Roy Roper (centre) – the oldest living All Black.
- By Adam Julian
Roy Roper and Josh Lord separated by a foot in height and three quarters of a century in age share an unlikely connection.
The All Blacks were born in Ōwhango, situated 20 kilometres south of Taumarunui on State Highway 4 on the “main trunk line,” a town of 200 people now, but in Roy’s day less than 30 people.
Lord, aged 20, a hulking 202cm and 110kg lock was picked as a replacement for the Northern Hemisphere tour [AB1199]. Roper, the oldest living All Black, [AB515] turned 98 on August 11. He was 173cm and 72kg when he played five tests as an outside back in 1949 and 1950.
“Gee he’s a big lad. I didn’t think we’d get another one. Good luck to him,” Roper, sharp as a tack, said from the comfort of his spacious rural residence in Haumoana, Hawke’s Bay.
After just five Super Rugby appearances for the Chiefs, Lord’s All Black selection was regarded by some critics as a surprise. However, with all of his 19 NPC games for Taranaki broadcast on Live TV and a successful age group career with Hamilton Boys’ High School and the New Zealand Under-20’s visibility wasn’t a serious issue – a stark contrast to Roper.
Roy was born in 1923, the second son of Ruby and Albert Roper, who worked on the railways. Ōwhango was a peaceful place with Roper wryly recalling “they’d built a pub” when he returned from Taranaki for a brief visit in the 80’s.
Roper was a foundation pupil of Welbourn Primary School in 1932 and in his late teens quickly developed an appetite for sport including surf lifesaving with the Fitzroy club and riding his bike 8km each way at least twice a day from New Plymouth to Omata whilst courting his future wife Doreen Hare. Later, he held the record for the fastest climb up Paritutu Rock and was a Taranaki sprint and long jump champion.
All Black Merv Corner was his first rugby hero, Roper, as a young boy, imagining the feats of the champion Auckland halfback with an aptly coloured blue marble rolling it down a hardwood floor set against different marbles.
The first test match he witnessed was at Athletic Park, Wellington when the All Blacks beat the Springboks 13-7 in the first match of the 1937 series. With no stands and unable to see over the crowds, Roper jumped onto a wobbly corrugated iron fence facing 3 o’clock to see the action.
He was good enough to play for the New Plymouth Boys’ High School First XV for two seasons, captaining the side in 1941 but college wasn’t without mischief or difficulty.
An annual school train trip to Hawera for the First XV rugby match against St Patrick’s College, Silverstream was always a highlight until nicotine cravings resulted in a harsh rebuke by school authorities.
“It was reported back to Headmaster Bill Moyes that smoke was blowing out the windows of the train so the next day he summoned the whole school to the hall to find out who smoked,” Roper said.
“When 150 boys stood up and admitted they’d smoked; 20 discipline masters took turns at caning each of us. I could’ve got away with it but I didn’t want to bail on my mates. I had the first XV coach, Vic [Yank] Kerr cane me.
“Mr George Bertrand, our 4th form master, was in charge of discipline and he was a big bugger. He’d remind my mates and I of our indiscretion by making us stand up every time he came into the form room for months later. He often whacked students with the largest sand shoe from a pupil in the room.”
“I tried my first smoke when I was eight. I saved the pennies Mum gave for Sunday School for a month to buy some at the local shop.”
The lure of Eden Park was as big then as it is now and for New Plymouth Boys’, their tussle with Auckland Grammar School on the hallowed turf was the biggest fixture of the 1941 season. The visitors scored a meritorious 6-3 victory but in a club game prior Roper suffered an injury he didn’t share that would affect the rest of his life. While making a tackle he essentially broke his right wrist which put a strain on passing, tackling, and sometimes even holding a cup of coffee.
He was conscripted into the Army in 1942 and warned of his considerable potential when he scored five tries at centre for fourth division (a combination of Waiouru and Wellington military men) against 1st Division (an Auckland, Northland equivalent). He marked legendary North Auckland centre Johnny Smith who dotted down twice. The pair would later partner each other in the midfield at an All Black trial. Roper laughed, Smith was “a top footballer who didn’t need to pass often.”
Roper was discharged from the Army for being under 21 years of age so joined the Royal New Zealand Navy leading up to World War II.
“We crossed the Pacific on a Norwegian freighter along with a battalion of American troops, arriving in San Francisco for a few day’s stay at the Naval base under the Bay Bridge. These raucous Americans had wads of cash and passed the time gambling on card games.
“A four day train journey across America ended in New York and three days later we left from Pier 92 and crossed the Atlantic for Glasgow along with 13,000 American soldiers aboard the Queen Mary, reputed to be the fastest ship in the world at the time.
“I was in Area 3, well below deck with no port holes, which we couldn’t leave unless ordered. We had 20 bunks in a cabin.”
Also aboard this voyage was ‘Colonel Warden’ the alias for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The New Zealand naval contingent were required to undertake sentry duties outside Churchill’s state room. One time when Churchill vacated the ship by lighter, Roper was on sentry duty and his personal guard had left so he snuck into Churchill’s cabin to have a look around and took a Rhubarb sponge from his breakfast bar.
Reprieve from duty would come through sport. Former All Black Captain Rod ‘Mac’ MacKenzie served with the New Zealand Tank Brigade and organised services matches. Roper was selected for the New Zealand XV and played six times in 1944-45 and was even selected for a Combined Dominions team and represented the Australian Air Force against the British Liberation Army.
“We flew in and played in Brussels. The only time I did the Haka was at Parc des Princes against the French, Paris University side. When we arrived they were doing circuits of the ground. Struth we thought, ‘what are they doing?’ They were big, fit, fast and beat us.”
First class rugby in New Zealand resumed in 1946 and Taranaki-King Country almost toppled the touring Aussies. Roper, animated with excitement, leaves his seat to demonstrate the drama.
“The best try I ever scored was against Australia at Rugby Park. I broke away before being tackled, hitting the ground on my back and lying as if I was going to bed. With the ball in two hands I put it over my head and got it down.”
“We were up 8-5 when their fullback Brian Piper got the ball a couple in from touch near halfway and kicked a dropped goal. We couldn’t believe it, he just goes and does that. Rugby Park was often a bog, hard to keep your feet. The dropped goal was four points in those days so they won 9-8. I had one pair of boots my whole career. They would have snapped if I kicked it that far.”
Consolation was later achieved when his club New Plymouth Old Boys won the senior championship but injury ruined the 1947 season and he was unavailable for the New Zealand trials in 1948 and was therefore not considered for the All Black side to tour South Africa in 1949.
Leading Maoris Vince Bevan, Johnny Smith, Ben Couch and Brownie Cherrington were also omitted from the six-month tour because of apartheid. The NZRFU guilty of succumbing to the demands of a racist regime and deprived of home tests after the War invited Australia for a Bledisloe Cup series. Roper expected to take no part until a South Island tour with Taranaki in September caught the attention of Archie Strang, a former All Black and Southland based national selector.
“I played a blinder and scored two tries against Southland mid week. The selector was there and noticed. I had a guy come up to me at the after match when I was holding a sausage and bread in one hand and a beer in the other and said ‘You’re in.’ I said, `’In what? The All Blacks he replied.”
“Our Ranfurly Shield challenge against Otago in Dunedin was on Saturday 17. Otago was very strong in those days. Vic Kavanagh was coach and he should have been with the All Blacks in South Africa. He was a very clever man who would have made a big difference. He’d come to Invercargill to watch our mid week game and when we played Otago I had no room to move.
“Early in the Otago game one of our forwards inadvertently kicked one of their players. Soon after when one of our forwards hit the ground he suddenly had eight Otago players on him. They weren’t dirty. They were ferocious and the best rucking team in New Zealand, important at the time.”
Otago won the game 6-5, but despite the extra attention on defence, Roper acquitted himself well and scored a try.
Australia had won the first test 11-6 with Roper ironically replacing Otago wing Graham Moore who he’d marked in the Ranfurly Shield challenge.
“For the second test I was picked on the left wing but soon the fullback hurt his shoulder so I had to move to fullback where I had never played before. Harrison Rowley went from No.8 to the wing. At halftime we were down and although players couldn’t leave the field and no coaches allowed on at the break, a message got through for me to move to centre and swap places in the midfield with Johnny Smith. Although things went better in the second-half we lost.”
Roper scored a try and was a measure of the formidable Australian midfield pairing of captain Trevor Allen and centre Rex Mossop, later a prominent sports broadcaster.
The 1950 Lions series was the pinnacle of Roper’s career. The gregarious tourists were renowned for their joyous singing and often exhilarating back play. Irish first-five Jackie Kyle was later named in the World Rugby Hall of Fame, Welshman Bleddyn Williams was known as the “Prince of centres” and partnered countryman Dr. Jack Matthews in the midfield who held World Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano to a draw when they fought each other in 1943.
The tourists caught the All Blacks on the hoop in the first test at Carisbrook officiated by Eric Tindall. The Lions led most of the match before the All Blacks salvaged a 9-9 draw. The Ashburton Guardian reported.
“Roper was the only back to provide real thrust with his exceptional speed. He was always dangerous on attack, scoring a fine try where no try appeared possible. Without Roper the All Black backline would rarely have risen above provincial standard.”
Following a scrum Roper took a pass from Taranaki teammate George Beatty and beat four defenders in a burst to the line for his try. Beatty later defected to league never in Roper’s view given the credit he deserved as a rugby player.
The All Black forwards were far more credible in Christchurch, blanking the Lions 8-0. Tiny White, who Roper regarded as the finest forward of his era, was to the fore in an otherwise dour spectacle enlivened by a Roper try.
When it comes to valour, few examples match the All Blacks courage in sealing the 6-3 series victory at Athletic Park on July 1, 1950.
Seven minutes before halftime captain Ron Elvidge left the field after clashing heads with Matthews in a tackle. Elvidge needed four stitches to his forehead, and one arm hung loose from a damaged collarbone. Roper described what happened next.
“We were already down to 13, having lost prop Johnny Simpson who buggered his knee. He was a tough bastard but that injury meant he never played again. Peter Johnstone at No.8 became captain but had to switch to wing and I was his vice.
“We played with just six forwards for about 50 minutes. When Ron came back on 10 minutes into the second half he was only a fullback designed to protect Bob Scott. He touched the ball once, when he scored his try, and he nearly buggered it.
“We won a lineout on the 25 and I made a break and fed Johnstone. He was a marvellous footballer and quickly put Ron in space. Ron needed to go straight towards the corner where he had a clear run. Instead he cut back infield where the defenders were. He crossed the line in the tackle of the full back. I don’t think he was thinking about getting it closer to the posts for the kick. It was an error. It was all a little bit fortuitous.”
Roper stressed he holds Elvidge in the highest regard. The same could be said for Lions wing Ken Jones. The Welshman was an Olympic silver medallist in the 100 yards at the 1948 London Olympics. At Eden Park, Jones scored one of the great test tries, outlasting Roper over 55 yards.
“Chasing Ken Jones I was diving forward as his leg kicked forward too. If he’d swung back a bit earlier and I’d have been in step I might have got him.”
“They could’ve won the fourth test. Kevin Skinner and our driving forward play was the difference.”
The All Blacks were not short of speed either with wing Sammy Henderson, twice the National 100 yards sprint champion enjoying a moment of pyrotechnics.
“I took a gap and then bounced into Matthews who leaned in with the shoulder as he did all series. As I was falling I managed to put the boot to the ball, a little dribbler towards the left corner. Henderson gathered, and dived, several feet off the ground. What a dive. I can still picture it so clearly. It was spectacular.”
Settled in an accounting career, Roper declared himself unavailable for the 1951 Australian tour. He played sporadically until 1953 ending his first class career with an impressive 40 tries in 44 games.
He was far from lost to the sport, serving as Taranaki Rugby Union treasurer from 1952 to 1971 and overseeing the construction of two grandstands at Rugby Park. However, he’s best remembered for roaming the terraces, selling raffle tickets with crafty ingenuity.
“I split open tennis balls collecting the money and tickets before tossing it to counters at the top of the terraces. It was 100 pounds for winning the raffle which was a lot of money. An average fish meal cost three shillings.
“The crowds in those days were huge and games would kick off early so farmers could get back home to milk. We had two long spells with the Ranfurly Shield. Ross Brown, Terry O’Sullivan, Neil Wolfe, Wally Cameron and later Graham Mourie are among the best Taranaki players we’ve had. For coaches, JJ Stewart was a very smart man and perhaps the best coach I’ve seen.”
Married to Doreen in 1948, having first met her in 1943, she was brought up on the farm and was a “natural hard worker” with a “gentle” and “caring” personality. She enjoyed knitting, dress making, cooking, and golf – scoring two holes in one. She passed away in 2004. They started off married life by building their own family home in New Plymouth.
Roy’s only brother, Gordon, also played for New Plymouth Old Boys juniors in 1935 and later coached Old Boys junior grades. There is a Gordon Roper Memorial Cup played between New Plymouth Boys’ High School and Old Boys junior club sides.
Roy recently moved to live with his son Stuart, also an accountant who played for Manawatu B, his representative ambitions dashed while “doing a Ron Elvidge” in the 70’s. While attempting to cut back in field his leg went one way and his body the other in a tackle.
Another son Guy played second five eight for Manawatu and New Zealand Universities in 1978. In September he retired after a six-year reign as CEO of Port Taranaki – naming rights sponsor of the Taranaki Whio women’s rugby team and a loyal supporter of the men’s equivalent.
Roy retired in 1988 and enjoyed cycling, gardening, golf and watching rugby in his spare time. Roy identified All Blacks, Graham Mourie, Daniel Carter, Beauden Barrett and Aaron Smith as among his favourite players but complained the modern scrum “wastes too much time” and is “ruled to give the opposition almost no chance to hook the ball.”
In his day dribbling was a familiar skill and forwards were more commonly on their feet rather than ‘diving head first into rucks’ where the chances of concussion are almost “certainly greater.”
Legendary broadcaster Winston McCarthy was convinced Roper could have been one of the greats had he not retired after the 1950 Lions series. He said as much to Stuart in the carpark at Athletic Park after Roy had attended a test as a guest many years later, not bad recognition for a lad from Ōwhango which translates to – “the place of wheezy noises.
Perhaps the most famous resident from Ōwhango is Don Rowlands who despite contracting rheumatic fever as a child, went on to become a champion rower, winning gold in the single scull at the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver. He was subsequently knighted for his services to rowing (and business) and was given a private investiture at his hospital bed just days before he died.
Eric Tindall was the oldest living All Black aged 99 before he passed away in August 2010. He is the only man in New Zealand history to play and referee a rugby and cricket test. Ron Elvidge was 96 when he died in March of 2019, replaced by Roper as the oldest living All Black.
Geoff Parkes on the Roar noted: “ It’s been years since Owhango had its own rugby team, but I played on their beautiful ground a few times, as a kid and as an adult. Always a great surface, surrounded by native bush reserve, circled by a track that ran down to the Whanganui river. The Owhango pub was always good for a quick pit stop on the way back from the mountain. Owned and run for many years by Grant Lethborg who was a very good prop for King Country who played 73 games in the 70’s and 80’s.