July 9 1927 – The Battle of Solway.

THE Battle of Solway . . . what memories this match evokes in New Zealand provincial rugby. Quite simply, no other game in New Zealand before or since has excited quite the same acrimony and argument as did the Ranfurly Shield match played between Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay at the Solway Showgrounds, Masterton, on July 9, 1927.

Nor does any other match occupy quite the same aura in the game’s folklore as this. Over no other match have so many words been written and spoken. It has been to New Zealand provincial rugby what the Wales-New Zealand match of 1905 has been to the international scene.

Considering the lofty place it holds among the classics of New Zealand rugby the match contains a couple of ironies. For one, it was not, if the newspaper accounts of the time can be taken as being fair and reliable, an outstanding spectacle, purely as a game of football. And for another, judging by the testimony of men who played in the game, it was not an especially brutal affair.

Bert Grenside, Hawke’s Bay winger, says: “If there was any ill feeling it was among the spectators; the players certainly remained the best of friends.”

Jackie Blake, the Hawke’s Bay centre, said: “It wasn’t the battle it has been painted. It was quite a clean game, the sort you enjoy.”

And Wattie Barclay, the man over whom the subsequent furore raged, said: “It was a good, hard game. I don’t think there was any ill feeling among the players at all.”

For Blake the match was almost like a tea-party in comparison to the roughest game in which he ever played, the Maori All Blacks’ famous encounter with the Springboks at McLean Park in 1921. “That match was played in an atmosphere the like of which I never experienced again, and certainly not in the so called Battle of Solway. The Springboks quite obviously didn’t want to play against the Maoris. I’d played against them the Saturday before for Hawke’s Bay- Poverty Bay and when you were knocked over they helped you up. There was nothing like that in the Maoris match. Before the game some Maori girls performed a poi dance. Some of the Afrikaaners in the Springbok team turned their backs on them. I remember Sam Gemmell saying to me as we were standing waiting for the kickoffs ‘Jackie, we are playing for our race.’ “.

photo New Zealand Herald
Barclay appears in this 1927 photo of the College Rifles team, playing in Auckland.

The storm that the Battle of Solway caused in New Zealand rugby circles was mainly over the residential qualifications of Barclay. After prolonged wrangles, protests and threats, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union ruled that Barclay was not properly qualified and though the Bay had won the match 21-10 to regain the shield six weeks previously the game (and the shield) was awarded to Wairarapa.

To get the sensational match and its even more sensational aftermath, in better context, it is necessary to trace it back to its origins and the victory Wairarapa had over the Bay in June 1927 to end a golden shield era. Since the end of its fabulous 1926 season the Bay machine had suffered several setbacks and in 1927 selector Norman McKenzie was able to put in but a shadow of his magnificent 1926 lineup. The many losses and retirements had included the return of George Nepia to the East Coast, but the most. telling arid significant had been the transfers of Bert Cooke and “Bull” Irvine into the Wairarapa. Irvine had gone into the family’s hotel business in Waipukurau and Cook, ever the wanderer, had been set up in his own business in Masterton with the generous help of a band of Wairarapa rugby supporters. Thus Wairarapa’s selector Ted McKenzie was able to put a strong combination into the field for the King’s Birthday match — with the shield at stake.

Wairarapa duly won the shield, fairly and squarely beating Hawke’s Bay, 15-11. The winning Wairarapa side was L. Roach; R. Booth, J.C. Stringfellow, W. Yates; A.E. Cooke, R.T. Cundy; J. Hiroti; J.G. Donald (captain); K.H. Reid, Seymour Willoughby, M. Parker; I.H. Harvey, W, Reside, W.R. Irvine, Q. Donald.

Immediately the shield changed hands there were few complaints from the Bay camp. There was, apparently, a widespread opinion that the overall interests of the game were being served by the shield passing on after its long stay in the Hawke’s Bay. Indeed, there is a suspicion that even among Bay officials there was a feeling the shield had been too long in the area. In his book, “On with the Game,” Norman McKenzie himself is on record as saying the years between 1922 and 1927 in which the Bay held the shield were not among his most enjoyable. He wrote: “The Ranfurly Shield has an attraction for people not particularly interested ordinarily in rugby and when such a trophy is in possession of their province they become rather fanatical. I soon learned that these uninformed enthusiasts were to be avoided. When Hawke’s Bay held the Ranfurly Shield people used to waylay and give me their opinions concerning what I should do with the team, and it eventually ended up with my going home from work via the back streets for peace and quietness.

“I do not believe the Ranfurly Shield should be held by any province for a long time. I was heartily glad to see the end of it in 1927. . . . The Ranfurly Shield brings to the province that holds it a lot of cash that is devoted to the good of the game. But I really think, to do the greatest good, the shield should not be retained for more than a year at the most.”

Yet a few weeks after losing the shield the Bay did make the most earnest endeavour to recapture it. McKenzie even had his squad in camp on a Taradale farm for a full week before the match. What made the Bay so fiercely determined to resume its shield reign?

One well documented account suggests that what recharged the Bay to such fury was a boast by one of the Wairarapa players after the King’s Birthday match that he had “put Bert Grenside in hospital.” During the match, it is true, Grenside did get a knee in the back and did have a spell in hospital with a bleeding kidney. But in 1980 he emphasises that he did not know who was the Wairarapa player involved, nor does he think it was anything other than an accident. “I heard the rumours but didn’t take any notice of them,” he says. “I do not believe any player deliberately tries to hurt another.”

Whatever the causes or the circumstances, interest in the match was unprecedented, at fever pitch. On the day of the match special trains were dispatched to Masterton from Wellington, Dannevirke and Napier. Almost 1000 cars travelled down from the Bay and on the primitive roads of the time dust lingered in the air for hours afterwards.

In spite of the effort Hawke’s Bay put into the challenge, Wairarapa was confident it could more than hold its own. Its optimism wasn’t entirely misplaced either for in the one defence it made, one week before the Battle of Solway, it had crushed its neighbour Bush union 53-3, scoring 13 tries with Cooke getting three of them. Wattie Barclay recalls: “Wairarapa were pretty sure they were going to be too good for us again, but we in the Hawke’s Bay side were determined to make it otherwise.”

The spectators were clearly a major cause of some of the problems that followed. By the time of the match’s kick-off a crowd of about 10,000 was jammed into a ground that was designed to comfortably take only about half that number. Over-consumption of alcohol, exacerbated the situation. The match on least two occasions was halted because over-excited spectators invaded the pitch. To gain a better view the battle some spectators scrambled up onto the roof of a shed. It soon collapsed under their weight and bodies were sent in all directions. Luckily. no one was seriously injured.

Of the match itself the NZ Times reported: “Judged by the best New Zealand standards, the display left a good deal to be desired. Hawke’s Bay did not display the machine-like passing tactics that enabled them last year to beat all comers. Throughout the first spell passing by the rearguards were conspicuous by their absence. . . This no doubt was largely due to spoiling tactics adopted by both teams, but had the insides been smarter play would have been more open. A tedious succession of delays while the ambulance attendants rendered first aid on the field deprived play of interest in the first half. Roach, Cooke,J. Donald and Conrad all had to receive attention.”

The match’s first sensation came early. Referee Bert McKenzie gave a lecture to both sides. Then, after a lineout, the Bay’s captain, Morrie Brownlie, and his 1924 All Black team-mate, Quentin Donald, were both ordered off.

Says the NZ Times report: “Donald came through a ruck and ran into the arms of Brownlie. No blows were struck, but the pair glared at each other. The referee, no doubt deeming the game would get out of hand if he did not firmly maintain control, made a motion of dismissal to both players and the two All Blacks who had stood shoulder to shoulder on many hard fought fields in Britain and France in 1924 had to make their way to the sideline.”

Barclay, now the captain in Brownlie’s absence, recalls only one incident slightly untoward. He crashed into his old mate, Bert Cooke, and was told brusquely: “Two can play at that game.” Barclay’s only reply, was: “Just get out of my road.” Of the match itself there can be no doubt that the better side won. The Bay scored four tries to two in winning 21-10. The teams for this epic of shield history were:
Hawkes Bay: T.G. Corkill; B.A. Grenside, J.M. Blake, W. Huxtable; W.P. Barclay, Eru Te Ngaio; R. Edwards; M.J. Brownlie (captain), S. Gemmell, C.
Campbell, C.J. Brownlie, G. Conrad, R. Tankard, J. Gemmell, J.P. Swain.
Wairarapa: L. Roach; R. Booth, C. Stringfellow, I. Hart; A.E. Cooke, R. Cundy; J. Hiroti; J. Donald (captain), K. Fairbrother, Seymour Willoughby, M. Parker, I.H, Harvey, W. Reside, W.R. Irvine, Quentin Donald.

Incidentally, one of the stars of the match was Cyril Brownlie, who once brother Morrie had been ordered off played like a man possessed. For the Brownlie brothers it as an amazing switch of roles. On the 1924 tour of Britain Cyril Brownlie became the first man ordered off in an international when he got his marching orders against England at Twickenham. On that occasion Morrie responded by scoring a stupendous try in the All Blacks’ 17-11 win.

When Bert McKenzie blew his whistle for the last time in the tempestuous match the fun was far from over. Indeed it had only just begun and the man who would now occupy the centre stage was the quiet, dignified Wattie Barclay. It is hard to imagine a man less likely to be involved in a bitter controversy and even now he gives an impression of being somewhat bewildered by the events that followed. Now nearing his 84th birthday, Barclay spoke of the game early in 1980 in his Waitangi home. “As far as I was concerned it was only a game,” he said. “I just loved playing football and I found it stupid and disappointing that a game would create such a fuss.”

Barclay was a man of much mana among his Maori people. Born in Kawhia, he had gone to Dannevirke just after the end of World War I to join his brothers and it was from there he had first won selection in Hawke’s Bay sides. A strongly built man, he was a versatile footballer capable of playing in many positions, though his favourite place was always in the five-eighths. As well as being a good footballer he had also been a soldier of distinction in the great war and had won the Military Medal. In 1926 he had attained the summit of his rugby career by captaining the Maori All Black side which between July 1926 and February 1927 had made one of the most momentous of all tours. The side had toured Australia, Ceylon, England, Wales and Canada, playing a staggering 40 matches, of which a respectable 30 had been won, eight lost and two drawn.

It was from events immediately at the end of that tour that he inadvertently became the cause of the Battle of Solway controversy. He had gone to Auckland looking for a job, had played a couple of matches during the early 1927 season for the College Rifles club but had then returned to the Bay when the job he had wanted had not come about.

Being without many of his star players of 1926, Norman McKenzie was more than pleased to welcome back this experienced footballer, especially with the shield challenge against Wairarapa looming. The residential problem was uppermost in everyone’s mind. “Hang on,” McKenzie said to Barclay. “We’ll see if you’re on side for the game.”

There is no doubt the residence of Barclay at the time was in a state of flux and here it is important to bear in mind the goodwill of all parties. On the Friday night preceding the shield match officials of both the Wairarapa and Hawke’s Bay unions had a conference at which the right of Barclay to play was the principal, if not the only, item of discussion. For the Wairarapa union, says one old stager, read Ted McKenzie, who not only was its selector but its secretary; for Hawke’s Bay, says the same old stager, read Norman McKenzie, who was its selector and just about everything else. Both unions believed that a man became eligible to represent a province if he had been living in it for at least a fortnight and accordingly it was agreed that Barclay met the required conditions and thus was able to play. Unfortunately, both hadn’t read the regulations fully. . . for an ordinary provincial match it was 14 days but for a shield match 21 days. In the strict letter of the law Barclay therefore was not qualified.

Now emerges one of the most intriguing puzzles of the whole saga. . . the part played in the controversy by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, and more especially the chairman of its management committee, Stanley Dean. As Barclay was coming off the field Dean, sitting among a group of Wairarapa officials, pointed to Barclay and said: “Why don’t you protest against that man.” Barclay confirmed this in the interview he had with the author at his Waitangi home in January, 1980.

In the dressing room Barclay immediately made known his fears to Norman McKenzie. “There’s going to be trouble over this,” he said. “It’s all right,” said McKenzie. “You’re inside the fortnight.” “No, no, no,” said someone else.”It’s three weeks.”

The role Dean played in the various episodes that ensued begs one obvious question. . . if he knew that Barclay was ineligible why did he wait till after the match to make the fact known?

A large man with a booming voice and considerable presence, Dean at the time was New Zealand rugby’s most influential administrator. He was also an important man in commerce and became general manager of the South British Insurance Company in Wellington. In rugby his greatest claim to fame, besides the position of eminence he held on the NZRFU, was that at the age of 38 he had managed the Invincibles on their tour of Britain and France in 1924-25.

He was a powerful, domineering personality and it was inevitable that he would clash with a man with an equally strong profile in Norman McKenzie. Relations between the two at the time, and between the Wellington-based NZRFU and the Hawke’s Bay union, could hardly be described as cordial.

In many parts of the country not all of Hawke’s Bay’s methods met with approval. The Bay people, on the other hand, believed others, Wellington especially, were jealous of their phenomenal success.

One indication of the strained relations came at the dinner on the Saturday night of the match. In his speech Dean, never one to pull his punches, deplored the practice of unions like Hawke’s Bay going into week-long training camps.

It was against the spirit of amateur football and the sooner it was dropped the better, he said. Deans remarks were greeted with a hostile reaction and there were a number of calls from the floor for him to down. There was prolonged applause when a Hawke Bay official, Mr G.A. Maddison, made a spirited reply. Country players did not have the same facility for going to gymnasiums at night to train like city player he pointed out. If they were to hold their own with the city unions training camps were “absolutely necessary.”

The Bay side, in fact, which played that day offer strong evidence in itself of some of the problems the union had to face. Till the preparations for the shield the inside backs, Edwards and Te Ngaio, were strangers to each other, with Edwards coming from Dannevirke in the southern part of the union and Te Ngaio from Wairoa, nearly 180 miles away.

Before the Wairarapa union actually lodged its protest there were to be other sensations, the foremost which was the unabashed whitewashing of the two players who had been ordered off, Brownlie and Donald, by the Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa unions respectively. Incredibly, the referee, Bert McKenzie was not backed up by either union, not even in a token sense.

After an in-committee session, at which both Donald and McKenzie were present, Donald was absolved “without stain on his character.” The following night the Bay union adopted virtually the same course with Brownlie. It resolved that no action be taken, that it completely exonerated him and that the action of the referee towards both players had been unwarranted. Thus, rugby’s sacred law that the referee is the sole judge of fact was flagrantly ignored.

The reaction among referees associations all over New Zealand was understandably angry. Resolutions were passed condemning the arrogant manner with which Bert McKenzie had been treated. McKenzie himself, as strong a character as his two brothers, was livid with rage and resigned his many offices in the game. Fortunately, though, when passions had cooled McKenzie did come back into the fold and continued to referee important matches, including Ranfurly Shield challenges, into the 1930s.

The scandalous treatment of Bert McKenzie was soon overshadowed by the eventual resolution of the main issue. On July 14, five days after the match, the Wairarapa union met and agreed to lodge a protest. This was considered by the New Zealand Rugby Union on July 23 and a reading of that meeting makes it pretty clear that a decision against Hawke’s Bay was a foregone conclusion.

The only NZRFU member who went to “bat,” so to speak, in Hawke’s Bay’s favour was A.C. “Dolph” Kitto, a first class referee himself and a distinguished athletics administrator who later managed New Zealand Empire Games teams. Kitto moved that as Hawke’s Bay in playing Barclay “had acted under a general misapprehension which was shared by Wairarapa” the result of the game should stand. In hindsight, Mr Kitto’s views appeared reasonable, but even in those times the New Zealand union was more preoccupied with carrying out the letter of its various laws and regulations rather than any spirit. Kitto was a voice crying in the wilderness and the NZRFU upheld the motion from Dean that Wairarapa’s protest against Barclay not having fulfilled proper residential qualifications be upheld and the match awarded to Wairarapa.

The matter did not end even then, for Hawke’s Bay took other measures which Mr Dean described as “petty and childish”. Hawke’s Bay sent an appeal in a sealed envelope with a request that it not be opened before being sent onto the NZRFU’s Appeal Council. At one stage there was even a threat from the Bay that it would obtain an injunction from the Supreme Court. This was not carried out and eventually the appeal was heard by rugby’s appropriate authority. The Appeal Council, made up of three Aucklanders, Messrs J. Ameil, J. L. Conlan and P. Mackie, unanimously upheld the NZRFU decision and so six weeks after the match was played the Bay finally admitted defeat.

In the meantime all sorts of confusion had been created, for both Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa had played provisional shield matches, the Bay against Taranaki on July 27 (resulting in an 8-all draw) and Manawhenua on July 30 (winning 16-0) and Wairarapa on August 6 against Manawhenua, losing 16-18.

So after the Appeal Council had delivered its final verdict it was decided that Manawhenua, now split into the Manawatu and Horowhenua unions, was now the legitimate holder of the shield and it was to Palmerston North that the defeated Hawke’s Bay union officials quietly delivered the shield, the chore being done by “Frik” Yates, the fullback who, even when in the shadow cast by Nepia, had done the Bay such yeoman service. And so, on a quiet note, almost as an anti-climax, one of shield rugby’s most turbulent passages was ended. It was, though, a sad conclusion to what in the years between 1922 and 1927 had been a glorious chapter of provincial rugby, But the memories of the Battle of Solway remain and the questions still linger, the most teasing of which, of course, is the role of Stanley Dean and whether or not the letter of a particular law or rule should always be allowed to be more important than its spirit.

SHIELD FEVER by Lindsay Knight. Pub. 1980 by Rugby Press Ltd p 35 – 39.