The end of World War One ushered in a brief golden age for Wellington rugby.
Wellington was the Ranfurly Shield holder throughout the war and defended the shield 15 times in 1919 and 1920 – including taking it on tour and brazenly putting it up in away matches – while the club championship regularly attracted crowds several thousand strong and the rugby was fierce and competitive.
Many of the players were household names, and some are associated today with interclub trophies such as the ‘Beet Algar Rosebowl’ between Poneke and Old Boys University and the ‘F.J Tilyard Shield’ between Poneke and Petone.
The post-war period also saw the rise of several soon-to-be prominent All Blacks such as Petone first and second five-eighth Mark Nicholls, who would make most ‘best ever’ Wellington rugby teams.
New Zealand declared war on 5 August 1914 and from that date rugby and society was changed irrevocably.
The WRFU moved to close the 1914 Senior Championship season unfinished. Joint leaders Athletic and Wellington were declared champions. The WRFU annual report 1914 stated that “the great European war disorganised the latter part of the club fixtures and the whole of the representative games.”
All of Wellington’s clubs were immediately gutted of players who volunteered for active service. Entire teams signed up together, many individuals never to return.
Rugby took a back seat throughout the war, though the Senior Championship was still contested; albeit with the strict caveat from the WRFU that ‘no unmarried man eligible for military service shall play rugby’. Athletic, Wellington (joint winners in 1914) Petone and Poneke won Senior titles in the war years.
A.C Swan and Gordon F.W. Jackson commentating in Wellington’s Rugby History 1870-1950 wrote: “The response to the call for active service was so great that clubs lost nearly all players of military age, and difficulty was experienced in keeping the game alive.”
Swan in the History of NZ Rugby Football summarised that by 1916 rugby throughout the country was “almost at a standstill, except for the games confined to players under military age.”
There were some representative matches in 1917 and more in 1918 (Wellington played and beat both Auckland and Canterbury home and away in 1918). “Particular attention was given to young players, however, and every opportunity given to schools to keep rugby going; several centres conducted school tournaments with that object in view, Wellington in particular being very active.”
By 1919, the war’s toll was grim reading.
In its centenary book in 1970, “A Century of Rugby”, Alex Veysey wrote that the Wellington club had 279 members serve in all branches of the services. Of these 54 died, whether killed in action or died of wounds and sickness. Sixty others were wounded.
Oriental provided 289 members served, with 40 dying and 70 wounded.
The influenza epidemic also struck down many thousands of people, many already weakened by years of fighting and frugal living.
This was the backdrop as rugby resumed in full in 1919.
Much interest centred on the Senior Championship club rugby season, which would see Poneke storming through the pack to win its last five games and retain the title.
Wellington went into the representative season that followed as Ranfurly Shield holders.
The earliest years of the Ranfurly Shield had been dominated by Auckland, who held the Shield between 1905 and 1913 and repulsed 23 challenges.
Auckland had taken the shield off the inaugural holders Wellington in 1905, and during their almost eight-year reign survived several torrid defences including at least three by Wellington.
In 1906, Auckland thrashed all-comers but only beat Wellington 11-5 after holding a one-try advantage (3 points for a try) up until the dying moments.
In 1910, Wellington held Auckland to a 3-3 draw courtesy of a Fred Roberts try before a crowd of 15,000, while in 1913, Wellington led 5-0 at halftime in heavy rain before Auckland sneaked a late 6-5 win.
Taranaki took the shield off Auckland late in 1913, setting off the chain of events that would place it in Wellington throughout the duration of the war.
With war clouds brewing, Taranaki had six successful defences in 1914 prior to Wellington coming to Stratford in September and winning 12-6. Halfback Teddy Roberts was the Man of the Match.
There was little first-class rugby and no Ranfurly Shield fixtures in New Zealand for almost five years, as the Ranfurly Shield sat idle in Wellington throughout the war.
Part 2 – looking at the 1919 Senior Championship club rugby season – to come
Part 3 – looking at the 1919 representative season and Wellington’s Ranfurly Shield defences – to come
Headline photo credit: View of a rugby game at Athletic Park, Berhampore, Wellington. Ref: 1/1-005428-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22786938