Joe O'Leary and the overlooked Life membership

 Joe O'Leary

Joe O'Leary

At the recent Ponsonby AGM the story of Joe O'Leary and his forgotten election to Life Membership was told, after it had unexpectedly come to light 102 years later. It's a fascinating tale, so here it is:


Joe O’Leary was not only a significant figure in Ponsonby rugby in the immediate pre-World War I years, but he was also a significant figure in New Zealand rugby. He captained the 1913 All Blacks at home against Australia and was, for almost 100 years, the only man to lead an All Black test team from fullback; Mils Muliaina was the next player to achieve the honour.


O’Leary was elected a Life Member of Ponsonby in 1915, but his name is missing off the Honours Board and it’s not too hard to work out how that happened.


His nomination and election came after he announced his retirement from playing; as was the norm back then, he made that announcement at the AGM.


The 1915 AGM took place on 8 April. Just over two weeks later, before the rugby season had even kicked off, the Gallipoli landings had taken place and New Zealand was, not surprisingly, rather distracted.


The 1915 rugby season was chaotic as huge numbers of men joined the Army, and any influence O’Leary hoped to have in a coaching capacity was lost.


From 1916 to 1918 the game was restricted to boys under call-up age (20), and Ponsonby struggled for numbers in Senior, although lower grades were strong. Still, the club was not operating as it had been and only George Nicholson and Thomas Aitken played significant off-field roles in those dark years.


By the time the War was over, after the 1918 season, O’Leary had returned to Masterton. He spent the better part of his later life there; it was also where he had grown up. Therefore he wasn’t around the club through the 1920s as a number of the early Life Members were, and the club’s records were destroyed in two fires in the middle of the decade; whatever the 1924 fire missed, the larger blaze in 1926 burnt.


The club also had a problem keeping track of its Life Members; both Aitken (1930 and 1938) and Ernie Matthews (1934 and 1955) were both elected twice. Given that 21 years passed between Matthews’ two elections one may be forgiven for not remembering the first, but Aitken’s were only eight years apart.


O’Leary died in December 1963 at Masterton, having played little part in Ponsonby rugby for nearly 50 years. The Honours Board was prepared not long after he had died, but given that he hadn’t been around for half a century it’s not surprising that his election was forgotten. The other Life Members, to a man and woman, had been around almost permanently for decades.


O’Leary was clearly highly regarded; his election as the club’s second Life Member – a year after Nicholson and 15 years before Aitken – says that. He had been a strong figure in rugby’s camp during those years when a real battle for supremacy was going on with rugby league, and for much of the time the 13-man game looked as if it was winning. Men like O’Leary, an All Black captain and widely regarded as one of the country’s best players, did a great deal for the union game simply by staying in it when they could have made big money by shifting their allegiance.


That was almost certainly the reason (unstated) why he was voted to a Life Membership. Ponsonby had taken a string of hits since 1910 – that great 1909 side was shorn of half a dozen leading players by 1911 for a start, and more were changing codes all the time – and having a strong man stay with the club was a significant thing. Nicholson’s Life Membership, awarded in 1914, was strongly dependant on the same factors; he had only joined the club in 1907 and back then, when Life Memberships were seldom awarded, nobody in the normal course of events got one for seven years’ work.


O’Leary had joined Ponsonby in 1909 after a significant career with Wairarapa; he made his debut when only 16 and had captained Wairarapa-Bush against the 1908 Anglo-Welsh team when aged 24. Therefore he had six playing years with the club and not even three championships would qualify him for Life Membership if it was just his on-field record that was being considered.


Still, it is clear from three separate sources (New Zealand Herald, Auckland Star and The Observer) that he was elected to a Life Membership of Ponsonby in 1915.