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Pioneers of Rugby in Wellington 071: MAC Cooper

Malcolm McGregor Cooper, known as MAC Cooper, was a Rhodes Scholar who captained Oxford University against the All Blacks in 1935 and played two internationals for Scotland in 1936.

The lock/loose forward returned to New Zealand in 1938 to join the Wellington Football Club and the following year he famously captained the Axemen to their maiden Jubilee Cup title.

The 1939 Axemen won 13 of 16 games, scoring 239 points and conceding 145, to annex the Jubilee Cup in a close competition that was also the last uninterrupted season of rugby for six years with the outbreak of the second world war and the deaths of 85 Axemen and many more from other clubs throughout Wellington.

Wellington Axemen 1939 team shot – MAC Cooper circled

Wellington won 10 of their first 11 games, their only loss in this period being to Athletic (12-14), who they also lost to again several weeks later (8-12). They bounced back quickly to edge defending champions Petone twice, both times in front of massive club rugby crowds at Athletic Park.

On 1 July, scores were locked up at 8-8 in their top of the table clash between Wellington and Petone when centre William Fulton chased a kick and scored the match winner under the posts. On 5 August, Wellington beat Petone 18-17 to win the Jubilee Cup with a round to spare, All Black fullback Jack Taylor kicking a dropped goal from halfway that ultimately made the difference. The Axemen had sailed to an 18-5 halftime lead, but watched as Petone roared back with the wind and their kicker and former All Black Bunk Pollock missed a last-gasp penalty to fall short.

The title in the bag, the Axemen cruised past Marist Brothers Old Boys 35-20 in the final match of the season and captain Cooper was famously carried from the field by his teammates as shown in the photo below that appeared in the Evening Post:

Cooper was born in Havelock North on 17 August 1910 and educated at Napier Boys’ High School and later the institution that is now Massey University in Palmerston North. He made his first-class debut for the combined Manawatu-Horowhenua side in 1932, making four appearances.

He played a further seven matches for the Manawatu team in 1933 out of the University club and also played for the New Zealand Universities in 1933 in a three-match winning series over their Australian counterparts.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Agricultural Science and departed for Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship as an agricultural scientist in 1934.

Whilst at Oxford he captained the rugby team in 1934, 1935 and 1936, and led the team in their match against the touring All Blacks in 1935. This was a tight match at their Iffley Road ground, the All Blacks winning 10-9.

In February 1936 he played for Scotland at Murrayfield in two internationals, against Wales and Ireland. He was also in the UK Barbarians side in 1935, 1936 and 1937.

Returning to New Zealand, Cooper joined the Wellington Axemen for the 1938 season and was installed as the team’s captain.

He played three matches for a Wellington XV in 1938. These were effectively “B” team games and were all played on the dame day at the main Wellington team was away playing away. On 10 September the Wellington XV beat Marlborough 17-12, on 17 September a Wellington XV beat Cooper’s old side Manawatu 16-11 and on 24 September this team beat Whanganui 22-14.

In 1939 Cooper teamed up with former All Blacks halfback and Axemen legend Frank Kilby in a captain-coach relationship that carried them all the way to the Jubilee Cup.

This was Wellington’s first Senior Championship win since 1914 (shared with Athletic) and their first standalone one since 1901. They would next win the Jubilee Cup in 1947.

Cooper made the full Wellington representative team in 1939, making eight appearances. He scored two tries in these games, one in an early season 33-8 win over Marlborough and the other in a 47-14 win over Ashburton County [Mid Canterbury].

At the end of the season he played in an All Black trial team to select the 1940 touring party to South Africa that was never publicly selected owing to the outbreak of second world war and the tour’s cancellation.

Cooper played for the newly formed Centurions club in 1940, but his rugby career was finishing.

He joined the armed forces and rose to the rank of Major. After the war he stayed in Britain for work in his specialist field of farming and agriculture.

Cooper passed away in Longhoughton, Northumberland, England, on 1 September 1989, aged 79.

References:

  • Akers, Clive. New Zealand Rugby Register 1870-2015. New Zealand Rugby Museum, 2016.
  • Evening Post – various rugby reports throughout 1939
  • Quinn, Keith. Give ‘Em the Axe. 150 years of the Wellington Football Club. Wakefields Digital, Wellington 2020.
  • Swan, A.C. History of New Zealand Rugby Football 1870-1945. A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1948.
  • Swan, Arthur C.; Jackson, Gordon F. W. (1952). Wellington’s Rugby History 1870 – 1950. Wellington, New Zealand: A. H. & A. W. Reed
  • Headline photo: Photograph of Malcolm McGregor Cooper. New Zealand Free Lance : Photographic prints and negatives. Ref: PAColl-6303-61. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23100644
  • Newspaper Photo: Evening Post” Photo. Wellington Club players carrying their captain, M. McG. Cooper, from tlie field at Athletic Park on Saturday, assisted by a Marisl player, after winning the final club championship match of th^ season and the Jubilee Cup. (Evening Post, 19 August 1939). Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23507918

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