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Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 018: The Spencer brothers

Profiling many of the people that built and helped shape the game in Wellington, from its inception in 1870 through to the WRFU’s 50th Jubilee year in 1929.

The Melrose Rugby Football was a Wellington club rugby powerhouse in the late 1800s and a regular Senior Championship contender over the course of the first three decades or so of the twentieth century, before fading away almost as fast as it had risen.

Melrose began as a junior grade club in 1886 at a meeting held in Revans St in Miramar. In a dominant run from 1896-1908, Melrose won six senior championships.

In 1898 they won the club won its third consecutive title, and in so doing won outright the ‘Juno Tobacco Shield’ which was retired from competition.

The success of these early Melrose sides was based upon a dominant forward pack that was led by 1903-07 All Black flanker Jack Spencer, who would later in the 1898 season debut for Wellington aged just 17.

Jack was the youngest of no fewer than five Spencer brothers who played for Melrose during these seasons. Two brothers Walter and Bill all represented Wellington and one other, George, represented Wellington and also joined his brother in All Blacks colours in 1907.

The fifth Spencer brother Tom moved on to higher honours on the water. He was national single sculls champion in 1900.

Of the two Spencer All Blacks Jack was a lock-flanker and George was a fullback.

After playing for Wellington for the first time in 1898 as a teenager, Jack made the All Blacks in 1903. After playing for the Wellington province against the New Zealand team, he boarded the boat with the national side for Australia. A knee injury restricted his appearances on tour to just two matches.

He missed the entire 1904 season (possibly through this same injury) but in 1905 he was back playing for Wellington and captained a combined Wellington-Wairarapa-Horowhenua team that defeated the touring Australians 23-7 in an international match at Athletic Park.

He was then chosen as captain of the New Zealand team that beat Australia 14-3 in that tour’s one-off international in Dunedin. Jack Spencer was one of four Wellington forwards in this team, the others being Tom Cross, Ernie Dodd and Eric Watkins (their stories to come in this series). It is noted that this was in effect a NZ ‘B’ side as the ‘A’ squad of 27 players was at sea at the time en-route to England on the ‘Originals’ tour.

Fast-forward another two years and Jack Spencer became the first New Zealander to go on as a replacement in an international when he took the field for an injured Jack Colman in the first test on the 1907 tour of Australia. This was the second of his two tests. On this 1907 tour he also played in the matches against NSW and Queensland.

Older brother George made his Wellington debut in 1900 and was a regular in the Wellington side from 1900-1908 and played 49 games for his home province. He was fullback for Wellington in the first ever Ranfurly Shield match in 1904, in which Wellington beat Auckland 6-3, and played in several more very early Ranfurly Shield defence and challenge matches.

George too played for the Wellington-Wairarapa-Horowhenua team in their 1905 win over the touring Australians, after earlier playing in Wellington teams against New Zealand in pre-tour matches in 1903 and 1905.

George was also selected alongside brother Jack in the team now known as the All Blacks on their tour of Australia. George played five of the side’s eight matches (including the pre-tour 19-6 win over Wellington).

In 1908 both George and Jack switched to the rugby league code and both toured Australia with the New Zealand league team in 1909 – thereby becoming the first brothers to represent New Zealand in both rugby codes.

Jack was later reinstated to rugby union and coached the Berhampore club team in the Senior club rugby competition in Wellington.

George died in 1950, aged 71, while Jack passed away in 1936 aged 54.

Article References

  • All Blacks A-Z profiles online – compiled by Lindsay Knight
  • The Visitors – The History of International Rugby Teams in New Zealand by Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. MOA Publications, Auckland, 1990
  • The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand Rugby. By Ron Palenski, Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. Hodder Moa Beckett, Auckland 1998
  • McKenzie, Norman. On with the Game. The Rugby Reminiscences of Norman McKenzie. A.H. and A.W. Reed. Wellington, 1961.
  • Noble-Campbell, Gordon, Cooper, Stephen, Richardson, Nigel. Ghost Rugby Clubs of Wellington. Glenbeigh Books, Wellington 2019.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed.

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One thought on “Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 018: The Spencer brothers

  1. Footnote on Jack Spencer. On his reinstatement to rugby in 1922 he initially joined Poneke and assisted with coaching and training there. Despite being 42 years old at that point, he made one appearance on the field at Senior level that season, on Kings Birthday weekend against Petone.
    It was a season or two later that he moved on to Berhampore to coach their Senior team.

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