In the early 20th century sport became a powerful expression of New Zealand nationalism through some highly successful teams and male sportsmen.
1905 All Blacks
Many New Zealanders discovered a national pride in sport during the New Zealand rugby team’s tour of the United Kingdom and France in 1905–6. This was not simply because of the phenomenal success of the team, which won 34 of the 35 matches played during the tour (beaten controversially only by Wales 3–0), and scored 976 points to 59. It was also because the team scored huge victories in England, the old country and home of rugby, and, even more, because the people there heaped praise on the All Blacks. At a time when there was an anxiety about the ‘degeneration of the race,’ sparked by the poor standard of British recruits to the South African War, British commentators saw the All Blacks as a reassurance about the quality of Anglo-Saxon manhood in the colonies. The success of the team gave New Zealanders an understanding of their nation’s place in the British Empire.
Puppets of ‘King Dick’
Recognising the All Blacks as national symbols, Premier Richard Seddon participated in, and encouraged, hero worship. He facilitated the speedy transmission of scores by cable from William Pember Reeves, the agent general in London; the government placed advertisements for immigrants in local newspapers on match day; and Seddon rewarded the team with an ‘American picnic’ (which included a trip to the Grand Canyon) on the way home. Not unexpectedly, the premier – dubbed ‘Minister of Football’ – was the first to board the ship on its return and welcome the team home.
Little wonder New Zealanders reacted with enthusiasm. When the heroes returned to Auckland some 10,000 people greeted them on the wharf, followed by a triumphal procession and a civic reception before another 6,000. The All Blacks were seen as personifying a ‘national character’, with their alleged ‘outdoor’ upbringing, their versatility and scorn for convention, their comradeship and the ‘natural’ leadership and modesty of their captain, David Gallaher.
When the unbeaten 1924–25 All Blacks (dubbed the ‘Invincibles’) returned from the United Kingdom, they were similarly fêted as triumphant advertisements for the country. Crowds six and seven deep lined Wellington’s streets as they processed from the ship.
Two significant aspects of national character were emphasised. The Invincibles were said to replicate the characteristics of the New Zealand soldier in the First World War, and the success of the Māori fullback George Nēpia reinforced the ideal that in sport New Zealand’s harmonious race relations found expression. However, such views did not stop Māori from being excluded from the 1928 tour of South Africa, due to South Africa’s race policies.
Other famous sports performers
Although rugby was the dominant carrier of sporting nationalism in these years, there were other expressions of national pride:
- In 1907 William Webb won the title of world sculling champion, and when he defended it against an Australian challenger on the Whanganui River in February 1908 there was much public interest.
- Dick Arnst, another Kiwi and former cycling champion, then defeated Webb, and his success in defeating an Englishman for the championship on the Zambezi in 1910 was also followed closely.
‘The famous All Blacks, the cricket tour [to England] last year and the Olympic team have all done their bit in making known the fact in distant lands that New Zealand is definitely on the map of the world. But it has remained for bluff, rugged, hard-hitting Tom Heeney … to blazon the name of this dominion in letters of gold across the whole civilised world … Thousands … now know that there is such a place as New Zealand and that this little country breeds real he-men, as exemplified in Tom Heeney.’1
- When Tom Heeney challenged Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight boxing championship in July 1928, there was great interest in New Zealand. Admittedly Heeney was seen as fighting for the British Empire, but it was reported that all New Zealand waited for the result as keenly as they would for an All Black team, and a booklet on ‘Our Tom’ was produced. Despite being outclassed, Heeney received a ‘tumultuous reception’2 when he returned in September.
- Although racehorse Phar Lap, a Timaru-born chestnut gelding, was trained and raced in Australia, New Zealanders took nationalistic pride in his successes (37 wins from 51 races, including the 1930 Melbourne Cup) and expressed a collective sadness at his death in San Francisco in April 1932.
- Jack Lovelock’s victory in the 1,500 metres at the Berlin Olympics in August 1936 was probably the greatest cause for national celebration in New Zealand in the 1930s. His achievement was followed by a triumphant national tour paid for by the government. He was praised as a modest man who had brought fame to the country.