Above: The Wellington team in 1923 was not a vintage side, captained by Poneke’s 31-year-old hooker Umberto Calcinai, who had first played senior rugby in 1909 and had played four matches including the three tests against New South Wales on their 1922 Australian tour.
The fourth annual instalment of our series recapping the club, domestic and international rugby season a century ago.
While club rugby went from strength to strength in 1923, the representative season wasn’t a blockbuster one.
Wellington’s record was modest, the Wellington “A” team won three, lost six and drew one of their 10 matches.
A New Zealand University side visited Australia, featuring five University Rugby Football Club players, while an understrength New South Wales team toured New Zealand and lost all but two of their matches including 0-3 to the All Blacks. With planning underway for the following year’s northern tour (later to become known as the ‘Invincibles’), the All Black selectors used this series as a virtual trial by making numerous changes between the tests.
Wellington players who played for the All Blacks in 1923 were Fed Tilyard (first test), Alexander Pringle (second) and Doc Nicolls, Ginger Nicholls and Cliff Porter (third).
The New Zealand Maori were a fourth touring team in 1923, embarking on a trip over to New South Wales and an internal tour throughout the country upon their return.
Wellington’s first match of the season was a one-off fixture in Hawera against Taranaki on Wednesday 4 July. Mark Nicholls kicked a lonesome penalty in a 6-3 loss.
Wellington opened its home representative season in positive fashion on Wednesday 25 July against the touring Southlanders.
After an even start, Wellington took control of possession and territory and cruised to a 30-18 win.
Athletic wing forward Cliff Porter was adjudged the player of the day, while the forwards all played well and the three Nicholls brothers in the backs all stood out.
For Wellington, hooker John ‘Tuna’ Swain scored a hat-trick in this win over Southland. Swain was from Hawke’s Bay and made 11 first team representative appearances for Wellington in 1923 and 1924, before moving back home to feature in their famous Ranfurly Shield side and he later toured South Africa with the 1928 All Blacks.
Four days later Wellington unsuccessfully challenged for the Ranfurly Shield.
Hawke’s Bay had taken the Shield off Wellington in their first defence of the previous season, a midweek 19-9 win, Almost a year later Wellington travelled to Napier with the chance to take it back.
In fine, windy conditions, Wellington’s backs were expected to hold the edge over the Magpies, but with the exception of halfback Ginger Nicholls, they mostly fell flat.
Wellington created several chances on attack throughout the first half, but on two occasions either threw ball into touch or forward and momentum was halted. At least two attempts on goal sailed wide. They finally scored out wide to Wellington College Old Boys’ wing Fred Faber.
Faber was from Whanganui and had served in Palestine in World War One with the Wellington Mounted Rifles, while his younger brother Reg was also a promising sportsman but died in a motorcycle accident in 1913 aged 18.
Wellington would score a second try in the second spell, to Athletic’s John Duncan, but the defenders trumped these with kicks on goal. This included a goal from a free-kick from his own side of halfway by young five-eighth (later a fullback) George Nepia.
On the same afternoon the Wellington “B” side defeated Manawatu-Horowhenua 19-11 at Athletic Park. In an uninspiring game, a highlight was a try to Doc Nicholls from a dribbling rush that beat the entire opposition team.
Following their Ranfurly Shield defeat, the “A” players had a week to prepare for their next match, hosting Wairarapa at home.
This match was part of a double-header at Athletic Park, with the annual ‘North-South’ fixture to follow.
Mark Nicholls was a late withdrawal from the Wellington team, but his absence wasn’t the reason for the result being a 0-0 draw, rather rain and mud and a forwards struggle that became a stalemate.
Just two Wellington players were selected for the North team, Poneke back Fred Tilyard and Oriental forward Alexander ‘Nugget’ Pringle. The result of this was a draw like the match that preceded it, although both sides scored two tries and at fulltime it was 6-6.
Pringle played for the Oriental club and he played 23 matches for Wellington between 1922-27. He was a lock or loose forward and was a tall man for the day, at 1.96m or 6 foot 5. Pringle played his only international in this year in the second test against NSW. He was an All Black trialist the following year.
Since 1911, Wellington and Canterbury had met 15 times, with Wellington winning 14 and Canterbury just one. Wellington was on an eight-match winning streak against Canterbury going back to 1914. But on Saturday 11 August Canterbury broke their duck, beating Wellington 8-6 at Athletic Park.
The star of the game was Canterbury and All Blacks wing William ‘Jockey’ Ford, who scored two tries, starting by dashing 55 metres from an intercept into the wind in the first half to put Canterbury up 5-0.
Wellington replied through being awarded a penalty try and then took the lead through a try from close range to wing forward Cliff Porter. But Ford scored his second and winning try when he ran on to an attacking kick to score out wide.
There was now a four-week break in Wellington A representative matches, before the visit by Otago on 8 September.
But the following Saturday a combined Wellington-Manawatu-Horowhenua side host the touring New South Welshman at Athletic Park.
Thirteen of 20 players in this squad were from Wellington, including the leading players of the day, all three Nicholls brothers, Fred Tilyard, Kenneth Svenson, Porter, Pringle and Swain.
This was NSW’s first opening tour match, so there was much interest in the result nationally. Wellington were far too strong, winning 29-16, with Doc Nicholls and Tilyard scoring two tries each.
NSW would bounce back to beat Canterbury in their second match. But the tourists who were missing 10 of their leading players, only won two of 10 games on tour including three comfortable defeats to the All Blacks whose team varied markedly between matches as the selectors openly treated this as a trial series for the following year’s second All Blacks tour to Great Britain.
Wellington beat Otago 26-6, this 20-point win their best result of the season, albeit against understrength opposition missing many of the players who had defeated Wellington 27-18 the previous year.
Wing Svenson scored two of five tries and kicked a dropped goal, while an alleged incident by the western bank crowd just before halftime in which a Wellington player appeared to strike an Otago opposite went unseen by the referee H. Leith.
Wellington travelled to play a mid-week match against Whanganui on 22 September.
Originally from Australia before moving to Whanganui, then Buller, then Wellington, ‘Snowy’ Svenson, scored four tries in the 22-9 win against his former province including a first half hat-trick in slippery conditions.
Wellington’s northern tour rolled into Auckland on Saturday 15 September, where the side resumed its losing ways.
Auckland’s backs had been to the fore in their comprehensive win over New South Wales the week before, and they were key again in this match against Wellington. Auckland won a fast, open encounter 21-15.
Wellington had the edge in the lineouts and in much of the forwards exchanges, but Auckland’s backs won the game in the second half after Wellington led 10-8 at the break.
Wellington’s three tries against Auckland were scored by William Mahoney (2) and Hector McNaught.
Mahoney was a centre for Marist and played nine first-class matches for Wellington A between 1922-25, scoring five tries.
McNaught was a forward from Buller and moved to Wellington and the Athletic club this season. This was one of two appearances he made for Wellington.
On the same afternoon back in Wellington, the All Blacks defeated NSW 38-11 in the third and final test of their series. The All Black backs scored 35 of their 38 points.
Next stop for Wellington was Hamilton for a first ever fixture against Waikato.
Wellington were without Mark Nicholls for this match and his absence was missed. On a heavy ground, Wellington scored two first tries, to Neil McGregor and Svenson, neither converted. Waikato replied with two converted tries and Waikato led 10-6 at halftime.
Wellington reshuffled their backline at halftime, including Svenson coming in to first-five and McGregor to centre. Initially this worked with McGregor scoring a converted try to put Wellington up 11-10.
Play ebbed and flowed, but just before the end, Waikato broke through to score the match-winner, the final score in their favour being 13-11.
Wellington’s next match against Waikato wasn’t until 1929, winning 22-6 that day.
Wellington closed their season with another loss to Manawatu in Palmerston North – and for the second straight match Wellington were rundown and lost at the end.
Wellington led 14-3 after 70 minutes, before the home side ran in 13 unanswered points into the wind to win 16-14.
Manawatu scored the winning try on fulltime after hammering away close to the line. The dam burst and Ernest Anderson crashed over to score and Wiremu Akuira kicked the winning conversion.
Wellington had earlier scored three tries, through John King and McGregor.
Of the players, King was a wing forward who played a handful of matches for Wellington A between 1921-23 out of the Oriental and Petone clubs. He later moved into administration and was All Blacks manager on their 1962 tour to Australia.
Anderson was a forward for Manawatu out of the High School Old Boys club and played seven seasons for Manawatu between 1921-1927, making 42 first-class appearances and earning an All Black trial in 1927.
Five-eighth Akuira was educated at Te Aute College and started his rugby at Hawke’s Bay before shifting to Manawatu and Manawhenua to play between 1923-30. He also played for the New Zealand Maori team in 1922 and 1923 and played 57 first-class matches. He was a Corporal in the 20th Infantry Battalion in World War Two and died of sickness in a POW camp in Italy in 1943, aged 39.
Manawatu combined with Horowhenua to become Manawhenua for the next 10 seasons and Wellington’s next meeting with Manawatu was in 1933, winning 14-11 that day.
The other representative tour in 1923 was by the New Zealand Maori side, of which Akuira was part of. This side toured Australia and narrowly lost all three tests to NSW, then returned home for a series of matches against provincial opposition (not Wellington), winning five and losing three of these.
References: For these articles about the 1923 season we have leaned heavily on the week-by-week newspaper reports of the time in both the Evening Post and Dominion. Extra sources include Swan and Jackson’s Wellington Rugby History Part 1, Swan’s History of New Zealand Rugby Football Part 1 and a handful of other publications for cross-checking and additional information.