You are here
Home > Club Rugby > Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 020: Nathanial ‘Ranji’ Arthur Wilson

Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 020: Nathanial ‘Ranji’ Arthur Wilson

Nathanial ‘Ranji’ Arthur Wilson was a leading player and later captain of the Athletic club team that won a five-peat of Senior Championship titles between 1911-15 (one shared), played 75 times for Wellington between 1906-1920 and played 10 Tests for the All Blacks between 1908-1914.

Of West Indian and English parentage, Wilson later served in the war and was vice-captain of the New Zealand Services team that won the ‘King’s Cup’ in London in 1919 but was prevented from touring South Africa immediately after on racial grounds.

He became a Wellington selector from 1922-1926 and then an All Black selector, helping to pick the squad that would become the ‘Invincibles’ in 1924/25.

As well as rugby, Ranji played cricket, gaining his nickname after the first Indian player to play test cricket for the MCC (England), K.S. (Kumar) Ranjitsinhji.

In rugby, Ranji rose to be known as one of the best loose forwards in New Zealand and was one of the game’s early leading set-piece lineout exponents.

In rugby’s early days, lineouts were often a shambles. For example, prior to 1910 there was no 5-metre rule and the forwards often lined up haphazardly right in front of the touchline and the ball was thrown or simply handed in to whoever was there to receive it. It is no wonder that the breakaway rugby league did away with lineouts in favour of scrums to re-start play.

This gave rise to the specialist lineout forward, and it seems Wilson was one of the early ball-winning lineout forwards.

Legendary Hawke’s Bay selector-coach and fellow All Black selector Norm McKenzie wrote in his book On with the Game, that Wilson was hugely influential.

“Arthur (Ranji) Wilson, of course, flourished in the days when one was allowed to jump into the lineout and at this he was a past master. He was a great forward.

“He was also a good judge of a forward as a selector.”

Born in Christchurch and one of four brothers, three of whom also played rugby for Athletic, the family moved to Wellington at some point in their youth and Wilson soon caught the selectors’ attention.

He first played representative rugby for Wellington B team in 1906 and the following year he was selected to play in the North Island side before he had represented the top Wellington side. In this 1907 North-South match he had a blinder helping the North to an 11-0 win.  From then on, he was an automatic Wellington selection until the war intervened in 1915.

At the end of May 1908, he was in Wellington’s team that beat the touring Anglo-Welsh 19-13, then in June of that year he played in the first two tests of that series which resulted in a 32-5 win in Dunedin and a 3-3 draw in Wellington.

The Wellington rugby team in 1908 – Wilson top left.

He later toured Australia in 1910, playing seven matches, played in the two home tests against Australia in 1913 and toured Australia a second time in 1914, playing two more tests.

It is also of note that in the last game of the 1914 season on 10 September, Wilson captained the Wellington team that beat Taranaki 12-5 to lift the Ranfurly Shield.

No Ranfurly Shield rugby was played for five years, with Wilson returning in 1920 play in the Wellington team that defended the Ranfurly Shield 10 times before losing it to Southland in the last defence of the year (winning it back in 1921).

Ranji’s 75 first-class appearances for Wellington established a record for most-capped players for the province that wasn’t broken for some three decades after his career ended.

In 1999, he was named at blindside flanker in a ‘Legends of Athletic Park’ dream team by an esteemed panel of selectors.

Ranji also played for the Wellington Māori side during his career – despite his West Indian heritage.

Aged 30, Ranji went to war and rose to the rank of Sergeant. He played in the New Zealand team dubbed the ‘Trench Blacks’ that won the King’s Cup tournament in the U.K that also featured military sides representing the Royal Air Force, South Africa, the ‘Mother Country’ and Australia. A tour of South Africa followed, but Wilson was unable to partake owing to his half West Indian heritage.

Ranji had a storied club rugby career for Athletic. Athletic’s Diamond Jubilee Souvenir Programme recorded this of the years 1911-1915:

“These seasons were the most eventful in the Club’s history. The Senior team won the championship in 1911, 1912, 1913. In 1914, owing to the outbreak of the Great War, the competitions were closed before the completion of the various rounds, and the Wellington and Athletic Senior teams, who were in the lead at this time, were bracketed as winners of the Senior Championship. In 1915 the Seniors again won the championship.”

The Athletic Senior team in 1913.

Ranji also had two brothers who played for Athletic and represented Wellington, Billy and Joseph (Sim).

In a match against Poneke on 6 August 1910, the former Wellington forward Dooley Calcinai had his jaw broken. Later in the year year Ranji was acquitted of assault, partly because it wasn’t determined whether it was Ranji, Billy or Sim (or someone else) who was the culprit.

Billy admitted that he knew who it was but refused to answer so he was disqualified for playing for refusing to cooperate. Two years later Billy switched to rugby league and played international matches in that code.

After hanging up his boots, Ranji became a Wellington selector in 1922. He was later one of seven selectors who picked the 1924-25 Invincibles team that toured Great Britain, France and Canada.

Wilson and the New Zealand selectors in 1924.

He remained involved in rugby throughout his life and was President of the Athletic club in 1945-1946.

Ranji died in Lower Hutt, aged 67 on 11 August 1953.

Article references:

  • All Blacks A-Z online profile of Ranji Wilson – By Bob Luxford
  • Athletic Football Club. Diamond Jubilee 1877-1937 Souvenir Programme.
  • 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.
  • Moloney, J.K. Ranfurly Shield Story. Martin Printing Co. Ltd. Napier, 1960.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed.

Similar Articles

Leave a Reply