At the outbreak of war it had been decided that New Zealand should provide an Expeditionary Force of one division, under the then Major-General, former player and rugby supporter Bernard Freyburg. Their first echelon had landed in Egypt in February 1940, the third in September. The second was diverted to Britain on Italy’s entry into the war and did not reach Egypt until the spring of the following year, ready for the move to northern Greece.
As in WW1, rugby organized or otherwise was a big part of NZ service life. As well as a local rugby competition for unit teams in 1940–41, before heading for the desert, there was soon a rash of fixtures against useful opposition. These regularly featured magnificent displays by that 1935 All Black tourist Eric Tindill at scrum half, though he had been capped at five eighth. Tindill died aged 99 in 2010 after a unique career as a NZ cap at both rugby and cricket, a Test cricket umpire and Test rugby referee.
In 1940 he played firstly for Aldershot Command. Also in the team was Cyril Pepper, the pre-war All Black prop mentioned earlier, who was wounded at Sidi Rezegh in 1941 where he earned the MC. However, he died in a fall in Wellington in 1943, aged 31.
The NZ side played in the following matches before they resumed their voyage to Egypt:
Nov 23 – Lost to Rosslyn Park 20-22 (at Old Deer Park, Richmond): Pepper and Tindill (capt.) both appeared in this opening match. Rosslyn Park led 22-0 with less than 20 minutes to go.
Nov 30 – Lost to St Mary’s Hospital 3-15 (at the Command Ground, Aldershot).
Dec 9 – Lost to Cardiff 3-12 (at the Arms Park, Cardiff): the hosts saw Wilf Wooller grab a try and a dropped goal while Duncan Brown landed a penalty and conversion. E. Howell got the NZ try.
Dec 11 – Beat Rosslyn Park 15-8 (at the Command Ground, Aldershot), in the presence of the Duke of Gloucester.
Dec 14 – Beat Aldershot Command 8-0 (at the Command Ground, Aldershot).
Dec 21 – Beat Rev. Peter Brook’s West of England XV 13-8 (at the Memorial Ground, Bristol).
Dec 28 – Beat Guy’s Hospital 33-3 (at Honor Oak Park). The try-count was 9-0.
On behalf of one of those venues and its teams, the British Journal of Nursing for December 1940 carried a plaintive and doubtless typical appeal:
‘Aldershot Command: There is a big demand for football boots and footballs – both Association and Rugby – and for light novels and magazines. It is only necessary to hand in books at the nearest post office. Gifts of pianos, wireless sets, and indoor games will be welcomed by the Command Welfare Officer, Hut 26, Steeles Road, Stanhope Lines, Aldershot.’
Over 50 years on, a reunion booklet from NZ recalled, in detail that required only slight amendment, the Arms Park game above…. During WW2 Maori Battalion teams fared very well against many of the Unit and international fifteens. In England, during the winter of 1940-41, the Maori Battalion team showed such superiority, that the Welsh Rugby Union invited it to play on the ground made famous by the 1905 All Blacks, when Deans’ try was disallowed. After a long train ride in the cold, the team arrived at Cardiff at midnight. The next morning the team visited the ground and were shown the spot where Deans had ‘scored.’ The side included M. Delamere, M. Francis, T. Paraone, E. Howell, P. Kurupo, B. Jacobs, Bubu Matenga, G. Harrison (Capt.), A. Wanoa, N. Carroll, L. Harris, T. Timihou, P. Kutia, W. Cooper & G. Pitman. The game was played at a tremendous pace. Bunny Jacobs was caught offside and the hosts kicked a goal. Then came a repetition of the famous disputed Deans ‘try’. In a melee on the Cardiff line, one of the Maori forwards dived over. The referee was unsighted and the try was disallowed. Many spectators booed the referee. Five certain points and the usual shot in the arm for the Maoris was lost. The Welsh scored soon scored a gem of a try. Stung by this reverse the Maori backs swung into action. Eddie Howell, playing magnificently, received from Bubu Matenga, drew Bunny Jacobs’ man then unloaded to Bunny who sped through the gap to score. Thousands of hats flew into the air. Delamere missed an easy kick. Two more kicks by the Welsh clinched the game. The hosts presented ties to the Maoris later.
Wilf Wooller, the famous international played in this game. Opposing Bunny Jacobs was a youngster who in 1950 toured New Zealand with the Lions team. (This would have been Bleddyn Williams, doubtless). He was a mere slip of a lad in 1940, but a very efficient one at that. Over 12,000 spectators watched not only the game, but also the skies above, for German bombers…
Part 1 of this article focuses on rugby on the home front during the Second World War.
About the Author – The article above is taken from Howard Evans and Phil Atkinson’s ‘War Games: Rugby Union during the Second World War’, published by St David’s Press and the first book to pull together in detail much of the rugby played 1939-1946, including the hugely-successful NZEF ‘Kiwis’ postwar tour.