Thinking and talking about rugby every day for 50+ years
6 May 2015
I consider it a very good fortune from my life to have visited the gravesite of the first All Black captain Dave Gallaher a number of times. I first went in 1991 with some All Blacks of the second Rugby World Cup team. But that day one of the team behaved very badly by goose-stepping between the rows and rows of quietly standing headstones. When the player even stuck two fingers under his nose and raised one arm in a disgusting 'Hitler Salute' as he marched I could have killed the young bastard!
But on other trips, sometimes with film crews or with All Black tour supporter's groups, it has always been a place of real reflection and respect. This time it was the same. We were a small family group and no one else was in the Nine Elms cemetery at Poperinge in Belgium when we arrived. I took the opportunity to write on a small cross the names of the people in our group and I pushed our modest tribute into the turf right there.
Dave Gallaher died in the battle of Passchendaele on October 17 2017. He had lied about his age to go and fight for his adopted country of New Zealand (remember he had been born in Northern Ireland).
World War I was his second entry into serious war experiences. He had been in the Boer War in 1899-1902 as well. By 1903 he was an All Black and in 1905 he led the famous 'Original All Blacks' on their superb tour of UK and France. As they were the first New Zealand team to be called 'All Blacks' Gallaher was therefore the first true 'All Black captain.'
It was a measure of the respect Aucklanders and Kiwis in general had for his memory that only five years after his death and burial all Auckland senior club rugby teams began to play, as they still do today, for the Gallaher Shield.
It was wonderful to be back to Poperinge again.
On the last game of their UK tour in Cardiff, Wales beat NZ by 3-0. Ted Morgan scored a try for the home team which the All Blacks disputed forever more.
You cannot have a rugby match without a ball. According to legend, the ball that William Webb Ellis picked up and ran with at Rugby School in 1823 was similar in shape to the oval ball of today. Why Rugby School played with an oval football before running with it in one’s hands was allowed is a mystery, but the evidence is that balls of that shape were used for many years before Webb Ellis attended the school.
It could be that different forms of football were traditionally played with a pig’s bladder as the ball. Any good pig-hunter will tell you that a pig’s bladder, when inflated, is basically oval in shape. When, by 1840, leather covers were made for the bladders, they were fitted to that shape. Thus today’s rugby ball is a direct throwback to the pig’s bladder balls that were kicked around the playing fields of Rugby School early in the nineteenth century. The ‘feet only’ game of association football adopted the round ball on its own.
For years South African rugby favoured using an eight-paneled leather ball, as distinct from the standard four panels used elsewhere. In 1961 it joined the rest of the world in adopting the four-panel ball.
The first rubber bladders were made in 1870. Another significant change to the rugby ball came in 1931 when the rather squat shape of the early ball, which made for easier place-kicking and drop-kicking, was replaced by a narrower, more torpedo-like shape that is able to be passed more easily. The length was shortened by one and a half inches (35mm). A lace to hold the inner bladder together used to be found on every ball, but is now missing from the modern ball.
The main other differences that exist in the modern ball are that they are made out of synthetic rubber and have thousands of raised lumps on their surface. All are designed to give greater grip for the players’ handling. Whether they do aid catching and dispatching in a pass is the subject of endless debate among rugby watchers.
Also used on every ball are various brand names, as companies vie to have their ball used in major televised fixtures and therefore expand brand exposure and sales.
Which prominent New Zealand rugby personality admits having become slightly besotted by the British Theatre Production 'Les Miserables?'