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Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 060: Herb Lilburne

Herb Lilburne could be one of the most valuable players to have ever transferred from Canterbury to Wellington.

Herb Lilburne arrived in Wellington at the end of 1930 and captained Hutt to Jubilee Cup titles in 1931 and 1934.

In the 1920s and 1930s, New Zealand rugby and especially Wellington was blessed with super-talented backs that were popular and helped draw big crowds to the game in an era of wing forwards and 2-3-2 scrum formations and swashbuckling back play. In Wellington, home-grown star Mark Nicholls is regarded as the crème of the crop, but Herb Lilburne was a leading support actor in the biggest show in town on Saturday afternoons.

In modern terminology, Lilburne was a utility back, equally at home at five-eighths or fullback or, occasionally in positions in between. He was an All Black between 1928-34 whilst representing Canterbury and Wellington and played 10 tests and 30 other international matches.

Lilburne was born and raised in Christchurch and played for the Albion club in his formative years, before transferring to Wellington at the end of 1930 as he was a railway worker and joined the Hutt club – and his arrival was a boon to the local game and in particular his new Hutt club.

While in Canterbury he played 19 matches for his home union and scored 67 points and was in Canterbury’s team that won the Ranfurly Shield for the first time, against Manawhenua in 1927. Canterbury defended it against South Canterbury but then four days later lost it to Wairarapa, but Lilburne wasn’t playing in that day.

Lilburne played for the South Island team and in All Blacks trials and was selected for the 1928 All Blacks to South Africa whilst still aged 19. In South Africa he played in 14 matches and played in the third (at five-eighth) and fourth tests (at fullback).

He was selected for the All Blacks again in 1929 to tour Australia and played in seven matches on tour including in the three tests, and all three were lost. In 1930, he was at fullback when Canterbury beat the touring Great Britain team 14-8 (this was four days after Wellington had beaten them 12-8). He played in two of the tests that the All Blacks won.

Thus Lilburne, while still in his early 20s, was a vastly experienced and well-known player when he transferred to Wellington and joined the Hutt Club for the start of the 1931 season. Hutt welcomed him with open arms installed him as their captain.

The 1931 Wellington club rugby season was fiercely competitive, with several teams right in the mix throughout. Famous matches involving Lilburne and his new Hutt team included their 10-3 win over Wellington in front of a massive crowd, a 13-22 loss to Petone when Petone captain Mark Nicholls switched his line-up from the traditional 8 forwards and 7 backs to 7 forwards and 8 backs with another famous player of the time, Bunk Pollock, playing a ‘roving’ roll, an 8-3 loss to Eastbourne and a 14-14 draw with Poneke. With other results going their way and a last round 9-3 win over Marist, Hutt won the Senior Championship title and the Jubilee Cup.

Hutt were in the mix throughout Lilburne’s next four seasons and in 1932, Lilburne was joined by two Hutt teammates in the All Blacks for their tour of Australia, Nelson Ball and E.F. Barry. Another, famous All Black that played for Hutt in this time was Bert Cooke, but this was just for the 1930 season so Lilburne and Cooke didn’t play together in club rugby.

In 1934, Lilburne was a leading player for Hutt as they beat Petone 6-3 in the first McBain Shield match and Hutt went on to win their second Jubilee Cup title. Hutt supplied no fewer than 10 players to the Wellington representative side that year. Lilburne and Barry also toured Australia with the All Blacks in 1934.

Lilburne was selected by the fledgling Rugby Almanack as one of their ‘Five Players of the Year’ for 1934. His citation read:

“Lilburne’s value as a club member for the Hutt club is all that can be expected from a master of Rugby, his leadership and tactical moves placing Hutt as a leading club in the Wellington union. He is a team player of the highest standard, and one of the most popular footballers of the day. His popularity can be emphasised when it is remembered the reception he received from the vast crowd at Athletic Park when he went on the field in the inter-island match of 1933 [replacing George Nepia].

“…he stood out last season as the greatest match-winner in the country. Time and time again his team would be down on points but some splendid move on his part brought about the winning try. Those who witnessed the Auckland-Wellington match last year have evidence of his value in this direction. A master of the stab punt he uses the same as only a master can. His defence is unquestionable – he is probably the soundest inside back in New Zealand.”

Wellington won that match against Auckland 16-13 in one of the highlights of the 1934 domestic season. Lilburne was a star, as was young halfback Joey Sadler, whose career was sadly cut short three years later with a knee injury. A notable win for Wellington in 1934 was their 25-17 victory over Canterbury away in Lilburne’s former hometown.

Lilburne and the 1934 All Blacks, his final tour with the national team.

But it was soon all over for him in rugby. The next year he missed out on selection on the All Blacks for their 1935/36 British tour so he promptly switched to rugby league. It appears that his non-selection for that All Blacks tour was more for personality reasons than playing ability as he was only 27 and in his prime.

He played one test for the Kiwis against the Kangaroos in Auckland in October that year, an 8-29 loss.

He was later reinstated back to rugby union and moved to Dunedin to take up coaching. He coached Dunedin’s Zingari-Richmond club for a number of years.

Lilburne played exactly 100 first-class matches in his rugby union playing career, scoring 20 tries and 196 points.

He died on 12 July 1976 in Dunedin, aged 68.

Article References:

  • All Blacks Player Profile Herbert Lilburne – by Lindsay Knight.
  • Akers, Clive. New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. New Zealand Rugby Museum, 2016.
  • Dominion and Evening Post various reports early 1930s.
  • Hutt Old Boys Marist RFC Centenary 2010 Souvenir Booklet /HOBM 2010.
  • New Zealand Rugby Almanack 1935. Five Players of the Year profile Herb Lilburne.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed
  • Swan, A.C. History of New Zealand Rugby Football Part 1. A.H and A.W. Reed, Wellington 1948.
  • Headline photo credit: Herb Lilburne wearing a rugby uniform. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-8163-62. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22332464

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