The life stories of the XVI people featured in the exhibition (and accompanying e-book) aim to encapsulate the range of wartime experiences Kiwi’s 100 years ago would have had, with their love of rugby the common denominator in their selection for the NZ Rugby Museum’s ‘exhibition XVI’.
Meet a pioneering female coach, three pre-war All Blacks and three post-war All Blacks, a schoolboy rugby player-cum-soldier and a rugby-mad military defaulter, rugby players who served in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and NZ Tunnelling Company, three NZ Maori players and a highly decorated VC winner who had a stellar pre-war provincial rugby career…
Here we introduce just a couple of them to you…
Captain Philip 'Dad' Bennett
In 1919 Nelson College 1st XV fielded a 21 year-old threequarter named Philip Bennett who also represented Nelson on the wing, in the union’s two representative games that year. Two years later he was Nelson’s top try scorer, but what really made this schoolboy unique, was his four-year military career and the medal he’d just earned for battlefield valour. Enlisting with the Canterbury Infantry Battalion in 1914 at just 16, he celebrated his 17th birthday while training in Egypt and a few weeks later was fighting for his life at Gallipoli. For his actions at Beandigny Ridge in 1918 on the Western Front he was decorated with the Military Cross. As a Lt Colonel in WW2 he served in the Pacific, leading the landings and capture of the Green Islands Group in 1944 and later the Treasury Islands, and was awarded a DSO in 1944.
Corporal Tom French
Had Tom French been playing his rugby in Auckland or Wellington, instead of remote Westport, he could well have been an All Black before the war. He was tall, fast, and fit, a tireless loose forward who had made two lengthy tours with the NZ Māori team before playing in a provincial game. His talents were eventually recognised by Auckland and New Zealand selector David Gallaher who enticed the southerner to Auckland, gave him a job, and put him in the Auckland rep team in 1914. It seemed All Black honours would come within a year or two. They didn’t, war came and hopes of an All Black jersey were gone. Three years later, on the fields at Passchendaele, French, the All Black in the making, and Gallaher, the All Black legend, were playing a different game. Both were wounded on the same day and attended to at the same casualty clearing station. French lost an arm, Gallaher lost his life.
Stella Wright (nee Hickey)
The absence of men caused by the war meant women like Stella Wright (nee Hickey) around the country stepped into the breach that was left – not just in the working world but also in the sporting world. Stella turned her hand to new things, filling the role of headmistress of Opunake School (1916-1921), and taking up coaching the school’s rugby team. Some of her ‘boys’, such as George Harrison) and Robert Hohaia went on to become quite well known. George Harrison played for the New Zealand Māori Team in 1934-35 (at the time George Nepia was captain) and then switched to playing rugby league in Great Britain in the 1930s.