All Blacks forged in Gallaher’s image

Three hundred and thirty-four men have played more Test rugby for the All Blacks than Dave Gallaher, who died in action in the Battle of Passchendaele 100 years ago Oct. 4, 2017. Yet none of them, not even Colin Meads or Richie McCaw, has played a more significant role in the development of New Zealand’s distinctive national and rugby identities.

Gallaher had, of course, the symbolic advantage of being a pioneer, as captain of the famed ‘Originals’, the first All Black touring team to visit Britain, Ireland and France in 1905-06. He leads the line of that transformative decade’s trailblazing leaders, followed by South Africa’s Paul Roos, the Australian Herb Moran and Henri Amand, captain of France in its first ever Test — against Gallaher’s All Blacks.

But to look again at Gallaher’s life, truncated at just short of 44, is to realise quite how many marks he left on New Zealand history. The nation which took on its modern form in 1900 found two means of expressing a distinct identity in its earliest decades — rugby and warfare.

Historian Keith Sinclair saw First World War troops as “the first identifiable New Zealanders,” the first given the chance to learn what made them different from Australians or Britons, and described the All Black Test against Wales in 1905 as Kiwi sport’s “equivalent of Gallipoli.” Gallaher, one of 17,000 New Zealanders who died in action, was intimately involved with both.

Like many early New Zealanders, he began elsewhere. Born in County Donegal in 1873, he emigrated with his family when he was five. He worked in the most archetypal of New Zealand industries, rising to foreman in a freezing plant which prepared agricultural produce for export and from 1895 played rugby for that most fruitful of academies, the Ponsonby club in Auckland, with provincial honours coming a year later.

Rugby was interrupted in 1901 when he joined the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in the Boer War, reaching the rank of Sargent-Major. The experience could be said to have taken years off him since on enlisting he gave his date of birth as 1876, a fiction maintained for the rest of his life.

The deception may have enabled his international career. When selected for the first All Black Test team, against Australia in Sydney in August 1903, he was believed to be 26 rather than only a few months short of his 30th birthday.

He was not the first All Black Test captain. That honour went to Jimmy Duncan, destined to be a marginalised coach on the 1905 tour. And when the Lions played their first Test on New Zealand soil in 1904, the job went to first-five Billy Stead, later Gallaher’s deputy in Britain.

But he was the first All Black from Ponsonby, beginning a line which reached No. 45 earlier this year with Rieko Ioane and is claimed as the longest from any club, just ahead of Otago University. And a still more important pioneering role was positional — as the first All Black Test ‘rover’, a position peculiar to and symbolic of the early New Zealand game. Attributed, like many distinctive New Zealand phenomena, to the fertile mind of Tom Ellison, the ‘rover’ was nominally a forward, but in practical terms an auxiliary half-back.

Letterkenny RFC’s home ground was officially renamed Dave Gallaher Memorial Park in a ceremony attended by Jerry Collins on Nov. 9, 2005. Ross Land/Getty Images

Ellison had withdrawn a forward from the pack, creating a seven-man 2-3-2 scrum of players with assigned specialist positions. Their expert skills, and the angles at which they pushed, meant that the 1905 All Blacks were more than equal to British eights who packed down in the order with which they arrived. The eighth man put the ball into the scrum, with the scrum-half poised for its arrival at the back. A quick strike could lead to exhilaratingly fast attacks.

The complication was that the rover remained in place alongside the front row. Generally accepted in New Zealand, this tactic generated a quarter of a century of howling disapproval from British critics. The Athletic News’ description of Gallaher in 1905 as “a first-rate obstacle of the passive resister kind” was among the milder critiques. Subsequent New Zealand chroniclers like JJ Stewart, Terry McLean and Winston McCarthy have readily conceded that he was, in Stewart’s words “invariably offside.” British critics and crowds were wont to shorten this to “obstructionist” or simply “cheat.”

Six-foot tall, 182-pounds and with a luxuriant moustache, Gallaher was an imposing figure by any standards in 1905. His main adversary was the opposing scrum-half, then as now often the smallest men on the field. He developed, as Stewart has written, “to an art the play of placing himself between the ball, or any fellow All Black with the ball, and an opponent attempting to get to the ball or the player.”

That he was also captain of the 1905 team only increased the intensity of such scrutiny. The appointment itself had not been without controversy. Gallaher and his deputy Stead, both Aucklanders, were chosen by the tour selectors, but a significant faction within the team felt — echoing parallel disputes in Australian cricket — that the captain should be elected by the players, as Duncan had been in 1903 and Stead a year later.

Unrest grew during their boat journey to the point at which Gallaher and Stead stood down and sought re-election, winning by a margin which has been variously reported as 17-12 or 18-11 — in neither case resounding. But the mandate does appear to have ended any dissent.

Nor, unlike his successor as both leader and rover in 1924, Cliff Porter, does Gallaher ever seem to have been in danger of losing his Test place. He played four of the five Tests , missing Ireland with an injury incurred during the Scotland game.

Former All Blacks captain Richie McCaw poses with the Dave Gallaher trophy following victory against France in 2013. FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Yet Norm McKenzie, one of the most influential chroniclers of New Zealand rugby in the first half of the last century, has suggested that purely as a player Gallaher fell some way short of greatness. He was, though, “acutely skilled” as a judge of players and tactics.

And there was greatness enough around him in 1905 in backs like Stead, Billy Wallace and Jimmy Hunter and forwards like Charlie Seeling and Bill Cunningham, the immensely powerful lock essential to the seven-man scrum. The All Blacks swept through England, Ireland and Scotland like a devouring flame, winning 27 consecutive matches by a combined margin of 801 points to 22. Gallaher’s contribution was the edge New Zealand rugby has retained to this day — strong leadership, astute judgment of tactics, remorseless commitment and simply thinking much harder about the game than most opponents.

Ernest Booth, a member of the 1905 team, recalled that “as an opponent he was simply merciless” while his captaincy followed the maxim of “give nothing away and take no chances” and that, while a disciplinarian “he treated us all as men, not kids.” In 1917 the Auckland Star would recall him as “Hard as nails, full of dash. He bolted from the mark every time, played right up to the whistle and stopped for nothing, big or small.”

Only in Wales, where Gwyn Nicholls offered similarly authoritative captaincy and Dickie Owen comparable tactical ingenuity, were the All Blacks withstood. Gallaher, who had withstood ferocious heckling from press and crowds alike — not least in Wales — with what both Winston McCarthy and British critic EHD Sewell described as “serenity,” said after the historic, contentious 3-0 defeat by Wales that “the better team won, and I am content.”

France’s first Test, on New Year’s Day 1906, was the last of Gallaher’s six, as he retired following the tour. But he remained a significant rugby figure, as selector for years of Auckland and the All Blacks.

But the achievements which have sealed him in legend took place a little further from the field of play. First was the book “The Complete Rugby Player in the New Zealand System” which he and Stead assembled with astonishing speed between the end of the 1905-06 tour and the team’s departure.

Gallaher’s biographer Matt Elliott records that Stead provided most of the words and Gallaher the diagrams. They were also able to build on Ellison’s earlier work, but as Gareth Williams records “it brought a startlingly new technical dimension to rugby literature, raising it to a level of sophistication previously unheard of and rarely exceeded since.”

“In death Gallaher acquired a mystique. His grave became a shrine.”

Terry McLean

Carwyn James and John Reason called it “a work of startling maturity, brimful of commonsense and real footballing shrewdness” which “literally took rugby football into the 20th century.” Encountering it in the 1970s England centre Jeff Butterfield, a significant thinker in his own right, commented that “it is no wonder that it took us 70 years to catch up with New Zealand.”

As Spiro Zavos has pointed out, it expressed not only tactical wisdom, but a rugby ethic. “Behind all the detail….lay a coherent value system: that the team came before the individual.” It remains to this day one of rugby’s basic texts.

Then came the war service. Gallaher did not have to join up — he was nearly 41 when war broke out. Elliott contests the legend that he was seeking revenge for the death of his brother Douglas in action — another, Henry, would die in 1917 — attributing his decision simply to “loyalty and duty.” More than 35,000 New Zealanders had volunteered before the introduction of conscription in 1915, and both Gallaher’s service record and accounts from the Originals tour suggest that he shared the British nationalism of many of his countrymen.

Gallaher enlisted in May 1916, joining the Auckland Regiment, was promoted to sergeant and saw service which included the Battle of Messines Ridge. How he died on Oct. 4, 1917, attacking the Gravenstafel Spur during the Battle of Passchendaele, is not clear. His service record cites a bullet through the face, but most accounts blame a shrapnel fragment through his helmet.

He was buried in the Nine Elms Cemetery at Poperinge. As McLean records, “in death he acquired a mystique. His grave became a shrine.” Auckland’s club championship, whose most frequent winner is Ponsonby, has been called the Gallaher Shield since 1922. The ground nearest his birthplace, at Letterkenny in Donegal, has been renamed in his honour, there is a statue outside Eden Park and France play New Zealand for the Dave Gallaher Trophy. In 2015 one of his shirts from the 1905 tour fetched £180,000 at auction.

All are significant physical monuments, but none quite matches up to Dave Gallaher’s true memorial, in a national rugby culture which is tough, collective, remorseless, smart and never stops thinking. As Brendan Gallagher has put it “history shows that the All Blacks were forged in Gallaher’s image.”

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