You are here
Home > Club Rugby > Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 059: Hugh McLean, Don Oliver and the 1930 Wellington Axemen

Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 059: Hugh McLean, Don Oliver and the 1930 Wellington Axemen

Hugh McLean (left) and Don Oliver (right) – both Wellington Axemen All Blacks in 1930.

In 1930 the Wellington Football Club won Wellington’s Senior B Championship in emphatic style – scoring 508 points and conceding 29 in 15 matches, in an era of three-point tries.

This was perhaps unsurprising, given that the team featured five current or soon-to-be All Blacks.

All five of these players were originally from outside the region, four from the lower South Island. But all found themselves together in the bumblebee strip for one season in 1930.

The players were halfback Frank Kilby, five-eighths James ‘Rusty’ Page and Lance Johnson (all three educated at Southland Boys’ High School) and the two players featured here, Hugh McLean and Don Oliver.

>>> Read our recent double profile in this series with Frank Kilby and Lance Johnson at the bottom of this article. 

McLean was born in Whanganui and educated at both Hastings and Napier Boys’ High Schools, and also played for Taranaki and Auckland.

Oliver was born in Dunedin and educated at Heriot School and played for five provinces during his career.

McLean was a bustling loose forward, who played nine tests and 29 games for the All Blacks between 1930-35; Oliver was a wing who played three games and two tests for the All Blacks in 1930.

Kilby and McLean had previously played together for the Wellington Axemen in 1927. Work commitments saw both played transferred north for short stints.  Kilby was affiliated with Whanganui and Taranaki and 1928 and 1929 and McLean with Taranaki in 1929. In 1928 Kilby, along with Lance Johnson, was with the All Blacks in South Africa, while McLean played a full representative season for Taranaki in 1929.

Johnson returned to the Axemen in 1929, the first year of the Jubilee Cup, but his team won only four of 13 competition games and were relegated to Senior B status for 1930. This was also the WFC’s 50th anniversary season.

But the calvary was on its way.

Kilby and McLean returned to Wellington and to the Axemen, alongside newcomers Page and Oliver and a couple of other new players such as centre Glendinning Riddell who had represented Manawhenua in 1929. The coach was long-time Club Captain Sandy Weir, who had been coach for over a decade.

So the Axemen started 1930 with a playing roster ripe for winning the Jubilee Cup. Except they were playing in the Senior B competition!

The 1930 Wellington Axemen side, featuring Hugh McLean (middle row, third from left), Don Oliver (seated, second from left), Lance Johnson (seated, third from left), Frank Kilby (seated, third from right), Rusty Page (front row, left).

Oliver was a strapping 21-year-old wing who had played four games for Otago in 1929 out of the Kaikorai club.

He scored six tries on debut for the Axemen against Upper Hutt, and 23 in eight matches in the 1930 season. This form over the autumn and winter propelled him into the All Blacks for two tests against the touring Great Britain side.

On 4 June 1930 , Oliver, McLean, Kilby and Johnson were all in the Wellington representative team that beat Great Britain 12-8.

>>> Read our previous story about this match:

After scoring two tries on debut for Otago against Hawke’s Bay the previous year, Oliver made the South Island side in 1929 and a New Zealand XV team that played the New Zealand Maori in Wellington.

Now in Wellington, his sizzling form for the Axemen in the Senior B Championship soon saw him selected for the All Blacks for and warm-up game against North Otago and for the first two tests of the 1930 series against Great Britain in Dunedin and Christchurch. The All Blacks lost the first and won the second, but Oliver was dropped and that was the end of his international career.

However, he lined up for the Wellington province in 1930 and would score eight tries in seven appearances, including another two tries in the successful Ranfurly Shield challenge against Southland on 3 September. Wellington won 12-3.

He also scored two tries for Wellington against his home province Otago in an 18-8 win on 30 August, one against Canterbury in an 11-3 win on 6 September and a hat-trick in a 42-19 win over Wairarapa on 20 September.

Oliver was a prison officer, so his job took him away from Wellington at the end of 1930 and he also played first-class seasons for Wairarapa in 1931, Waikato in 1933 and 1934 and Southland in 1935. He was later a Horowhenua selector between 1948-50 – so was directly involved in six provinces.

Oliver died in 1990 in Hastings, aged 81.

Hugh McLean was part of a large rugby playing family in Whanganui, where his father and four uncles all represented the province.

After starting his Senior representative career in Hawke’s Bay, he moved to Wellington and played the first five of his 34 matches for the Wellington province in 1928.

As noted above, he moved to Taranaki in 1929 and he played nine matches for that province that season, before returning to the Axemen and earning selection for the All Blacks for the third and fourth tests against Great Britain. He scored two tries on debut in the 15-10 win in Auckland.

McLean next played for the All Blacks on their Australia tour in 1932 and 1934 and toured the British Isles with the national team in 1935/36.

Domestically, he left Wellington for Auckland whom he played another 34 first-class matches for out of the Grafton club right up to the start of World War Two. He co-founded the Barbarians club in 1937 and during the war he was a Captain in the 18th Infantry Regiment and Armoured Regiment. He was on the original selection panel for the 1945-46 Kiwis army team.

In 1928 McLean had also been selected in the New Zealand Rowing Eight for that year’s Olympic Games, but the crew didn’t travel because of a lack of funds.

As well as a rugby playing father and uncles, McLean was the brother of famous twentieth century rugby journalist Terry McLean.

Their other brother, Gordan McLean, was also a sports journalist and 1929 New Zealand Doubles Badminton champion.

Hugh McLean died in Auckland in 1997, aged 89.

After winning the Senior B Championship, which included wins over such clubs as Porirua, Johnsonville, Upper Hutt, Miramar, Melrose and Training College, the Axemen beat University (themselves Jubilee Cup winners in 1929) 13-12 to gain Senior A status in 1931.

The WRFU then went and restructured and expanded the competition in the off-season so both Wellington and University lined up in the Jubilee Cup regardless.

Page made has All Blacks debut against Australia in 1931, whilst himself, Kilby and McLean were all in the All Blacks together in 1932 out of the Wellington Axemen.

The Axemen would win the Jubilee Cup for the first time in 1939.


  • Akers, Clive. New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. New Zealand Rugby Museum, 2016.
  • All Blacks A-Z Profiles Hugh McLean (Bob Luxford) and Don Oliver (Lindsay Knight)
  • Chester, Rod, Palenski, Ron, McMillan, Neville. Men in Black 2000 Edition. Hodder Moa Beckett, Auckland 2000.
  • Dominion, Evening Post newspaper reports 1930.
  • Quinn, Keith. Give ‘Em the Axe. 150 years of the Wellington Football Club. Wakefields Digital, Wellington 2020.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed

Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 046: Frank Kilby and Lance Johnson

Similar Articles

Leave a Reply