When Athletics NZ announced the award for Top Club this year, I was nestled among the Owairaka club members. I assured them beforehand that we would not win — and even suggested that they had miscounted when Scottish was named the winner. As often, I was wrong.
It was interesting to be, for the first time in over a decade, an outsider looking in on the planning behind the Wellington Scottish campaign to win Top Club accolades. For many years, the Top Club award has been the quantifiable performance measurement that shows whether we are succeeding as a club. Indeed for some years, it was written in as a key performance indicator for the club’s officials to work towards.
The Top Club award goes to the club that scores the most points across three grades. The senior grades are worth the most points, with juniors and 35+ grades worth slightly less and each older grade after that worth fewer points. The 70+s are not rewarded with any points at all yet.
Our path to that award has always been different to other clubs (Wellington Harriers excepted). We get there by brute force — overwhelming numbers. We put up more teams than everyone else and compete across as many grades as possible. Most other clubs put together one or two solid teams and then hope a third team will give them enough points.
For instance, for both University of Canterbury and Whippets, their senior men’s and women’s teams combined for a very impressive 36 points for each club. But Whippets did not have a third team and UC’s junior women got 10 points, giving it a total of 46 points. Don Grieg Racing Stables took a more Scottish approach with their W35s, M50s, M35s, and SW all contributing between 18 and 12 points for a total of 44. Scottish, which often achieves a total of 50 or more points, got 48 points this year and claimed Top Club for the 15th time since 2001.
In many ways, this mathematical breakdown doesn’t matter. We have always recognised that Top Club is actually about being the biggest, happiest, most diverse club at Road Relays — not the club that games the counting formula the best. And that will continue to remain true.
During my decade helping to organise the club, we always built our campaign for Top Club around our senior men’s A team. If they won, or at least medaled, that was the foundation on which we built the rest of the campaign. The master’s women and, more recently, the master’s men were reliable sources of points, but the planning the day after the last relay started with the Senior Men’s A team.
This year, the senior men (6 points) were rebuilding. It was exciting to see a bunch of new runners in the team. They all have the ability and speed to grow from 33-34 minute 10km runners into 31-32 minute runners. But, for the moment, Canterbury confirmed it dominates the senior men’s ranks, which seemed the likely outcome from the start of the year.
For the first time, our path to Top Club would need to take a different route.
A lot of hope rested on our senior women. And they excelled — putting three teams on the starting line and their A team coming an impressive 4th. We have a compelling squad that looks like it will threaten the podium next year. But this year, as with the men, there was an ascendant club, North Harbour Bays, that appears to be in a different league to the rest of us.
Despite their strength, our senior women (14 points) were not among our scoring teams either. Again, as it often is, our dominant master’s women (35+ and 50+) and the 50+ men delivered the decisive points that won us the title.
A decade ago, Nelson won the Top Club title, narrowly beating us with their very successful masters men 40+, 50+ and 60+ teams. I and several others piqueishly scoffed that such a strategy was less than diverse and would not be a sustainable path for them in years to come. Nelson hasn’t troubled the Top Club accountancy system since.
Now we find ourselves in a similar situation. We have ceded the junior grades — we sporadically compete in the junior men’s race and seldom compete in the junior women’s race. Our senior teams performed well, better than expected, but did not deliver points toward our Top Club campaign. In the next highest scoring grades, the 35+ women (16 points) and men (14 points), we went in among the favourites and did not win. This year’s success came from our outstanding 50+ teams (16 points each).
Owairaka were happy for our success. But I am sure, for neutral bystanders like them, it will be hard not to feel University of Canterbury, and to a lesser extent Whippets also delivered a performance worthy of a Top Club.
If Top Club remains a goal next year, we will need a younger team to step up and support the 50+ teams. Our senior men and women both have that potential. We would do well to invest in our younger members and potential members.