100th anniversary of Dave Gallaher's death

Dave Gallaher.jpg

Dave Gallaher

One hundred years ago today, on 4 October 1917, one of the great figures of New Zealand rugby was killed during the Battle of Passchendaele. Dave Gallaher also holds a special place in the history of the Ponsonby District Rugby Club – he was the first clubman selected for the All Blacks.

Starting in 2005, when the Lions tour coincided with a revival in interest about the 1905-06 Original All Blacks to Britain, Dave Gallaher has finally enjoyed the general recognition that his sterling feats of 100 years ago deserved. To rugby people he had long been one of this country’s great figures but the passage of time had dimmed the legend as far as the wider audience was concerned, and it took something special to rekindle the flame. As a result of the doings of last 12 years, it will probably never burn low again.

Ponsonby’s first All Black – he was initially chosen in 1903 – had already packed a fair bit into his life before winning national selection at rugby. The Gallaher family emigrated to New Zealand from Ireland when David (born in 1873) was just a little chap and eventually settled and farmed in the Katikati area, where his mother also became a teacher.

The family moved north in the early 1890s, Dave eventually joined Ponsonby and soon became one of the club’s leading players. He was in the championship-winning 1897 team and was first chosen for Auckland the year before, but he didn’t have a particularly storied career at either club or provincial level; that was the only championship success he tasted with Ponsonby and while he played in the first Ranfurly Shield match of all, his Auckland career didn’t even run to 30 matches.

Gallaher had been interested in military matters from a young age and, growing up as he did, was introduced to what were then the basics of army life (riding and shooting) while still little more than a boy. He signed on for the Mounted Rifles who went to South Africa in 1901 and was there for two years; his replica medals, in the committee room, show five clasps on his QSA medal where one was awarded for each campaign (Cape Colony, Transvaal and Orange Free State, as well as the years 1901 and 1902) he fought in.

His rugby fame really rests on the three years immediately following his return from South Africa. Originally a hooker, Gallaher found wing forward suited him better – he was taller than the average front-rower, and his rugby skills and ability to read play were far more suited to the rover role – and he quickly became regarded as the best in New Zealand. Not only opposing players considered he had won that recognition; the selectors agreed and he went on the Australian tour, during which New Zealand played its first test match, and Gallaher was in the All Black side that day.

He was chosen for the first test New Zealand played at home (in 1904 against Great Britain) but was not part of the reduced All Black team that played three matches in Australia in 1905; he had been chosen for this mini-tour but withdrew before the team sailed. When the side returned to New Zealand and played matches against provincial sides Gallaher only took part in the last, against Wellington, but he did lead the side instead of Jimmy Hunter, who had been skipper before then.

On voyage to England his appointment as captain was challenged by several team members and Gallaher offered to stand down. Billy Stead, his vice-captain and probably the favoured replacement among the dissidents, immediately stepped aside as well and after some negotiations Gallaher won the team vote, if only by a small majority. It didn’t matter; from then on he was the undisputed boss.

 He was a dominant figure on the field, and the focus of much British ire as they had never seen a player who was ‘a back but who claimed the privileges of a forward’, as the wing forward seemed to do. The big difference was a regulation that applied only in New Zealand so the rover, who was not allowed past halfway of the scrum until the ball cleared at home, was free to move forward alongside the ball on tour. Gallaher, big, fast and clever, needed no second invitation to create mayhem among the always under-pressure local backs.

He felt the British habit of killing ruck ball was a bad influence on the game, he wished the Welsh matches had come earlier in the tour when everyone was fitter and less knocked about (although some members of the touring party were probably over-played, so selection was something of an issue), and he wasn’t best pleased with the treatment he got from the Welsh crowds although ‘I will do my best to forget it,’ he wrote later.

He and Stead combined during the tour to write ‘The Complete Rugby Footballer’, an instruction manual that was years ahead of its time and not outdated a century on. It’s also on most collectors’ wish lists, but good original copies (there have been more recent facsimile reprints) are very hard to find and pricy once located; you’ll need somewhere between $500 and a grand to make it your own if you can find one.

Gallaher was recognised as an outstanding leader of men on that tour and, as the captain of the team, received a steady stream of civic honours. He had a dignity about him that one would expect a man in his position to have, but unlike most British amateur captains it wasn’t because he or his family was well-connected. Gallaher was by then a middle-class but from humble origins and most of his working life was spent with the Auckland Farmers Freezing Co-Operative (AFFCO), the meat people; his personal demeanour was something that had developed considerable strength over his lifetime; from a young age he had to support his younger siblings, and because he was the man he was.

He retired from active rugby after the tour, except for one time he pulled on an Auckland jersey when the provincial side was desperately short of numbers on tour, and turned his hand to coaching and selecting at club and provincial level before moving on to the national selection committees. Not surprisingly he proved very able, and teams under his control had a great deal more success than most.

He had no need to enlist for World War I – in fact he was well over the call-up age – but a desire to avenge two brothers killed in battle led him to join up and head off to another war. He must have been the oldest man in his regiment, and by far the most famous, but he still took a full part in the fighting as and when it fell their lot. He, along with far too many others, was killed at Passchendaele in the middle stages of yet another bogged-down offensive in the middle stages of the war.

Gallaher is buried in the Nine Elms Cemetery at Poperinge in Belgium. The grave itself has become something of a shrine for young New Zealanders on their circuit of World War I sites, and is often visited by All Black teams when on tour, especially if an Armistice Day test against France is on the horizon. Sean Fitzpatrick visiting Gallaher’s grave was the opening sequence of the 2017 television programme ‘Behind the Black’ and captured a lot of the emotion felt by rugby people at the site.

In 1922 a group of admirers presented the Gallaher Shield to the Auckland union, to be awarded to its champion senior team of the year. It’s a trophy that has a special place at Ponsonby, as Gallaher’s own club has won it far more often than any other and a cabinet, with the years of victory listed on the front, awaits its return each year. The club commissioned and paid for the fine statue that stands outside Eden Park by the main Walters Road entrance, where the 1.5 times life-size figure looks over the crowds with an unmistakable air of command; the statue itself is very similar to a famous photograph of Gallaher preparing to throw to a lineout, which he did as well as feeding the scrums.

In the last 20 years or so Gallaher has been inducted to several Halls of Fame, both rugby and New Zealand sport, and the ground at the Letterkenny RFC, the closest to his Ramelton birthplace, was renamed the Dave Gallaher Memorial Park. The 2005 All Blacks attended the unveiling of a plaque at the ground, and the opening of the renovated park was done by another Ponsonby stalwart and President of the NZRU, Bryan Williams, in 2012.

Dave Gallaher’s position in New Zealand rugby is secure for ever; he is now recognised as the first great All Black captain although his nearly-forgotten predecessors, especially Tom Ellison, had already set a very high standard. Because Gallaher led a touring team to Britain that conquered almost everyone it came across (one loss in 35 matches), because of its incredible scoring feats (976 points to 59, and that with tries worth three points) and because of that test against Wales, the 1905-06 Originals are, without much argument, the most famous rugby team of all time. Their leader, therefore, will always have that reflected glow as well as any recognition of personal merit.

Gallaher showed Britain that a leader did not have to be high-born, but leadership could be in the power of any man and its exercise was one of its greatest skills. He was tough; as Ernest Booth noted upon hearing of his death, ‘To us All Blacks his words would often be, 'Give nothing away; take no chance.’’ Booth described him as someone who paid attention to detail and a ‘man of sterling worth, slow to promise but always sure to fulfil … He was a valuable friend and could be, I think, a remorseless foe … He treated us all as men, not kids.’

Gallaher is regarded as the man who set the standard for All Black captains, and he set the bar high. A quick cast down the list of names that have followed over 100 years and more show that tradition has been worthily maintained by every man who has ever taken up the mantle. Although few say so publicly, it’s certain that each and every one has learned the story of Dave Gallaher, and has been inspired by it. That’s a huge legacy for one man to have left New Zealand rugby.

David Gallaher

  • Ponsonby, Auckland and New Zealand
  • Born 30 October 1873 at Ramelton, Ireland
  • Died 4 October 1917 at Passchendaele, Belgium

First-class playing record

  • Auckland (1896-1909) 26 matches
  • North Island (1903-05) 2 matches
  • New Zealand (1903-06) 36 matches, including 6 tests
  • Gallaher scored six tries and one conversion in first-class rugby.