Above: The University team of 1928 that won their maiden Senior A club title. Most of these players returned the following season to win the inaugural Jubilee Cup.
Rugby was roaring in the late 1920s.
By the end of the decade, the game was at peak popularity with 178 club teams taking part in Wellington Rugby Football Union competitions (compared to some72 today), plus the new standalone secondary school competitions in Wellington and Hutt Valley were healthy and growing fast.
In 1928, the All Blacks had embarked on their inaugural tour to South Africa, there was huge interest in representative rugby with the Ranfurly Shield as its centrepiece and in club rugby, the University club had beaten then 13-time champions Poneke 16-12 in front of 12,000 people to win their maiden club rugby championship.
In 1929, the WRFU celebrated its 50th season and marked the occasion by donating a new cup to be awarded to the winner of the Club Championship. They called it the Jubilee Cup in celebration of their first five decades in existence.
University defended their club title and were crowned inaugural Jubilee Cup champions, the Wellington team had a successful representative season and the All Blacks toured Australia in preparation for the following year’s inbound tour by the British Lions.
But by year’s end the best of the good times were over. In October the international share market crashed, heralding the start of the Great Depression, while the following year in 1930 two time defending champions University inexplicably went from winners to dead last in the space of a season.
With the exception of the 1950s – also the other great era for University rugby – the 1920s was probably the most popular decade of club rugby in Wellington.
University had finished second in 1926 and third in 1927 before their breakthrough year in 1928. In 1929 virtually the same team returned, which included several Wellington and New Zealand Universities (NZU) players and three players who were All Blacks in 1928 or 1929, halfback Eric ‘Tiny’ Leys, first five-eighth and captain Craig ‘Crow’ Mackenzie and wing Doug Mackay.
The inaugural Jubilee Cup competition in 1929 was a 10-team competition and played over 16 rounds (clearly not a full double round-robin but near enough) from late April to early August.
It was highly competitive, with notable results and upsets most weeks that kept interest high. By the middle of the season it was essentially a five-horse race for the title between University, Petone, Poneke, Athletic and Wellington College Old Boys. But other teams such as Marist and Oriental weren’t far behind.
University staked their claim for the title early by beating Poneke 18-14 with 8,000 in attendance at Athletic Park.
University beat Petone 13-6 the following week before being held to a 5-5 draw with Oriental.They then pipped bottom placed Berhampore 12-11 before defeating Athletic 15-7 in an eighth round feature game. Athletic had All Blacks captain Cliff Porter at wing forward. The students hit the outright lead with this win and wouldn’t relinquish it.
The first combined Australian Universities team to tour New Zealand arrived mid-season and University contributed six players to the NZU side that won all three ‘Tests’.
In this period the team defeated Marist 9-8, Eastbourne 18-9 and Wellington 6-0 in a mudfest, before defeating Petone 14-6 in another huge game at Athletic Park. Petone featured several leading players of the time including five-eighths Mark Nicholls who, at 27, was an established Wellington player and 1924-25 and 1928 All Blacks tourist, and Bill Elvy who was in hot form as one of the leading try-scorers of the time.
They then beat Poneke 24-9 and the following week defeated Berhampore 21-5, to open up a three-point lead at the top of the standings with a fortnight to spare (2 points for a win, 1 for a draw and no bonus points).
At this time too, halfback Leys was called into the All Blacks on their tour of Australia as an injury replacement. Leys played in the third Test in Sydney. This series was notable for being the first that the All Blacks lost all the Tests in a series. Australia won the first Test 9-8, the second 17-9 and the third 15-13.
The following week University beat Marist 19-6 and at the same time nearest rivals Petone lost to Poneke 28-32 (a high scoring game then), which meant that University won the inaugural Jubilee Cup title with a week to spare. University went on to beat Athletic 6-0 in the final round and won the Jubilee Cup by 6 points.
In its summary of the winning team, the Dominion was full of praise.
“The students have put up a stirring performance this season. Their success has been to all-round strength, as a solid team of forwards have so well played their part that the speedy rearguard have the opportunity to show their paces.
“Centre [Stan] Ransom has been a tower of strength and a deadly marksman having scored over 100 points. Mackay has been a prolific try-scorer… Mackenzie and Leys have led the team from the inside backs.”
The champion University team in 1929 played 16 games for 13 wins, 2 losses and a draw, and scored 217 points and conceded 120.
The final Jubilee Cup points table in 1929 was: University 29, Athletic 23, Petone 22, Wellington College Old Boys 21, Poneke 20, Oriental 17, Berhampore 12, Eastbourne 10, Marist 10, Wellington 8.
Hutt won the Senior B Championship, with Johnsonville second, Oriental’s second XV third and Selwyn fourth.
In domestic representative rugby, The 1928 Wellington team had won nine from 11 games played in an encouraging season for the province. Off the field, Major W.J. Hardham, V.C. died. Hardham had played 53 games for Wellington between 1897-1910 and was a leading administrator for many years. His legacy today is the Hardham Cup in his name.
In 1929 the Wellington side under selector Norman Millard had another successful season, winning 11 and losing three of 14 matches played. Highlights included beating Auckland 22-16 for their first victory in Auckland since 1920, beating Taranaki 44-8 (scoring 10 tries), beating Canterbury 34-6, beating Waikato 22-6 and beating Southland 35-7 (Bill Elvy 5 tries in this game).
In early October, the international sharemarkets crashed. For many, the ramifications of this weren’t immediately apparent, the ‘slump’ taking a while to kick in.
In 1930, champions University were gunning for a three-peat of club rugby titles. With a settled team and no NZU inbound or outbound tours planned to disrupt the roster, there was cause for optimism. But inexplicably the opposite happened. The team started losing and kept losing. In perhaps the biggest reversal of fortunes in Wellington club rugby up to then and since University finished dead last. Petone were the champions, winning their first Jubilee Cup.
There was a promotion-relegation game at the time and University lost that too, to Wellington, who had been demoted to Senior B at the end of 1929. With several leading players of the day and two All Blacks that played against the British Lions that same year in Don Oliver and Hurbert McLean, the Axemen had famously thrashed all comers in Senior B in 1930. The Axemen’s Senior B dominance combined with University’s inexplicable fall from grace resulted the number of Senior A teams increased from 10 to 12 for the start of 1931.
Despite the team’s downfall in 1930, four University players were still selected in the Wellington Senior A team that completed the representative season unbeaten for the first time since 1919. This included a 12-3 win over Southland to win the Ranfurly Shield, which they were to lose to Canterbury in 1931.
University continued to struggle throughout the 1930s, twice relegated to Senior B and twice reinstated. There were signs of resurgence at the end of the decade but the second world war came along instead. One other legacy for University rugby in the early 1930s was the creation of Old Boys University’s current home ground Nairnville Park, which was a depression-era public works project.
Following its first triumph in 1929, University and later Old Boys University won the Jubilee Cup in 1946, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1958, 1966, 2015 and 2017.
The Dominion and Evening Post newspapers April, May, June, July, August, September 1929.
Anderson, John. Victoria University of Wellington Rugby Football Club : the story of the green and golds, 1902-1987. Wellington. The Club, 1988.
Arthur Swan and Gordon Jackson. Wellington’s Rugby History 1870-1950. A.H and H.W Reed for the WRFU, 1952.
The Encyclopedia of New Zealand Rugby By Ron Palenski, Rod Chester, Neville McMillan. Hodder Moa Beckett, Auckland 1998