30 August 1919 was a watershed date in New Zealand provincial rugby.
For the first time since September 1914, the Ranfurly Shield was put on the line.
Introduced in 1904, the Ranfurly Shield had grown to be the pre-eminent prize in the domestic game, but with the outbreak of war in September 2014 it had been locked away for five years.
Starting with the first defence against Canterbury on the last Saturday of August 1919, Wellington would successfully defend the Ranfurly Shield on five occasions and take it with them to defend on the road for the first time (which they would do again in 1920).
Heading into this first defence against Canterbury, Wellington had played one match in early June against the touring Pioneer (Maori) Battalion team for a 3-3 draw.
Some 10,000 spectators were present at Athletic Park for the first Ranfurly Shield defence, along with the Governor General, the Earl of Liverpool, and Admiral of the Fleet, Viscount Jellicoe.
A buzz of excitement filled the air as the match kicked off. The forwards exchanges quickly became an even affair, but Wellington’s backs gained the upper hand, captain and five-eighth Teddy Roberts leading by example with several piercing runs. Athletic club’s Roberts was an All Black in 1913 and again in 1920-21. His father was Harry Roberts who toured Australia in 1884 as a member of the very first New Zealand side, making Harry and Teddy (Edward) the first father and son All Blacks.
Wellington got their defence off on the right foot with Poneke wing three-quarter Joe McArthur scoring the game’s first try. Wellington took a decisive 18-8 halftime lead, on the back of a second McArthur try and another by hard-hitting Petone centre Matt Corner.
The scoring action died down in the second half, Wellington missing several clear chances including a missed Roberts penalty from in front of the posts, before Petone’s Bill Ryan scored in the corner to seal a 21-8 win over the red and blacks.
The Dominion’s summary was “the match was fast and spectacular and full of incident. Wellington fully deserved their victory and it was apparent that the best team won.”
Next up was Taranaki, who Wellington had taken the Shield off on 10 September 1914, the final match before the war.
A stiff southerly blew up Athletic Park in this fixture, which was reported as a forwards struggle. Wellington had first use of the wind and Corner and Poneke captain and wing Beet Algar combining well out wide to help Wellington to an 18-0 lead. Wellington held on the second spell to win 18-10.
Next up was Canterbury again. This time in Christchurch. For reasons that aren’t clear, the WRFU sought and were granted a dispensation to put the shield on the line in away games.
Wellington won this return match 23-9, in a more comfortable manner than the first, their backs again proving too strong for the South Islanders.
There was a four-day break before the fourth defence of the year, this time against their keen pre-war rivals Auckland, and played on a Wednesday afternoon at Athletic Park.
The reason for the mid-week match was because the North-South match had also been revived and was being played there on the Saturday coming up. Wellington would have nine players in the North Island side that would prevail 28-11, these being: F.A. Malin, M.C. Corner, B. Algar, E.J. Roberts, H.E Nicholls, W.T. Ryan, J.D. Shearer, H. Elliot and R.J. Paton.
Some 9,000 people including Prime Minister William Massey were in attendance for Wellington’s fourth defence against Auckland. Wellington were braced for a tough game, but in fact found the going easier and raced to a 24-3 win. Six individuals scored Wellington’s six tries (totalling 18 points) while F.A Malin slotted a dropped goal (worth 4 points) and captain Roberts kicked a conversion.
Wellington led 13-0 at halftime. Auckland started the second spell hot on attack but failed to add any points. With “the sun in their eyes” Wellington regained control and pulled clear.
The fifth defence of the year against Wanganui wasn’t originally scheduled, but the holders agreed to the challenge. Wanganui had recently sensationally defeated Taranaki 56-3 so there was cause to be wary. But once more, there was no reason to be as Wellington won 30-3, outscoring their visitors 8 tries to 1.
University wing N.A.J. Barker, rugged Selwyn forward Syd Shearer and Poneke wing forward Umberto Calcinai each scored two tries, with Selwyn’s Jack Shearer and Poneke’s Jimmy Tilyard scoring one each. The Shearer brothers, and Tilyard (and his brother Fred) and Calcinai would all be All Blacks.
As well as the top side, the Wellington ‘B’ team played two representative fixtures in 1919, beating Manawatu 11-8 and losing to Marlborough 15-18.
Thus the curtain fell on a successful first full year of club and then representative rugby in Wellington in 1919, the first year of peace after five years of war.
In 1920 Poneke defended the club championship and Wellington had no fewer than 11 Ranfurly Shield defences. In one five-match stretch in 14 days they successfully defend the Shield three times, lose it to Southland in Invercargill and then beat Canterbury in Christchurch on the way home.
Photo credit: Wellington Rugby Football Union representative team of 1919 – Photograph taken by Zak Studios, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/2-191403-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22892604
1919: the year the rugby roared is a three-part series.
Part 1: Rising from the war years HERE
Part 2: The club rugby season HERE