The 2NZEF in Egypt
During the Second World War, sport was promoted in 2NZEF (the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force, of which the 2nd NZ Division was the main component). Force commander Bernard Freyberg had been a champion swimmer and provincial rugby representative. He recognised the value of sports for physical and mental fitness, morale and cohesion. The 2nd NZ Division was largely stationed in Egypt from 1940 to 1942, with New Zealand base units encamped at Maadi right through to 1946. One of Freyberg’s earliest decisions was to have a swimming pool built at Maadi. Sports officers and committees were appointed, and swimming and athletics competitions were organised.
As in the previous war, rugby occupied the central place in 2NZEF sport. Freyberg presented a trophy, the Divisional Commander’s Cup (always known as the Freyberg Cup), for unit rugby supremacy within the 2nd NZ Division. It was keenly contested from 1940 to 1944 (though not in 1942 because of the division’s preoccupation with desert operations). ‘Internationals’ included hard-fought games with South African teams. Service rugby also returned to the UK, courtesy of members of the 2NZEF’s second echelon, which was diverted there in 1940; unit teams played in a local rugby competition in 1940–41 before heading off to Egypt.
Soldiers not keen on rugby had many opportunities in Egypt to play other sports. Use was made of the facilities of the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, for example, for a variety of sports, including hockey, tennis, golf, cricket, softball, rowing and even yachting. Both formal horse races and ‘donkey derbies’ were also held.
The Maadi Cup
New Zealanders based at Maadi Camp set up the Maadi Camp Rowing Club in 1940. The Cairo River Club allowed them to use its facilities. Champion Egyptian rower Youssef Bahgat donated one of his own trophies to the Maadi club, to be used in competitions. This cup was eventually brought back to New Zealand. Since 1947, as the Maadi Cup, it has been awarded to the winner of the secondary-school rowing eights competition.
Europe and the Pacific
For almost 8,000 New Zealand prisoners of war languishing in camps in Italy and Germany, sport was an important time-filler and morale booster. Rugby, football and cricket matches were played, with much ingenuity used to provide equipment. ‘Internationals’ were also staged.
In the South Pacific the 3rd Division was based in Nouméa, New Caledonia, from 1942 to 1944. Their commander, Harold Barrowclough, emulated Freyberg by providing the Barrowclough Cup for rugby competition between divisional units. Other sports were also encouraged, including athletics, swimming, football, hockey, cricket and racing. New Zealand troops stationed in Fiji from 1940 to 1942 played cricket and rugby.
At the end of the war in Europe, representative teams showed the flag in the UK. The New Zealand services cricket team played 22 matches there in the summer of 1945, and the 2NZEF rugby team toured the following winter.
Freyberg’s All Blacks
The 2NZEF rugby team was also known as the ‘Kiwis’ and ‘Freyberg’s All Blacks’. The team was selected in mid-1945 after trials in both Austria, where the 2nd New Zealand Division had set up a rugby training camp, and the UK. Captained by pre-war All Black Charlie Saxton, the Kiwis were renowned for their attacking style. Of their 33 matches in Britain, Ireland, Germany and France in 1945–46, they lost only two. The Kiwis played five games in New Zealand on their return. Lieutenant Winston McCarthy, later New Zealand’s foremost rugby commentator, provided commentary on the games for the New Zealand Broadcasting Service.
The smaller New Zealand forces deployed in Asian wars since 1945 have also played rugby at every opportunity. Inter-unit contests featured in Japan, Korea, Malaya, Vietnam and East Timor – both within New Zealand forces and against units of Commonwealth partners. In both 1952 and 1953 a representative team from Kayforce (New Zealand troops in Korea) toured Japan, playing university sides and an all-Japan XV.
Other sports included cricket and athletics (in Korea) and shooting (Vietnam). In these two US-dominated wars New Zealanders sometimes turned their hand to American sports, such as baseball or ice hockey (in Korea). Ice hockey was played with a conspicuous lack of skill, much to the enjoyment of spectators.