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Pioneers of rugby in Wellington 031: Ned Hughes

E.E. (Ned Hughes) is somewhat a player of mystery.

He has the distinction of being the ‘oldest All Black’ when he played the first two tests against the Springboks on 13 and 27 August 1921. His birthdate is listed as 26 April 1881, so in round terms he was 40 years and four months old at the time of these tests.

He represented the All Blacks 13 years apart, following his first stint in Black in 1907/08 to his second in 1921.

The long gap between internationals can be explained by two things: his switch to rugby league following 1908 and World War 1 where he served with the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

His army career was the reason he moved to Wellington after the war, transferred to the permanent artillery staff in Buckle Street.

Hughes was a hooker in the old 2-3-2 scrums.

He joined the then champion Poneke club and played for them in 1920 and 1921, finishing runners-up to Petone in 1920 and winning the Wellington club championship in 1921.

Hughes was a try-scorer in Poneke’s win over arch-rivals Petone on 30 July 1921, which proved the match that decided that year’s championship. Hughes’ try was scored late in the first half, which put Poneke up 8-5. They went on to win 17-5.

Hughes was a member of Wellington’s Ranfurly Shield team in 1920 and played for Wellington (but not in Ranfurly Shield matches) in 1921.

It is believed by us – but not confirmed – that he holds the record as being the oldest Ranfurly Shield winner, at least for Wellington, when he was in the side that successfully defended it in 1920 on nine occasions, before losing it to his former province Southland in mid-September 1920.

Hughes is listed as a try-scorer in 1920 Shield defences against Bay of Plenty, Auckland and Auckland again (two defences in four weeks against Auckland).

His first taste of international rugby was playing for a combined Otago-Southland team against the 1904 Great Britain side. The tourists won the match 14-8, but curiously Hughes was listed as a wing forward not a hooker on the teamsheet.

He is All Black #144 and played nine matches and three Tests. Another interesting fact is he made his All Blacks debut whilst representing Southland against Wellington Province at Athletic Park on 6 July 1907. The All Blacks won this match 19-6.

On to Australia, he played three Tests against them on the 1907 tour. He scored his only try for the All Blacks on test debut on 20 July 1907, which the All Blacks won 26-6.

Hughes and the All Blacks tourists in Australia 1907. Hughes seated second from left. Billy Wallace on his outside next to him.

In 1908 the visit of a team from Great Britain comprised of players from England and Wales and known as the Anglo-Welsh team. In three tests against the All Blacks, they lost 5-32 in Dunedin, drew 3-3 in a mud-fest in Wellington and lost 0-29 in Auckland. Hughes played hooker in the first Test in Dunedin. Three days earlier he was on the ‘bench’ (one of two reserves) in Southland’s 8-14 loss to them in Invercargill.

Rugby league was starting to take hold around this time. Hughes switched to the new code having played 23 matches for Southland between 1903-08 and he represented New Zealand in rugby league in 1910 against Great Britain.

His profile by Lindsay Knight on highlights the reason, if the not catalyst, why he went to rugby league:

“He was a principal, along with a fellow All Black Don Hamilton, in the unsavoury saga of petty officialdom which marred both the Southland and eventually New Zealand unions in 1908-09.

“He was the captain of the Britannia club, whose players along with those of Hamilton’s Pirates, were suspended by the Southland union for refusing to play a match because of their objections to the weather and ground conditions.

“When the clubs soon after played a benefit match under the rules of the new Northern union the players, including Hughes and Hamilton, were expelled from the game in early 1909 by the New Zealand union.”

The best part of the next decade of Hughes’ life is sketchy, but he was overseas during the war, played some rugby overseas and it appears that after the war he made his international debut in a third sport, football.

Reinstated to rugby, Hughes played the club season for Poneke in 10 Ranfurly Shield matches for Wellington in 1920, including in the loss to Southland. He played for Wellington in 1921, the year of his second stint with the All Blacks, but it appears not in their three Ranfurly Shield matches against Southland, Auckland and Otago in September.

He lined up at hooker in the match for Wellington against the Springboks on 23 July 1921.

On the eve of this fixture, the Evening Post ran a biographical breakdown of the Wellington players. In this Hughes was listed as aged 36, 5 feet 7 inches in height and 12 stone 10 in weight.

His age is interesting as he was 40 at this stage, so perhaps he fudged his age at the time!

His profile states: “Has had an interesting football career since 1902; has represented Southland, Wellington, South Island, North Island and New Zealand (1907-08) and is in this year’s New Zealand team; captained Southland and was captain of the Britannica Club for seven years; since coming to Wellington he has played for Poneke, played for a military team in Great Britain; usual place, hooker.”

South Africa won the match 8-3, but Hughes, having already been selected in the squad, helped New Zealand win the first test in Dunedin 13-5, and then was part of the team that lost the second 5-9 in Auckland.

With the series locked at 1-1 with one test in Wellington to play, the All Blacks selectors made changes and one of them was Hughes. He was dropped, and it appears this might have been his final first-class match.

In fact, it seems the second test could have been Hughes’ final first-class game.

Following the second test, Wellington played five A fixtures throughout September, including three Ranfurly Shield defences. Similarly, what was effectively an All Blacks B team played an international against the touring New South Wales team. Hughes didn’t play in any of these matches.

It appears it was around this time that he emigrated to Sydney.

Reasons for this can only be speculated upon. Did he have falling out with rugby authorities (after all, he had before in 1908), or did he simply see his rugby career and age catching up with him and he was presented with a work opportunity in Sydney, and was there a connection through the touring NSW team or individual?

What is known is that he resided in Sydney in the 1920s but tragically passed away in Sydney in a work accident in May 1928, aged 49.

Article references:

  • The Evening Post newspapers, 1920 and 1921.
  • Arthur Swan and Gordon Jackson. Wellington’s Rugby History 1870-1950. A.H and H.W Reed for the WRFU, 1952.
  • The Visitors – The History of International Rugby Teams in New Zealand by Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. MOA Publications, Auckland, 1990
  • A willing Band of Youths. The History of the Poneke Football Club. By Poneke FC. Bryce Francis Ltd, Wellington 1984
  • All Blacks A-Z on

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