Last year, visitors to our Balls, Bullets and Boots exhibition had a rare chance to see a very important part of international rugby history.
The museum was honoured to have been able to borrow The Kings Cup, recognised as the first international rugby trophy, and precursor to the famous Rugby World Cup.
The large silver trophy was originally presented to the winners of the first international rugby tournament, held in 1919 by King George V, hence its name, and has been borrowed from current holders, the New Zealand Defence Force.
It was played for by armed personnel from New Zealand, Britain – known during the competition as the ‘Mother Country’ – and included Welsh, Irish and Scots players as well as Australia, South Africa, Canada, and the Royal Air Force.
The tournament was a round-robin, with the two top teams competing in the final. Fifteen games were held across England, Wales and Scotland, with each game attracting thousands of fans. It was a welcome sign that the war was ended, and a chance to show appreciation for those who had fought for the Empire.
While there were a number of games played by the teams, only the very best players were chosen to vie for the handsome cup. The final, held at Twickenham, on the 19 April saw New Zealand play the Mother Country, where our victory (9 – 3) saw the cup make its home in the antipodes. From then on the cup was, and still is, competed for by members of the armed forces.
Despite the success of the competition, no other international tournament would bring together so many teams from both hemispheres until the modern rugby world cup began in 1987. For 68 years, The Kings Cup was the preeminent international trophy.
The Ashburton connection
Notably, The King’s Cup is not only of international significance, it also has a significant Ashburton connection.
Eric Arthur Cockcroft, born in 1890 in Clinton, was a prominent rugby player and coach. He became an All Black in 1913 and published a coaching manual in 1924.
A teacher, Eric was headmaster of Ashburton High school from 1929 – 1949. He died in 1973 in Ashburton.
Eric served in the Canterbury Infantry Regiment, and played five-eighths for the New Zealand Army Team during The King’s Cup tournament series.
Eric Cockcroft would no doubt have heard of former young men from Ashburton High School who took on senior roles in rugby during World War One.
During World War I many of New Zealand’s rugby players signed up to fight in the war. Even with many of the top players overseas people wanted to see rugby.
An effort was made to encourage representative rugby played by those still too young to serve.
Traditional inter-island and Ranfurly Shield matches were cancelled. Instead, it schools were encouraged to keep rugby going.
After 1917 representative rugby featured many players from these schoolboy teams.
Photos on this page show the Mid Canterbury Representative Team from 1918. Still too young to serve on the front, these men contributed to the war effort by keeping spirits high as playing rugby was a healthy distraction providing a semblance of normalcy for those at home.
By Kathleen Stringer and Max Reeves
- King George V presenting the King’s Cup to James Ryan, captain of the New Zealand Services Rugby Team at Twickenham in 1919. Image courtesy of the New Zealand Rugby Museum.
- The Kings Cup installed at Ashburton Museum.
- Mid-Canterbury Representative Team, 1918, from back row, left to right: F Phelps, S McClymont, F McKenzie, A Moore, C Begg, CW Allard, H Scott, HJ Chapman (referee); CSV .Pearce, WJ Anderson (Captain), A Broker, M Argyle, E Bonnington; R Joyce, DC Cowan, WP O’Reily.