts and Inverell.
It was 12 years since he’d pulled on the boots but he had a lot of fun and said it was a great opportunity to catch up with old team-mates.
The side that played on the weekend was largely made up of players involved in the 1984 side that toured the UK.
“Of the 30 players we had, 25 of them were there and 23 of them played today,” Tombs said.
“One of our guys came from Northern Ireland.”
Sadly there was one notable absence – Hipwell.
He coached them, and Tombs remembered a man who was not only a genius rugby player but a good mentor.
“Because he was a half-back he knew the game of rugby,” he said. “But he didn’t push his thoughts about how to play it on us.”
As well as the golden oldies games and rematch between Armidale and Inverell, which was played in long shorts and caps, there was also a women’s competition, a sevens competition, a juniors’ game, and the running of the Guy Fawkes Gift.
The action finished with a selection of the current UNE crop tackling a Barbarian XV.
Tombs and Smith were in charge of the Barbarians side, which was selected from (non-UNE) players involved in the sevens competition.
The UNE side came out firing and played some enterprising rugby to lead 19-nil.
But the Barbarians scored just before half-time and played with great flair in the second half to finish over the top of the UNE boys.
Then it was onto the Armidale Jockey Club for more reminiscing.