Stella Wright … lady coach

Our Balls, Bullets & Boots exhibition last year was special for us as it came all the way to Ashburton from the New Zealand Rugby Museum in Palmerston North. It’s still a long journey by train, truck and ferry to get a container across Cook Strait and down to Ashburton.

With all arrived safely, this container of exhibition components were the makings of the first exhibition to have opened in our Kate and Hank Murney Room.

Titled Balls, Bullets & Boots: From Rugby Field to Battlefield, we knew this exhibition would be a story rich in sacrifice, perseverance, mateship and courage: qualities familiar to both rugby ground and war zone.

While installing the exhibition we were also already looking ahead, planning for the coming year when New Zealand will mark 125 years of women’s suffrage – the universal right to vote for all women in New Zealand.

It is worth remembering that not so long ago, voting was a hard won milestone. Not just for New Zealand women, but women internationally, as many other countries would follow New Zealand’s lead over the decades to come. Sadly, some are still to do so.

Last month marked the 125th anniversary of that international milestone, when the suffrage bill was made into law by New Zealand’s, then all male, parliament, on September 19, 1893.

1. Opunake School headmistress, Stella Hickey, with her young team.jpg

Exceptional players

The Balls, Bullets & Boots exhibition featured histories of many exceptional players, and was told through a series of Te Papa-style interactive components and hands on activities.

It also included a series of very clever video screens, embedded into highly realistic settings, such as window, trench dug-outs and more.

Past All Black captain, Anton Oliver, narrated the journey. The video sections were scripted from real life histories under the direction of well-known film maker, Director Ian Mune.

Among those stories, the focus was on fifteen exceptional All Blacks, and of most interest to us right now, one lady coach, the exceptional Stella Wright.

2. A portrait of Stella Wright and a Taranaki scarf in the Balls, Bullets and Boots exhibition at Ashburton Museum..jpg

New roles

Amongst the challenges and sacrifice, World War One was also a time that allowed women to quietly step into traditional male domains. Stella Wright was one such woman, and the role she took on was unusual, even in those trying times.

A headmistress hailing from Opunake School, Stella knew how important sport at home would be to keeping up morale. She knew the community well, and had herself been a student at the school. She would be its first – and for many years only – woman head as well.

At 29 she took on the role of coach for an enthusiastic schoolboy team. At first a ‘ref’ she quickly learnt to manage the game. The children promised to guide her as needed, and as she later recalled, while running on the field would call to her, “Blow the whistle Miss Hickey – blow the whistle!”

The team played many games throughout the district, and were only beaten once by Pihama School.

3. A composite image of Beet Algar who features alongside Stella Wrigth in the Balls Bullets and Boots exhibition..jpg

Stella’s successes

Stella must have been a great coach. Her team remembered her fondly throughout their lives and several went on to successful rugby futures. One played league in England, another, George Harrison became a Maori All Black in 1934-35 while the legendary George Nepia was captain.
Stella later reminisced, “Despite the horrors of wartime, with its extra strain at home and school, we had lots of fun, particularly with the football teams and the games.”

We reflected on women’s suffrage, wartime achievements and commitment to the game and its players, so we found lots to reflect on and connect to when we installed this exceptional exhibition.


By Tanya Zoe Robinson




  1. Opunake School headmistress, Stella Hickey, with one of her young teams in 1919. Holding the ball is Ken Mourie, grandfather of All Black captain, 1976-1982, Graham Mourie.
  2. A portrait of Stella Wright and a Taranaki scarf in the Balls, Bullets and Boots exhibition at Ashburton Museum.
  3. A composite image of war hero and All Black, Beet Algar, who featured alongside Stella Wright in the Balls Bullets and Boots exhibition.

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