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Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 045: Nelson Ball and Brian Killeen

Nelson Ball (left) and Brian Killeen, to All Blacks who played for Hutt in the 1930s.

Two players with much in common in their respective paths to the All Blacks jersey in the early to mid-1930s.

Born three years apart, Ball and Killeen were both backs who both played for the revitalised Hutt Football Club Senior Championship team in the 1930s and both spent time in the Wellington jersey, gained national trials and played for the All Blacks.

Both players won the Jubilee Cup with Hutt in 1931 and Killeen won it again with them in 1934.

The Hutt side of 1931, with Ball and Killeen.

Nelson ‘Kelly’ Ball is perhaps the better known of the two, with a longer All Blacks career than Killeen.

He was born in Foxton in 1908 and attended Fielding High School and started his representative career playing seven matches for Whanganui between 1927-29, initially as a midfielder then as a wing. He moved to Wellington and played for Hutt between 1930-32.

After hitting form in three All Blacks trials in 1930, Ball was first selected in the All Blacks in 1931 for one test against the touring Australians. He scored a hat-trick for Wellington in their 15-8 win over Australia and was called into the test set-up where he played a lone international and scored a try in the 20-13 win.

Ball enjoyed scoring tries in big games and on the eve of the All Blacks’ 1932 tour to Australia they played Wellington. Ball was a star of this match, scoring four tries for Wellington in their 35-23 win over the national side. A subsequent injury saw Ball included in the touring party that sailed shortly thereafter. In Australia, Ball featured in two tests and scored another try in their 21-3 in the second international.

He then went on the 1935-36 tour to Britain, playing 17 matches on tour including playing in the two test losses, to England Wales. He scored a try in the 12-13 loss to Wales, so he finished with four tries from his five tests.

He would wear the Black jersey 22 times and score 11 international tries.

Returning home, Ball retired from the game with 55 first-class appearances to his name and took up employment as a meat inspector between 1937-47. In 1937 he coached the Feilding Old Boys team. In the late 1940s he emigrated to South Africa.

Ball was one of three brothers, all of whom played Wellington club rugby. Earnest was a wing and played for Wellington B, also out of the Hutt club, and Rex was also a wing and played for Wellington B in five matches between 1931-35 before moving to South Africa, likely paving the way for his brother to follow.

Brian ‘Shorty’ Killeen was a later bloomer in rugby – he was at Wellington College between 1924-26 failed to make the First XV. Not the first player and not the last to miss out on his school’s top side.

Leaving school, he joined Hutt and one story was that he was in playing in the third grade when former All Black and midfield wizard of the 1920s Bert Cooke discovered him and helped promote him to the top side.

Against Petone in 1930 an understrength Hutt took the field with three debutants including Killeen and Hutt won 22-8. Petone went on to win their first Jubilee Cup and Hutt finished third.

The following year’s Senior Championship was one of the most hard-fought, before or since, with Hutt beating Marist 9-3 on the final afternoon of the season to win the Jubilee Cup. Ball and Killeen played in this team together.

Petone won again in 1932, but that winter Hutt had three All Blacks selected for their tour of Australia, Herb Lilburne, Ned Barry and Nelson Ball.

In 1933, Hutt were second to first-time winners Wellington College Old Boys, but then defeated them at the end of the season in the annual ‘challenge’ match for the National Mutual Cup.

Hutt won their second Jubilee Cup in 1934 and Killeen was in the Hutt backline that campaign and was two of 10 Hutt players who played for the Wellington representatives that year. Former Canterbury and now Wellington All Black first-five Herb Lilburne was the star player.

Ball, meanwhile, had transferred to Poneke in 1934, who were contenders but ultimately faded. Ball was injured for much of this season and spent more time off the field than on it at club and representative level.

Despite two losses to Ball’s Poneke, Hutt went through the season otherwise unbeaten and won the title by a single competition point to second placed Wellington College Old Boys whom they met in the decider in early August. In ‘slush and rain’ this was a 0-0 draw! There was close marking in the midfield between Killeen and former All Black Alan Wright. The following week, these two teams met again in the one-off end of season National Mutual Cup challenge match and this time WCOB won 16-8.

Another huge match that season was for a certain trophy called the McBain Shield – the first playing of it. In front of a bumper crowd and with the new Hutt Rec stand still a few weeks away from opening, Hutt famously won this first encounter 6-5.

The Hutt team in 1934 that won the first McBain Shield.

Both Ball and Killeen were listed as injured for Wellington’s 16-21 midweek loss to Wairarapa in mid-July, but Killeen played six and Ball two matches respectively for Wellington later in the season.

Both players had played their last matches in Wellington by 1935. Ball was with the All Blacks on their 1935/36 tour of Britain and Killeen had transferred to Auckland with his bank job.

Playing out of the Grafton club in Auckland, Killeen played for Auckland in 1935 and 1936 and in 1936 he received his one and only All Blacks test call-up. This was against Australia on his home track of Athletic Park in Wellington. Playing at second-five, he helped the All Blacks to a 11-6 win.

He played in a midweek warm-up match against South Canterbury, but his services weren’t required again.

He did appear in the 1937 All Black trials and in 1937 he captained Auckland to a 5-19 defeat to the Springboks, their first game of the tour. He played for Auckland again in 1938.

His banking job took him to New Plymouth in 1939 and he played six matches for Taranaki. He moved on to the Tasman region and in 1940 and 41 he played four matches for Golden Bay-Motueka.

He also coached club rugby teams after he hung up his playing boots for the final time.

Killeen died in March 1993, aged 81.

Ball drew his last breath whilst living in Durban in May 1985, aged 77.


  • Akers, Clive. New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. New Zealand Rugby Museum, 2016.
  • Dominion and Evening Post various reports early 1930s, in particular 1931 and 1934.
  • All Blacks A-Z profiles: Brian Killeen by Lindsay Knight and Nelson Ball by Lindsay Knight
  • Hutt Old Boys Marist RFC Centenary 2010 Souvenir Booklet /HOBM 2010.
  • 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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